The Battle of the Boards


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Last year, IPC held its first-ever design competition at IPC APEX EXPO in San Diego. PCB designers from around the world competed in a series of heats during the months before the show, culminating in a showdown on the show floor between the top three finalists. Rafal Przeslawski, now with AMD, took home the top prize last year. 

This year, the competition is back for its sophomore year. I asked Patrick Crawford, manager of design standards and related programs for IPC, to “layout” the details on the design contest, including lessons learned in 2022 and what’s new for the 2023 competition. 

Andy Shaughnessy: Patrick, I see that the IPC Design Competition is returning for its second year. Give us the run down on this exciting event. 

Patrick Crawford: It is indeed, and we’re happy that it’s coming back. As with last year, the IPC Design Competition is a venue for PCB design engineers to test their mettle. We have two heats of challenge, with the first heat occurring in Fall 2022, and the final heat onsite in San Diego in January. The first heat involves a full board buildup, where designers receive an electrical schematic, a BOM, and a scope of work. They then must input the schematic into their respective design tools and, after they work their magic, output a Gerber file package, assembly, and fabrication drawing. We choose the best three designs and designers, then invite them to compete in the finals heat. 

The finals heat is a bit different from the earlier stages: We provide a nearly complete Altium Designer file, so the designers will only be responsible for placement and routing. We gave them exactly four hours in 2022, but for 2023, they get a little bit more wiggle room at five hours total, as we expect this year’s final challenge will require denser and more difficult routing. This isn’t a trivial ask; last year, while nobody took the full four hours, there was a lot of visible head-scratching and “Ah, yes, of course” facial expressions. We also had cast contestants’ design tools live via a screen share, so the audience was able to see what they were doing in ECAD in real time, which led to some fun commentary on the floor.

That brings me to a key change for this year’s finals. Instead of having the finals competition on the show floor like we did last year, we’re moving it out into the conference area—the same place where we have the standards development committee meetings. This will give us a bit more space to play around and do some fun things, like live-stream the event to Twitch.io and YouTube without the need for a sound-cancelling mic setup, etc. This way, we can reach a much wider audience through the power of the internet. However, it will be exciting to be where the action is and accessing that space will be easier this year because it’s free to attend our committee meetings. 

Shaughnessy: That’s a great idea. What sort of PCBs will the competitors be laying out this time? 

Crawford: For the preliminary heat, we provided a schematic for a gamepad—basically a controller for a hypothetical video game console. There’s some funky geometry to route around, and we’ve prescribed placement for some critical components, so they’ll have some constraints to work with. It’s a 10-layer board this year, and I think most people will go with a more traditional copper buildup, but we’ve given them the opportunity to use a 1+8+1 sequential buildup for microvias if they want. That’s something we didn’t do last year. The finals heat will also involve a game peripheral, but that’s all I’ll say for now. It’s top secret. 

To read this entire conversation, which appeared in the December 2022 issue of Design007 Magazine, click here.

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