Elementary, Mr. Watson: Collaboration in the PCB Design Process


The past few months have been trying for everyone, with many of us working from home. It's like we're trapped in the Charles Dickens’ classic A Tale of Two Cities with the feeling, "It was the best of times; it was the worst of times." Yes, there have been some disappointments, setbacks, and even challenges. But among the bad, there has been a tremendous amount of good as well. It's during the rough times that we find out exactly what we're made of and who we are. We also learn what is most important to us.

Now that things are beginning to slowly open, something I have heard over and over is how people have a newfound respect and appreciation for the team of people they work within their company. If I had to point to one thing that has gotten us through this situation, it is the attitude of collaboration that has driven this whole experience.

A phrase that we all are familiar with is from the title of John Donne’s poem "No Man Is an Island." Although he was speaking of how human beings do rather poorly when isolated from others and that they need to be part of a community to thrive, this principle is especially true when it comes to the PCB design process. It is the ultimate team sport.

For some who may be starting their own companies by themselves, I can hear them saying, “My team is me, myself, and I.” I fully understand your situation. For you, it's not an individual doing specific tasks but rather a single person doing different roles to finish the PCB design. Sometimes, you might be putting on the component librarian hat, while other times, you serve as the EE, purchaser, or project manager. Although it is just yourself doing everything, there are still the underlining principles of collaboration to step into a role to finish the necessary tasks to keep a project moving forward.

The Importance of Collaboration

A typical scenario during the PCB process is to have multiple people working on a single design, sometimes at the same time. It becomes rather challenging to mesh the PCB data with a specific role. If not handled correctly, it could turn into a real problem. That is all done while you are managing what particular people are doing and walking that fine line of not losing control.


Collaboration refers to the act of specific individuals working together as a team in an intellectual endeavor or directly working together to perform a particular task.

There are endless advantages of developing collaboration within your team. Moreover, I would emphasize that it does need development; it is not something that naturally happens. For some, they tend to be islands and to handle things on their own. The development of your team and the collaboration between them is probably one of the critical ingredients of a successful company.

Leveraging Talent
A task that is of first importance is leveraging talent. Everyone has strengths and weaknesses, and by joining forces, it develops the overall team. It is said that as iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another. During this process, the hope is that people can learn from each other. However, what are we talking about with sharpening? Abrasion is a process of wearing down through friction. It is inevitable that when people with various personalities and doing things differently, there is friction. That tension can make us better and provide a chance to grow and learn, or it can destroy the team entirely.

Developing Better Communication
The key to good collaboration is communication to effectively connect to another individual and get across a certain point. For people who are working together, it requires them to share ideas, which allows each of the individual to learn new things from the other. This will also make everyone become aware of different aspects of things.


Before there is a breakdown of a team, there is a collapse of communication. With PCB design tools, I have seen a couple that are extremely efficient in developing this concept of better communication, such as having the ability to place comments directly into a design.

Expediting Projects
Time is usually a prominent driver in any PCB project. The big question that most have in management and sales is, “When?” More hands make for light work. With the addition of each designer, it has a multiplication factor to it, multiplying the work effort and, fortunately, the results.

The real key to having successful collaboration is to ensure that one designer's work does not overwrite the other, which can be handled in several ways. Either can place work areas or zones for each designer to conduct their work. For example, you can have specific people routing a section of the design, and then you consolidate those changes into a master design.

Another way is to work with a version control system (VCS) design repository, such as an SVN or a GIT system. That way, when multiple people work on a single design, the first person commits the design back to the VCS, and the others must conduct a compare and merge of the changes.

One of the greatest things that I have seen in the past few months is the development of this mindset of innovation. Incredibly talented people took up the challenge of finding the solution to a problem. They turned their kitchen tables into electronic workbenches. They diligently worked until they found the answer. But while we isolated ourselves, we ended up coming together as a community of PCB designers and engineers for the common good.

I have had the great opportunity to watch the tremendous advancement of innovation in electronics. I believe the backbone of this industry rests solely on the shoulder of the PCB designer. We are the ones who take engineering plans and make them a reality. As things begin to get back to "normal" (whatever that may mean moving forward), let us not forget the essential lessons we have learned while we were apart.

The result of great collaboration on a PCB design is not just about having a high-quality design at the end. More importantly, it's about developing that team mentality. It's not about us as individuals but instead being a part of something bigger than ourselves and doing something together that we could never do on our own. Because we have done it countless times before that together, we can accomplish anything.

John Watson, CID, is a customer success manager at Altium.



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