Working With Circuit Design Engineers

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The PCB Design Magazine and PCBDesign007 receive a lot of feedback from reader surveys. One frequent comment from both PC board designers and circuit engineers involves the frustration of working with each other. Also, a question often asked is, “Are EEs taking over PC board design?”

In 1965, with a two-year college degree, I began life in electronics as an R&D technician. Over a few years I became a circuit designer (EE). Several years later I took another fork in the road, moving into PC board design and layout, making the assumption that, “Being an EE, surely I would be a better board designer than most.” Yeah, right!

I quickly learned that PC board design in the 1970s was less a matter of engineering and more a matter of art. Clearly there was science involved but that science was much more about mechanics and manufacturability of bare boards and assemblies than about electronics. People who understood the value of copper balance, pad-to-hole ratio, hole-to-board thickness ratio, how component placement impacted assembly and repair, knowledge of thermal transfer, etc. made better board designers than those with knowledge of only circuit theory. Those who had good analytical ability truly had the ultimate tool needed for board design. But knowledge of electronics, who cared? My education and background meant very little; I was learning everything from scratch.

Is this still true today? We will attempt to answer that question. Why did EE knowledge play such a small role back then?  Circuits in those days, with the exception of the RF world, were so low in frequency that board traces had to be several yards long before they were a distributed length, capable of impacting performance. You could, by today’s standards, make every mistake under the sun, even in very large boards, and there was a good likelihood the circuit would work anyway. This was not always true, but it was true most of the time. My electronics background occasionally offered some advantage, but those occasions were rare.

The Seeds of Friction

From the 1950s to the late 1980s, our board design methods were severely bending the laws of physics, teetering on the edge of disaster! A lot of today’s grey-haired designers cut their teeth on the layouts of that period and got used to working without input from engineers. Many of those PC board designers were converted technicians, mechanical designers, and artists who learned to read a schematic and mastered artwork taping. EEs would often give their thoughts on what should be done, but you could listen to them or ignore them and the circuit would likely function either way. This era created some tension between board designers and their EE counterparts, mostly because they completely ignored each other’s ideas.

To read this entire article, which appeared in the April 2016 issue of The PCB Design Magazine, click here.


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