Max Seeley’s PCB Design Career is No Fish Story

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Max Seeley, senior electrical, PCB, and manufacturing engineer with 3M, was an instructor at the first AltiumLive event in 2017, and he made a return visit to this year’s event in San Diego. I asked Max why he decided to come back to AltiumLive this year and to share the story of his rather circuitous journey into PCB design, which included a turn as a custom aquarium builder.

That’s one of the things I love about this industry: Everyone in PCB design has a different backstory.

Andy Shaughnessy: Max, you were at the inaugural 2017 AltiumLive event and are a returning speaker this year. What made you decide to come back?

Max Seeley: I was very impressed with the conference last year. Coming to the conference last year, I was a little bit leery that it was just going to be one big promotional event for Altium Designer, but it wasn't. I really enjoyed the material that was presented last year. This year, they've stepped it up even more with the speakers that they've brought in like Eric Bogatin, Lee Ritchey, and Rick Hartley. Plus, the weather in San Diego is always desirable; that was motivating as well.

Shaughnessy: What courses are you going to teach this year?

Seeley: My course this year is a breakout session. Basically, in the PCB world, we get heavily focused on length matching. In short, I want to talk about what truly drives length matching. And it's not really length matching, but propagation delay matching and all the factors in a PCB that influence the propagation delay of a signal traveling on a PCB. In addition, I want to give people insight into why they're doing this; ultimately, it's to meet timing requirements for the bus that you're looking at.

Shaughnessy: In your job, what are some typical challenges that you see?

Seeley: I work at 3M, and in my group specifically, I am part of the corporate research lab. In particular, I'm in the Digital Solutions Group (DSG). When a project is deemed to have significant enough importance to the company, my group is tasked with helping the division commercialize it. So, 3M is composed of 27 different divisions right now, but the number is always changing. In a lot of ways, those segments act like separate businesses, so they'll come to the corporate research lab and say, "Here's a project that we have in mind." If my group gets assigned to it, we assist them with bringing it to market.

My primary focus has been very small form-factor high-speed electronics. The big challenge with that is making it small and cost-effective. The other two things that come into play with that are power management and thermal performance of the electronics. So, figuring out the best compromise between all of those different constraints and coming up with something that will work in the end.

Shaughnessy: How long have you been teaching design classes?

Seeley: When I went back to school to get my electrical engineering degree, I latched onto PCB layout. One of the things that I learned in my company was that I loved building things, so I went back to school.

Shaughnessy: So, you have a physics degree, which is interesting, and then you went back to school.

Seeley: I had a physics degree and I worked on an experiment called the MINOS experiment, which is a main injector neutrino oscillation search. Basically, they created a beam of neutrinos at Fermilab, and they have a detector up in the iron ore mines in Northern Minnesota. The neutrinos just pass through the ground like it's not even there and interact with the detector in Tower, Minnesota.

I was on that experiment and got the opportunity to go down to Fermilab, and it was there that I realized that I didn't want to do physics for a career. I don't know if you've ever been to Fermilab, but it's very interesting. It's like a time capsule out of the '60s. You just walk around there, and what that said to me is that our country isn't really investing in the core sciences like we once did if there's not something immediately commercializable out it. I went there and was just depressed. So, I decided that I didn't want to do physics for a career, and you have to get your Ph.D. to do something in physics anyway.

At the time, a big hobby of mine was maintaining coral reef aquariums. A buddy of mine was doing rehab on an NBA player's house, and the guy wanted two fish tanks. I did the fish tanks for him, and it ended up growing into a business. For five or six years, I ran that business called Aquatic Arts. It was the worst and the best experience of my life. It was extremely stressful because we were on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week. For the first two years, I essentially couldn't leave town because it was a one-man operation. As we grew, other challenges came into play.

Doing that job, what I learned about myself was that what I enjoyed the most about that job was that we fabricated all the stands. They were big structures made of welded tube steel. There were also acrylic aquariums that we built ourselves, and we designed and built all the filtration. The thing that I enjoyed the most about that job was the end of a build when everything came together, we put fish or corals into that tank for the first time, and sat back and saw something tangible that I had played a key role in designing and building, which was extremely gratifying to me.

The business went under in 2008. For about a year, I worked at the aquarium at the Mall of America and then decided that the long-term prospects for that were pretty bleak. So, I went back and got a second degree in electrical engineering. When I was back at school, what I immediately glommed onto was we had a junior-level project where we had to design an AM radio. As part of designing that AM radio, we had to create a circuit board, which was absolutely enthralling to design it, get it built, and receive it back.

The frustrating part was essentially being told just to use EAGLE, and then we were pointed to some tutorials on SparkFun, but no one had any idea on how to build a PCB. It was really challenging to figure out how to get that information. I mean, it just wasn't at your fingertips. It was pretty obscure and hidden, and it was hard to find textbooks on it. They existed, but I just didn't know what they were.

In doing that, the University of Minnesota had a shop where you could make a PCB using an LPKF mechanical router. So, I started working on that. As a result, I started helping all the other students with their designs, so I started to evolve into a PCB expert. It's still an evolution, but I became the PCB expert at the University of Minnesota. Next, one of the instructors asked me to look at Altium Designer. I went to Altium's website, checked them out, and was just pretty blown away by Altium.

I would say the biggest thing at that point for me as a student was that Altium had all of the user documentation. They had videos that were readily available, and I was really looking for that kind of information, so I just latched onto Altium Designer. Then, I started teaching classes at the University of Minnesota as a student teaching other students and staff.

Shaughnessy: I hear some designers are using it for high-speed stuff, even though it’s not officially a high-speed tool.

Seeley: It has its challenges, and some things take a little bit more manual intervention on the part of the designer to get right, but with xSignals, I think they've come a long way. For us, we use HyperLynx a lot to supplement our signal integrity. We definitely make it work.

Shaughnessy: Sounds like you have done a lot of different things. Thanks for speaking with me today, Max.

Seeley: Thanks for having me, Andy.




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