The Art and Science of DFM

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Our industry has been focusing on DFM for decades, but in our reader surveys, DFM issues are always among the biggest challenges cited by respondents. I recently spoke with Vince Mazur, product and persona marketing engineer at Altium, about the art and science of PCB design, and particularly design for manufacturing. Is DFM an art form in itself?

Andy Shaughnessy: We often hear that PCB design is part art, part science, a matter of right brain and left brain. Do you think it’s more of one than the other, or does it depend on the design job?

Vince Mazur: I think it depends on the design job. For example, for impedance-controlled, high-speed PCB design, the priority is performance-to-spec, not the expression or application of creative skill and imagination, which is a common definition of art. The designer must choose the right materials and define the “right” stackup. By that, I mean the materials and geometry that science tells us will realize the desired impedances. If the designer chooses an incorrect stackup, it doesn’t matter how pleasant the PCB looks, how optimized the placement and routing is, or how much expression or creative skill and imagination was deployed—it will not function as intended. The idea that science is the driver in this case is not to say that art is not present. Art most certainly is present in the all-important placement of components and routing of traces. Rather, I mean that the scientific aspect takes precedence. Art will always be present.

On the other hand, the design specifications may lend themselves to or even require more expression and creativity, especially when the design is closer to the user experience. Consider a display or series of visual indicators that may fit along a contour of a curved mechanical enclosure and implemented with a flex circuit. These types of designs are art first, science second. But I maintain, once again, that both art and science will be present. In this example, one would pay attention to bend radii and other mechanical and materials science to assure long term quality of the flex implementation.

Shaughnessy: Can someone with a great mind for science learn the artistic side of design? We hear non-degreed designers say this about EEs—that they’re too focused on the science and not enough on the art.

Mazur: Yes, I think this is possible provided the designer desires to learn more of the artistic side. Pablo Picasso’s father was a professor at a school of fine arts. Education is widely available in art, which implies that it is something that can be taught and learned. However, I believe there is a limit to what a scientifically focused person can do in art. While anything is possible, one can pursue fluency in art, but they likely would have a difficult time becoming a Picasso or a Rodin. Just as either of these artists could likely learn more about science, they likely would not become an Einstein or a Tesla. But then there are those outliers that have extreme talent in both domains, such as Galileo. So yes, it is possible for someone with a great mind for science to learn the artistic side of design.

To read this entire conversation, which appeared in the December 2021 issue of Design007 Magazine, click here.


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