Altium Focusing on Educating Designers of Today and Tomorrow


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Many designers attend Altium Live each year, either in San Diego or Europe. But the company’s educational efforts reach far beyond those two weeks per year with programs such as Altium Education and Upverter Education, as well as donating design software to colleges and universities.

We recently spoke with Rea Callender, Altium’s vice president of education, and Zach Peterson, founder of Northwest Engineering Solutions and a technical consultant for Altium’s educational programs. They discussed Altium’s curriculum—what drives the content development, the goals of their programs, and why there’s never been a better time to continue your PCB design education. 

Andy Shaughnessy: We’re looking at what designers need to be learning now and into the future. What are some of the upcoming disciplines that you plan to be teaching at Altium? And do you think PCB designers will have to be electrical engineers going forward? 

Rea Callender: Zach can answer some of those specific questions. But I think, overall, Altium’s really interested in and dedicated to educating the next generation of electronics designers. 

And in there we have a corporate training program that trains folks who are new to Altium Designer. It also trains engineers using competitive products on Altium Designer just to enhance their career. Getting certified as an Altium Designer makes their resume stronger.

In September 2020, we launched a high school program called Upverter Education. We’ve had over 8,000 students sign up for that curriculum globally. We work with FIRST Robotics, and several different organizations in that space.

And we just launched Altium Education. Altium Education teaches students who know nothing about printed circuit board design to create a board and take it all the way to manufacturing. This is exciting because for years we’ve been supporting college students by just giving them Altium Designer license, but now there’s curriculum to go along with that, and Zach wrote all that curriculum.

I recently met with 35 department heads from various universities and all of them were incredibly excited about it. We all know how important printed circuit boards are, right? We’re surrounded by PCBs, but in a lot of cases, universities don’t even teach printed circuit board design, partly because there’s not much great curriculum out there. We’ve created this curriculum, and we give it away for free to universities. 

When we launched this March 1, we put it on our website and didn’t tell anybody about it initially so we could work out the bugs. By March 15, we had 3,500 students signed up who just found it on our site. Since then, we’ve sent out press releases, used social media, etc., and as of today we have over 9,000 students signed up for the program.  

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Matties: Are there any surprises for you in that demographic? Have you seen an increase in design in Asia or in a region that you wouldn’t have expected?

Callender: We have a lot of traffic from India. India is probably number two in terms of traffic.

Matties: And North America is number one?

Callender: Yes, the top five are the United States, India, Turkey, China, and Germany.

Matties: That’s interesting, thank you.

Callender: Sure. So, we’ve just launched it, and we have 9,000 students signed up for the program. I think we’ll be well over 12,000 by the end of our fiscal year, June 30. We really believe, all the way from our CEO on down, that it’s our social responsibility to support students. And it’s not just okay for us to pay taxes, we must support the next generation.

Teaching them how to create a printed circuit board really increases their value when they go out into the working world, right? Because we’re equipping them with the necessary skills when they head out into the workforce. And it’s also our hope that it helps expand the next generation of technology.

Matties: These are not career designers yet, correct? These are young students, young professionals who are perhaps moving into a career in design? 

Callender: These are young professionals moving into this field, and we really do want to attract talent from all walks of life, all genders into the field of electronics design.

Matties: But there are two points to focus on in the design community. There are a lot of retirement age designers, retiring in the next five to 10 years, we’ll say. There’s still an education that they need, perhaps, or maybe they’re less motivated to become educated, whereas somebody who’s a young professional who’s just entered in and started their design career, there’s perhaps a different path that they need to take on education. How would you describe those two and what recommendations would you make?

Peterson: For the experienced professional and maybe someone who is just getting into their first job as a designer, there are all sorts of resources out there. We at Altium have really done everything we can to put as many resources out there on our blog, on our YouTube, whatever channels we have, and we haven’t made it all just, “Here’s how to do this in Altium.” We really made it program-agnostic. I mean, obviously we would hope that people use Altium, but at the end of the day, if they learn to be a better designer then we’ve succeeded, and that’s always been my view on it. But to really help prepare people to get into that position where they can take an industry course, or go to a conference and get the most from technical presentations, we think starting at the college or even high school level is really appropriate. 

Matties: Are there any specific skills that the experienced designers are asking to learn? Are you seeing any trends in education? What are people asking for?

Zach Peterson: I did an interview with one of the Altium Live presenters, and he had put out a survey for all of his customers to see what their main design challenges were. Top of the list was EMI, then SI then PI and then Thermal. Really, it’s the challenge of taking what could be a toy design or a prototype design and turning it into an actual product that is compliant and that you can put out there into market, that is the top pain point. But alongside that, you have things like manufacturing. I think designers should always learn more about manufacturing, and being disconnected from the manufacturing floor has led to many a re-spin and many a wasted prototype run because of DFM issues and things like this. So, that’s a big one that designers might not know enough about. The areas they do know about are EMI, SI, PI, etc.

Matties: Now, Zach, as long as I’ve been in this industry, over 35 years, people have been saying they need to know more about the PCB manufacturing process. I hope we’re not still saying that years from now, but what’s different? Are we’re going to see more AI in the tools than ever before to supplant that need?

Peterson: That will be part of it, yes. And, in fact, I’ve talked with some companies that are working toward that, trying to use AI to help identify these mistakes, keep people more efficient, and hopefully eliminate the wasted prototype runs. But in terms of just the logistics of dealing with manufacturing—and I hope we’re not repeating the same mantra 30 years from now—I think in this environment, it’s never been easier to start learning about the manufacturing process and engaging with manufacturers directly. That’s really the first step, not the last step. And so part of it is rethinking about how you go about a design, which is what we actually try to stress in the education program, as well as all of the resources that we put out there. I think it’s also important for designers to understand what the manufacturer expects from you, so you don’t get to this issue where you’re all the way through designs, or you’re trying to get a prototype to scale, and you then have to do a bunch of work to fix the design in order to get to that next stage.

Matties: Well, I think you’re on track teaching the fabrication process in your curriculum as well.

Peterson: Yes, there is an entire section on the fabrication process. We even include a section on DFM and some of the most common DFM mistakes so people can avoid them, as well as what your manufacturer expects from you so that you can take a board and, at minimum, start prototyping. Now, this is a 101-level course, so we’re not going all the way up to high volume just yet, because obviously this is for students who are just getting started. But our hope is that we can prepare students with the information they need so that when they do enter their careers and they do get to that point where eventually they are going to have to take a product to market, they’re going to have the information and all the background that they need to be able to take those more advanced classes and to be able to learn that information and understand it.

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