Design Circuit: Failures of Imagination—A Column of Caution

Regarding board design, IPC has been busy. IPC-2581 (Generic Requirements for Printed Board Assembly Products Manufacturing Description Data and Transfer Methodology)—often referred to as DPMX—is currently being updated to the C revision. At the time of this writing, it is undergoing the final typesetting necessary for publication. IPC-2231 (DFX Guidelines) is also receiving an upgrade with an A revision that is currently entering into the final draft for industry review.

And finally, we have listened to your constructive criticism regarding IPC Design and how it can better serve the printed board design community. We are revamping it to be more lightweight and user friendly. We will be unveiling the new IPC Design model before the end of November.

These developments are exciting, and they will each get their own column in the coming months. However, for this month, I wanted to step back from IPC and the advancement of its printed board design offerings and instead focus on the advancement of electronics and technology in general. Hopefully, I can offer some nuggets of insight, inspiration, or at least a fleeting thought of, “Oh, that’s kind of cool.”

In 1962, the late Sir Arthur C. Clarke penned and published Hazards of Prophecy—an essay that is now considered to be one of the foundational texts of 20th-century futurism. As its name suggests, Hazards of Prophecy describes how past “prophets” of science and industry failed to predict their immediate future as it related to advances in technology. Clarke delineates these failures into two kinds: a failure of nerve and a failure of imagination.

As Clarke defines it, a failure of nerve “occurs when even given all the relevant facts, the would-be prophet cannot see that they point to an inescapable conclusion.” These individuals see the writing on the wall, so to speak, and still do not change their views or challenge their own assumptions.

Clarke recalls the writings of the prominent 20th-century American astronomer, Simon Newcomb, who declared that heavier-than-air flight was utterly impossible. To arrive at his conclusion, Newcomb performed mathematics using the model of a flat board suspended in air and powered by a steam engine. Newcomb’s paper was published in October 1903 and received high praise from the scientific community.

In December 1903, the Wright Brothers achieved the first reported heavier-than-air flight of their prototype aircraft at Kitty Hawk. Unlike Newcomb’s thought experiment, the prototype aircraft utilized complex airfoil geometry and an internal combustion engine. While Newcomb’s mathematics were sound, his inability to be open-minded and embrace contemporary technologies inhibited him from making correct predictions of the impending state of the art.

Failures of nerve happen within the bounds of known science and engineering. Failures of imagination, on the other hand, occur outside of those bounds. Clarke defines these failures as arising “when all the available facts are appreciated and marshaled correctly—but when the really vital facts are still undiscovered, and the possibility of their existence is not admitted.” These failures occur because you don’t know what you don’t know.

Clarke gives another excellent example. Referring to stars, the 18th-century philosopher Auguste Comte wrote that “we can see how we may determine their forms, their distances, their bulk, their motions, but we can never know anything of their chemical mineralogical structure; and much less, that of organized beings living on their surfaces.”

Of course, reading that quote in 2020, we can simply Google “spectra of main-sequence stars” or even “NASA exoplanet archive” to learn all that is known about the chemical structure of stars; and if not the organized beings themselves, then at least their potential habitats. This is really an existential issue, and Comte’s failure is one that we may well be struggling through as an industry right now—and we wouldn’t even know it.

As a moonshot example, in current materials physics, the highest operational transition temperature observed for an intact superconductor has been approximately 250°K for pressurized lanthanum decahydride (LaH10). While this transition temperature is within reach of systems operating in permanent installations that have access to even somewhat-robust cooling and pressurization systems, it is a far cry from what would be needed to work effectively as an everyday conductor replacement in consumer electronics. (Yes, I realize that there are plenty of areas where we want latency, but please, for the sake of the example!) If you ask any materials engineer or solid-state physicist whether we will have true room-temperature superconducting materials within their lifetime, if at all, they will scramble to hand you a BCS Theory for Dummies before laughing themselves unconscious.

But then again, what if tomorrow, a university lab churns out the right topology of graphene that allows for room-temperature superconductivity? What if this is easily reproducible in commercial and academic labs the world over? The overtime at the patent office will be great for its employees, and those scientists and physicists who laughed themselves unconscious will quickly sober up before reveling in the new discovery and designing experiments of their own.

At this point, you might be wondering why you should care. A science-fiction author from the mid-1900s wrote about failure. That’s great, but what does that mean for you?

Clarke’s work cautions against prophesizing; however, I believe that the failures he described are rampant and occur around the world in every industry, every day. As a modern board design engineer—and within the limits of your job description and responsibilities—you have a high stake in the design process. Therefore, you can communicate with your superiors and your colleagues about the challenges you face and, most importantly, the solutions that you propose to overcome them.

When faced with these challenges, do not be like Simon Newcomb and engage in a failure of nerve. Seek out and explore the existing and most up-to-date knowledge available to you, your department, your company, or the industry in general. Advocate for and implement creative solutions for those challenges. If you wake and find that a technique or methodology you have been using for your entire career has been supplanted by something new, then do not let your failure of imagination get the best of you and become a failure of nerve. Learn, get caught up, and continue to advocate for the excellence of your designs.

This column originally appeared in the November 2020 issue of Design007 Magazine.

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2020

Design Circuit: Failures of Imagination—A Column of Caution

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