Happy Holden and Charles Pfeil Discuss the Past and Future of PCB Design, Part 2

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altium_live_sponsorscreen.jpgMATTIES: Because as we're talking, we're at the AltiumLive 2017 event here in San Diego, and you guys are just introducing your new version of Altium Designer 18. It's all about speed. It's faster than the previous, a lot faster, with new features and new capabilities. Lots of new menus. A lot of intuitiveness has been built into the menus it looks like. The point being is it's faster. The boards that we're building and designing with this tool are getting faster and faster and faster.

PFEIL: ActiveRoute is, I'd say, on average is 25 times faster than manual routing. We keep adding automation, but it's still under user control. How do you communicate the user control that makes a functioning circuit to IBM Watson?

MATTIES: This is a layman's point of view. I don't develop software. I just see it almost as a wizard. If we have a crisis of bringing young engineers or designers in, then we only need tools to offset that deficiency. It's a wizard. Here's my physical space. Here's what I need this board to do. I want it to do this, this, this, this, this, and it's a program. Here are the components you need. Here's what in stock.

PFEIL: Happy, you were working on a kind of wizard for microvia designs, right?

HOLDEN: Yeah. It's one of my most famous stories. First, HP labs developed a DFM design advisor because we were working very heavily on design for manufacturing. We developed new metrics that helped us get better cost and electrical performance. When HP completed that design advisor, DCA, they tested it with different young engineers. My group used it and just loved it. It essentially automated and made us more productive and everything else. But when we went out to new engineers and new designers, after two or three questions they would turn around and say, "What do I ask it now?" They kept saying, "What do I ask it next?"

The PhDs went back and said, "Here's the problem. Happy has had 25 years and his people have an average of 15 years. They know all the questions. This guy is just out of college. He hasn't learned the questions yet. What we need to do is not build a better machine to answer, but build an artificial intelligence that can figure out the questions." So the young engineer just has to steer this thing, but it's going to create the questions.

That was explored. That's when I learned that self-learning artificial intelligence is better than a human. In fact, this is the thing that Elon Musk is warning us about. That is self-learning artificial intelligence that overtakes us. I've seen it. It's been demonstrated and I've seen it demonstrated. With the 55 complex boards from HP we benchmarked it with, it took the two to twelve weeks and made it two hours. It took 15% to 60% off the manufacturing cost and improved it 100% of the time.

PFEIL: So, are they still using that?

HOLDEN: No, they never used it. It was only a research development tool, so it's sitting on the shelf.

MATTIES: But you validated the concept.

HOLDEN: We validated the concept. Now with more and more people focusing in AI, it's surely going to be rediscovered or reinvented. We're reaching a cusp point. If the current designers retire, and the new guys don't master the challenges…like Dan Beeker discussed this morning, the OEMs have nothing else they can do other than look for the AI answer, with the design no longer being done by humans. It could be done by humans, if we master the challenges, or it's going to be done by AI. Because I've seen it done in AI, so I know it works and it's there.

PFEIL: The question is, who is going to take on that project?

MATTIES: The person with the vision of the future, because we know that it's only going to get faster. We know the IBM types of systems are only going to gain more traction.

PFEIL: Would it be a GoFundMe project? I think compute time is pretty expensive.

MATTIES: It could be. It could also just be an organization that recognizes this as the future when they invest in it. I don't know. It just seems to me that it's a path. It may be 20 years down the road. It may be five years down the road. Who knows? It depends on the motivation.

HOLDEN: I know there is a challenge coming that Dan outlined. Because I don't want the third alternative, which is that we outsource all design to India or China. If that happens, then we've lost the game.

MATTIES: Back to your original point of dealing with fabricators that employ designers, it's better to have that communication.

PFEIL: You mentioned what a designer goes through in Japan. This must have been six years ago, but I went to Viasystems and gave a presentation to them. There were 40 PCB designers in the room and 100% of them had master's degrees in engineering. Now they're going through the PCB design education and application. These designers, and they're getting the training. That's not happening in the U.S., not at that scale.

MATTIES: I was at PCB West, and Judy Warner (Altium’s director of community engagement) introduced me to a young lady who works for a pharmaceutical company. She is a mechanical engineer and she's doing their enclosures and cases. They don't normally do electronics, but they had a need, so they invited her to see if she would be interested in circuit design. And she has embraced it. She just sees it has a natural progression. She said, "I can make beautiful products this way."

PFEIL: Maybe the innovation has to come from the designers coming up who understand a different approach to design rather than someone like me who has 50 years of pretty much going in a certain direction. Maybe I'm blind to what is possible in the world of AI.

MATTIES: That's exactly what I thought. It's going to be the young retraining, because they're not going to stand for the inefficiencies and nuances of what we've been doing. They're going to own it. There seems to be a gap between designers in age groups. There's one large group of designers that is over 50 and then a group that’s 30 and younger, it seems. There’s a 20-year gap where we didn't have these designers coming in and learning.

Any advice that you would give a young designer, now that we've just admitted that after 50 years, your advice might not be valued?

PFEIL: The most important thing is being creative and being able to apply that creativity to your task at hand. That will become a lifelong enjoyment. But if you're not able to do that, take up something else like music.

HOLDEN: I would add that if you don't want to spend your time reading as much as you can and learning from others, then you chose the wrong profession and area. This is too dynamic and too complex for anybody that doesn't want to put in the time and work. It's not a lazy man's area.

PFEIL: That's true.

MATTIES: Thank you both.

PFEIL: You're welcome.




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