Beyond Design: The Rise of the Independent Engineer

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With the changing demographics, the old-timers in our industry—the master PCB designers—are about to retire and hand over the exacting job of PCB design to the Gen-X and Ys. These generations, shaped by technology, will tackle the most demanding designs without possessing the experience that we veterans benefit from. 

And to top it off, these up-and-coming designers will be degreed engineers who have to cope with both design and layout tasks as the specialized PCB designer’s positions are phased out. Apart from a demanding regime of training, what can these guys do to become successful independent engineers? 

The majority of veteran PCB designers began their careers on a drafting table. In the late 1970s, basic PCB design software began to emerge in the mainstream market. The computer skills of the PCB designer grew and before you knew it, we were all proficient with the latest EDA software tools. Some argue that since the emergence of EDA, the line between layout and engineering has become blurred. Engineers who are proficient with EDA software can produce a complex PCB, eliminating the need for a PCB designer. Similarly, a PCB designer can perform engineering design with the use of sophisticated analysis software. In theory, this is a good concept but from the engineer’s perspective, it runs into practical problems: 

  1. Engineers must undergo significant training in order to use the software.  In many cases, this is simply not feasible and the lost opportunity costs are prohibitive.
  2. In order to remain proficient, the engineer must regularly use the software. This is a problem for busy engineers who have a variety of responsibilities and only work on one or two projects per annum.
  3. The engineer must have a thorough understanding of the specific requirements of the design rules encompassing PCB fabrication and assembly in order to produce a reliable, manufacturable product.

The net result is that the engineer typically does not use the software but rather relies on the PCB designer’s application and manufacturing knowledge to guide him through the process. Also, in most cases, the PCB designer struggles to use the analysis software and requires extensive and ongoing training. So, the next innovation in EDA tools must not only be fast to adopt and easy-to-use, but still be packed with all the features today’s designers need for the most complex boards.

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


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