EchoStar’s Les Beller Shares the PCB Design-to-Fab Process
Recently, I had the opportunity to meet and interview Les Beller of EchoStar Technologies. Beller’s career began in the early 1980s as a circuit board designer, eventually leading him to EchoStar, where he has managed the PWB design group and spent time as a PCB quality engineer. He is now a manufacturing process engineer specializing in DFx.
In this interview, Beller focuses on the many challenges circuit board designers face, strategies for bridging the gap between circuit design and fabrication, and the future of circuit designers.
Barry Matties: Les, tell us about your history in the circuit board industry. How did you get started?
Les Beller: I began by hand-drafting schematics and then went into tape and Mylar. That was in 1982 or so, when I was 18. That led into AutoCAD-based software tools for circuit board design and working for design agencies. I ended up selling Layout and fab work in a small prototype board shop using the Daisy/Cadnetix and P-CAD platforms in the front-end.
From there, I ended up moving into a higher-volume consumer products company at EchoStar Technologies, which designs set top boxes (STBs).
Matties: How does that design and fab experience translate into what you're doing now? Does it give you any insight into your role in manufacturing?
Beller: I can't even imagine how many times it has helped me out. Most manufacturing engineers that I had worked with prior would know what they wanted to happen on the manufacturing line, but didn't know what the PCB was capable of. They were relying upon the energy level or the motivation of the layout person, who in some cases was with a job shop with little or no motivation for further improving the product.
It is a big limitation when you don't have a PCB fabrication and design background and you're on the shop floor, because you don't know what the PCB is capable of or what you can do to the PCB to make it more successful as a substrate.
Matties: I would think the types of products you are currently putting PCBs into are all home-use products for the television, probably on the scale of millions.
Beller: That is correct. We bring our customer design and manufacturing solutions at the STB and application level, so that they can focus on the marketing side. STBs are our primary focus as well as support for mobile devices…linking them into consumers’ home content.
Matties: Is all your circuit board design done inside your company or do you farm that out?
Beller: Currently, we have three design sites that are captive held offices. Two design centers in the U.S. and one in the UK. Separate of that is our Bangalore, India office which uses a third-party layout group. Behind those layout groups are about 50-60 hardware engineers. We also have industrial design, sheet metal and plastics design capability in-house, tying together the mechanical puzzle-pieces nicely.
Matties: When EchoStar’s designers are working, what challenges do they face or what obstacles do they see?
Beller: The biggest is the challenge of taking 2x the amount of electrical bits and stuffing it into a 1.5x smaller box. Some hardware or management level people may not understand that you need to do more front-end work in the design to be successful—you need to have floor planning, and you need to have a good engineer and mechanical designer behind you that can make adjustments to the requirements of the product on-the-fly. Occasionally, we may even take the changes all the way back to the Industrial design if applicable.
We’ve developed several ways of estimating our density, estimating our pin count, net count, connection count, and using historical numbers to establish a methodology to estimate how much we can put in a given design based on the available space from our mechanical drawing. It’s been one of the better layout practices we have developed.
Matties: So the way it works is engineers imagine a product, draw it up, and come back and say, "We need a board that fits into this," and your job is to get a board that fits.
Beller: That is correct. That's one of the first challenges that every layout guy would be nodding his head to right now—how to communicate back to the engineers exactly where you need more space or if your hands are too tied to do what they need in the layout.
Some of the other challenges are component selection, such as engineers wanting more real estate than their circuit can support or requires, and working with different engineers on the same design. Our layout designers are working with probably six or eight different design engineers (on larger boards), and they each have different approaches and sub-schedules to attain.
One way that we've answered this challenge is by using Mentor; we're using the team product, which is a design-sharing layout tool that allows us to put more than one designer on a given project, each of them working with different design engineers in parallel, allowing us shorter layout design cycles.
One designer always takes lead role in a design, responsible for schedule and integration, ECOs, etc. The entire layout team takes responsibility for their respective circuits. Another challenge is just having engineers that are, let's face it, different. Some engineers know exactly what they want, and some need to see the layout as you go along. You've got to be able to work with different personalities, and professional levels as well as different functional areas such as digital, power, RF, DDR, etc.
Matties: Being a captive facility, however, I would think that you guys have an advantage over a design shop because your teams can easily communicate, whereas if I'm a design service bureau I just get a spec and I have to make it fit.
Beller: We do have a benefit over a design bureau in that we do have the engineers there. If the layout person has an issue, he calls the engineer over. The engineer sits down with him and they solve the challenge together immediately. There is heavy ownership by both the engineer and the layout person and we find fewer mistakes are the result. We don’t have the additional challenge of answering to different customer needs like a design bureau does.
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.
The same goes for many of the front end design tools today, however, I don't see an evolution of the designer being edged out. What I do agree with you on is a lack of younger blood coming into this industry and working under the wings of some of us old guys, picking up on our experiences and growing from it. I see this challenge in our company as well. Really good layout people are difficult to locate as we can be an elusive breed.
Matties: How do we solve that problem? How do we bring this appeal to the younger generation?
Beller: One way is at the university and high school level, through electronics and robotics clubs, etc. We have a robotics club at our company for employees' children and it’s been a great success. You have to get the youth fired up about what it means to design something and what it means to write a simple program. Try to get them interested in hardware and then get them into electronics design, layout or mechanical drafting. With all these new tools, 3D printers, etc., the sky is the limit as far as designing product goes. We are going to need these people to do it, otherwise we're going to have to offshore it.
Matties: I think 3D printers are the catalyst. I liken that to when the personal computer came out. It was such an enabler of society that it really transformed the way people interact, and I think the 3D printing is also going to revitalize the manufacturing mentality in America in a way that we haven't seen in years.
Beller: Correct, and whether 3D printers will really work at a production level or at a mechanical integrity level is yet to be seen, but do they work to get an idea on paper that you can actually hold in your hand? Yes—and that's what's important. These printers are being used heavily at Echostar.
Matties: Do they engage young people to manufacture? The real value of this is when they start printing out the bike part, or whatever they need, and start designing on their own. We're going to see a crop of engineers coming out of the school system in the next generation.
Beller: I believe so, too. I know that a local model airplane club actually has a 3D printer that you can rent time on, because these guys want to change their model airplanes and adjust them and make them better at what they do. That same type of thing should be happening for colleges and high schools—enabling their creative spirit.
Matties: I completely agree. Are there any other thoughts that you'd like to share with designers?
Beller: I would have to say the biggest thing I ever did was get my butt out of the design chair and get into the board houses to figure out what the challenges are for them and how my job could make the products cheaper and easier to fabricate. By getting into the board houses, I was spring-boarded into a larger company, quality engineering, process engineering, and everything else. So all I can say for the designers would be, "Don't be afraid to get out of your chair and go look over the back of some of the hardware engineers at your company, or go to your local PCB shops and tell them you want to walk around and understand how the process works.” This is also good for one’s personal growth.
Doing that was the “3D printer” of my layout career—understanding what the factories need to go through to use what I just designed. Why does the via count impact the fab process? Why does it cost more? Why does the size of my vias matter? Why does it matter if there is contamination inside the partially tented vias? What is controlled Impedance?
I would say that just for the design community at any age, get out of your chair, get away from behind the monitor and involve yourself more with the design team and with your local fab shops.
Matties: Great advice. Les, thank you so much. This has been great.
Beller: Yes, it has been, and I appreciate it. Thank you, Barry.