Target Condition: Designing With the 5Ws and Other Acronyms

Who, what, when, where, and why with?

I’ve slowly become disillusioned over the past decade with the whole “design-for” schtick. Design for manufacturing or “DFM” has become extremely subjective. I am even becoming hesitant to splatter the acronym “DFM” when referencing job descriptions or when considering a layout tool’s manufacturing analysis audit because the term is so cliché. I know it shouldn’t be construed in such a way, but from my perspective, running a DFM check on a PCB design layout is inadequate unless the audit routine checks against the manufacturing constraint values of the volume supplier which, in most cases, it is not until it is too late.

Design for Failure
Believe it or not, there was a time years ago in PCB design when PCB designers were influenced to believe that they alone oversaw the successful outcome of a PCB design project. To them, DFM meant they had convinced themselves they had the knowledge and capability of producing “camera ready” PCB artwork and foisted their design data down from their perch for use by the nether-realms of manufacturing for fabrication, with notes which read like the “thou shalt nots” written on the tablets of stone.

“Thou shalt not modify this artwork without express written consent from company XYZ engineering.”

Manufacturing for Success
In my role working for an EMS provider, I am given the opportunity to review dozens of PCB designs each week which have been created by designers from around North America and Europe. The design output can reflect a very simple two-sided PCBA or a very complex multi-layer rigid-flex PCBA utilizing ultra-fine pitch devices on one section while sporting relatively massive power supply component clusters on another. Sometimes the designs are problematic for our offshore volume suppliers, but we do not know until we begin our manufacturing workflow audit.

One of the first steps in setting up for manufacturing success in any manufacturing workflow is to take measurements. In the world of electronics manufacturing services (EMS) an audit of the designer’s manufacturing data must be performed to make certain that all the data required to produce the bare PCB is viable. Simplified, the workflow goes something like this:

Audit = Report = Correct = Proceed

But because of various degrees of understanding regarding the subject of DFM, the PCB manufacturing workflow almost always stops after the “report” phase due to an unmanufacturable issue measured within the design data. The PCB supplier’s computer automated machining (CAM) department performing the audit must issue a report outlining a suggested fix, which must be sent back to the EMS provider, who must present the issue to the original customer to modify the data or allow the supplier to modify it before the job can proceed. The process is very time consuming and must not be taken lightly as millions of dollars could be at stake if a manufacturing assumption is made and changed without approval from the customer.

Going back to the original PCB designer to inform them that a supplier has identified some “er, uh, DFM issues” is not always met with a spirit of gratitude by customers, nor a response query like, “How can we help?” An EMS provider is often put into the position of tactfully communicating a need for clarification or even modification of the existing design data because the production supplier has, in effect, “called their baby ugly.” 

But the problem is hardly the PCB designer’s fault. It is commonly known that many designers do all but pull teeth to obtain relevant design constraints before starting a PCB layout. The May issue of Design007 Magazine covered the topic of designing PCBs in a vacuum and interviewed a few designers who admitted that they are often put in the position of flying blind at the beginning of a project without having a clue as to who would be fabricating the PCB in volume production. They emphasized that PCB designers are simply not given enough vision to start a PCB design with the end in sight. They are forced to do the best they can to incorporate a knowingly inadequate, cliché form of DFM without considering the five Ws in their unique contexts.

  • Design for who in manufacturing?
  • Design for what in manufacturing?
  • Design for when in manufacturing?
  • Design for where in manufacturing?
  • Design for why in manufacturing?

If PCB designers cannot be provided enough information to gain a five Ws type of vision regarding PCB manufacturing in advance of starting a project, is it time to consider perhaps designing PCBs with a sixth W—with—as in “with all the other PCB design and manufacturing stakeholder counterparts.”

I’ve contemplated a re-write of a general job summary for a PCB designer to somehow reflect this.

Job summary: Performs PCB design and CAD layout of complex printed circuit assembly products as part of a project team comprised of procurement, mechanical and electrical engineering, fabrication, assembly, and test stakeholders. Works with procurement to maintain awareness of key suppliers, location, logistics, capabilities, and contractual agreements. Works with mechanical engineering to evaluate and provide feedback on mechanical design constraints. Works with fabrication and assembly stakeholders to ensure layouts incorporate design for manufacturing and assembly philosophies which correspond to appropriate supplier capability. Works with test engineering stakeholders to ensure functional and in-circuit test strategies and requirements are well-defined at the beginning of a project and successfully implemented.

