EchoStar’s Les Beller Shares the PCB Design-to-Fab Process

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What we've been able to do is standardize one library internationally and we have about 12 to 15 designers who are injecting improvements into that one library through several librarian gates, constantly improving it over the years. It’s easier and we believe it’s a design advantage; we've got our eye on one target instead of multiple targets. We of course have some occasional deviation from the standard library, but that’s easily obtained.

Matties: Where are you guys at in terms of technology? Are you on the bleeding edge or in the middle of the pack?

Beller: I would say we've never been on the bleeding edge. We've been about middle of the road on PCB technology. Right now, because it’s a consumer product, we're placing WiFi and Bluetooth in many of our products, so it has been a new experience for us. The new circuits required have been very tough in some cases.

Matties: Tough in what regard?

Beller: It has been tough with regard to experience. We've had to learn inside, with some very creative people, how to get these circuits to work using the base knowledge and really heavy ownership on our circuits to be successful.

About 10 or 15% of our boards are very high-speed RF and then we obviously have HDMI, USB, WiFi, and a lot of the standard things you see in consumer appliances today. We're also trying to do as much as we can with 4–6 layer boards. In fact, we have finally had to utilize blind vias in one new design we are working on.

Matties: When you have the design, who selects the manufacturers to produce those boards? Is there a design team involved in that?

Beller: In our organization, the design team has met their goal by generally getting the product to where it needed to be within a certain timeline. Concurrently, our operations team already has picked out one or two, maybe even three potential contract manufacturers and PCB suppliers that we believe offer the best mix for assembling and manufacturing our products.

So we put the mixture together depending on the product type and where the end-customer is going to be—whether in Canada, the U.S., or Mexico. We let that help decide where we're going to assemble it.

Matties: What process do you go through to qualify an EMS?

Beller: EMS qualification is a tough one. We currently maintain several EMS relationships, either for competitive advantage or geographical reasons. When qualifying an EMS, it is always a team choice. Several people from quality, operations, and process engineering will travel together or during the initial phases of a project to ensure that the EMS can do what we need them to. The team qualification approach also protects us in other areas.

Many times, we have been let down by the CM not being as capable in an area as we thought they were. Once qualified, the CMs will be involved in a quarterly scorecard review to supply upper management with a grading tool for helping to award business. This grade level also ports into a recognition award system given out for continued improvement that is measureable.

We will also put the bill of materials and product design out to two or three different pre-qualified EMS companies and see what the cost will be. We tend to do a mixture of cost and quality to help select the EMS for our products.

Similarly component side, we follow a supplier selection system and control the AVL for all of our critical components. We select these suppliers using expertise within our engineering, quality and supply chain organizations. We perform initial audits on most component types, and will occasionally perform follow-up or corrective action audits when needed. These results also assist in awarding business to suppliers, or weeding them out. Auditing your supply base is an eye-opening experience that will weed out some high potential supply disasters early on. With my prior experience in layout/fab/quality, I focus heavily on PCBs and work with the EMS and our supply chain manager when there are high level quality issues.

Matties: There are a lot of old guys in circuit board design. We don't see a lot of young guys coming into it, particularly throughout America. You see the design community really exploding in Asia though. Eventually, I see design as an automated process really, and maybe it's because I've never been in design so I don't understand what the challenges look like or feel like, but it sure looks like it's a mathematical equation.

Beller: Many years ago a lot of us thought that our jobs were going to be at risk when they came out with the first autorouters. I used one of the first Cooper and Chyan autorouters and everybody was afraid that we were going to lose our jobs. What we learned very early on is that you still need the right expertise to run those tools. In fact, that rule still fits for most of the tools today as I see it…you still need an experienced operator. The GUIs now also allow more engineers to design boards than ever before. In fact, a handful of our engineers will pre-route their respective circuits and submit it for inclusion. I do agree though that there is not an influx of youth in this game. We should all collectively focus on expanding this talent pool or the only choice might be overseas or domestic design shops, and we know the cost challenges when pitting U.S. labor against overseas labor.

If you are going to an overseas job shop to do your routing, you might pay a lot less per pin to route that board, but there will be a lot more iterations and communication issues, so you're going to have a benefit one way and maybe not the other. The target design may be a high connection count that would bottle-neck your designer for a month and the fact that the agancy can put several people on it during our sleeping hours means you need to just be prepared to clean some things up and kick it back for re-route. It will also require much more initial up front work from the engineers before starting a design that the captive designer would normally handle (design rules, quoting, etc.).

Matties: I liken it to the calculator; before the calculator, we all had to know how to do math, right? Then all we had to do was learn how to operate a calculator. Is that what the new operator looks like? Do they just need to learn how to enter the data correctly to get the right results?

Beller: From an initial viewpoint, yes…but let’s take high speed as an example. The new tools are much smarter. You can plug in route priority, rise times, speeds, etc., and you can preload a schematic with a lot of rules that will automatically tell the router what the limitations need to be. In semi-auto routing, it will tell you if you are exceeding those rules when you are routing your signals out. The tools have gotten better and operators have continued to improve and get better, but you still need to be experienced and understand a little about the circuit timing and what terminology to use when interfacing with the engineers. I don’t believe anyone will ever be able to walk right up, plug this info in and hit the “COMPLETE” button.


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