The Key to Designing PCBs With
But wait a minute here. One PCB designer might be thinking, “Wow, how can one PCB designer be expected to sit alongside so many project stakeholders at once while laying out a PCB? Another may exclaim, “Too many cooks in the kitchen.” Still others, shaking their heads with arms folded, may say, “If Peter sees how I’ve robbed him to pay Paul, there’s going to be a fight.” Please, let’s put this cozy version of designing together aside. It’s not where I am going here. The key to designing with will not be found by pushing all the project stakeholders together into an office and not letting them out until a viable design is created and released to manufacturing. The key to “designing with” lies in changing the way we think about who has access, and can leverage and add rich improvement, to the source PCB design data throughout the life of a project.

Designing with PCB manufacturing stakeholders of the future will require interconnection between machines, devices, sensors, and stakeholders who will be communicating with each other using the internet of things. It will require massive collection of information and transparency so that informed decisions can be made over all parts of the manufacturing process. It will utilize systems created to help stakeholders with decision making and even utilize systems created to make decisions automatically, all based upon steady streams of gathered data.

Industry 4.0, CFX, Intelligent Data Formats, and Lights-out Manufacturing

Can we even imagine PCB layout data so powerful, so sharable and visible, that it could be viewed “live” by any and all project stakeholders 24/7 and run manufacturing systems autonomously—ordering materials, adjusting the bill of materials—even automatically updating footprints in the dynamic PCB layout correcting for supply chain issues? It’s coming. And I believe this is a whole new take on the concept of “designing with” as I’ve heard it discussed. It is much different. You may have to make that popular brain-exploding gesture with your hands flaring out away from both sides of your head when you begin to grasp what some established electronics industry visionaries consider with regard to designing with.

These folks aren’t talking about PCB designers sitting down to design with all the other stakeholders and getting their feedback to incorporate into their layout. They are envisioning all stakeholders and their automated machinery having access to the intelligent PCB design data via the internet of things—after the PCB designer completes the layout—to dynamically and automatically change a design after the designer is off onto another project. This spin on DWM spreads requirements for production out to the stakeholder ordering and manufacturing maintenance systems which will automatically Audit à Report à Correct à Proceed based upon accessible, intelligent data and monitoring sensors throughout the life of the product.

If you are a PCB designer or PCB project stakeholder of any discipline, I recommend studying subject matter regarding Industry 4.0, IPC’s CFX (IPC-2591), data, sensors, the internet of things, and various articles on the topic of lights-out manufacturing. Your future designing with one another is well laid out and rather mind blowing, to say the least.

Conclusion: The Next Acronyms
New industry paradigm shifts seem to be taking a toll on the future of our old “DF” acronyms.

A few years ago, due to evolving technologies and a need to better explain what the heck designers should design for, the term DFM had to scoot over so our industry could make room for its other DF acronyms: DFA (assembly), DFC (cost), DFT (test), etc. Not long after, the industry seemed to realize that there just might be too many things to design for. We then watched as all the DFs suffered the humiliation of being lumped together into one big DF acronym with a cute little x added onto the end to represent all of them (DFX).

But recently, just as it seemed as though all of this DF acronym jazz had started to settle down, folks in the industry have perhaps begun to see the folly of PCB designers designing for stakeholders with whom they have no visibility, no contact, and no constraints. About a year ago, someone shouted, “How about you design with your other stakeholders!” Some clever marketeers in our midst must have thought “Well, duh!”

I don’t mean to sound cocksure, but just for fun over these next couple of years, I intend to watch how our industry treats this new acronym. The way it’s already being perceived differently by various stakeholders in the industry, I predict it will go through much of the same treatment cycles as DFM. We will soon see design with fab, design with assembly, design with test, etc. Then we will read about how all the DWs were merged into DWX and realize that our potential for seamless, trouble-free design and manufacturing is crippled because we continue to share non-intelligent, dumb data. Then, as the script goes, we’ll need a new acronym. What’s next?

With excitement we’ve been watching the electronics manufacturing industry begin to incorporate amazing technological advancements into their processes and machinery. The next industrial revolution, Industry 4.0, is interconnecting precision robotics, advanced materials, processes, and people which are being brought together to plan, purchase, design, manufacture, assemble, and test. The power of IPC’s Connected Factory Exchange (IPC-2591) standard has been loudly on display for the past few years on the IPC APEX EXPO show floor and the industry is engaging.

Move over DFs, DWs and 5Ws, it appears that the CFX (Connected Factory Exchange) will be designing with the internet of things come Industry 4.0.

This column originally appeared in the June 2022 issue of Design007 Magazine.



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