Connect the Dots: There is No ‘Final’ Frontier for PCB Design

Methods may have changed, but the goal for PCB designers remains the same: create better PCB designs, always seeking to improve everything from manufacturability to durability. We must keep up with the latest CAD tool features, choosing the right design tool for your design. As the design and manufacturing process evolves, we must grow in our understanding.

The tools we use for PCB design have changed a lot since the USS Enterprise went on its first mission in 1966. We all remember the cardboard sets and ridiculously tight shirts from the original show, but how often do we think about what the crew could make that ship do from a bridge with fewer instruments than a toddler’s first cash register?

Sulu did a lot with not much. He was flying that baby at warp speed, then stopping on a dime and orbiting planets with unknown gravitational pull using just a few bright lights to provide him with information and a lever that moved in only two directions. At that same point in history, PCB designers were creating the boards that helped to actually put people on the moon. And they did it using drafting tables, X-Acto knives, mechanical pencils, and stickers.

The Original Series
In the olden days, creating a PCB design was a two-person job—much like piloting the Enterprise. Without Chekhov to provide directions, Sulu would’ve been going in circles at warp speed. Without a trained electronics draftsman to create the schematic, PCB designers of that era would find themselves adrift on impulse power with shields at seven percent.

Sunstone_Fig2.jpgThe process for drafting a board schematic in the pre-CAD era was like making schematics in construction. Schematics were built using pencils, a T-square, a triangle, a tilted table, and an eraser. Specialized electronics stencils were used to draw the schematic, ensuring that components like capacitors and resistors would be consistent.

Once the schematic accuracy was verified, it was then given to the PCB designer. With schematic in hand, designers would grab their trusty component booklet and begin placing components—just like stickers—on a Mylar sheet with the aid of a light box. Even if boards of that era were comparatively much simpler than the ones we produce today, designing a PCB required a lot of painstaking effort. It was not unlike fighting the Gorn.

The Next Generation
As PCs—specifically UNIX workstations—became readily available tools for PCB designers in the 1980s, CAD tools changed everything. While Picard’s Next Generation Enterprise had more lights, gizmos, and even a pet robot for their adventures, PCB designers began doing more with fewer tools. They shed their drafting tables and T-squares in favor of CAD software and a whole new set of skills.

CAD software evolved quickly and changed a lot over the course of Star Trek: The Next Generation’s run on TV. At first, Data stood there repeating the word processing while he analyzed information, but by the time the gang was traveling through time to battle the Borg on the big screen, Data could process data quickly and silently. In that same time frame, PC capabilities grew by leaps and bounds—developing the ability to make the computations required by 3D CAD tools and access larger component libraries via the internet.

PCB designers could do more using CAD software, but they also had to know more and be able to work with a more complex decision tree during the design process.

The Expanded Universe
Today, keeping track of all the different Star Trek shows, movies, books, and podcasts is overwhelming to even the most rabid Trekkie. The same can be said for choosing the right CAD tool for your design. Do you pay for something with a larger feature set such as OrCAD or Altium or choose to rely on free or “simple” electronic design automation (EDA) tools?

Sunstone_Fig1.jpg
We suggest sticking with the basics like they did in the original show. You don’t want a complex matrix of bells and whistles when a lever that moves in two directions will do. And choosing a software with more functionality than you’ll ever need can be confusing, like the new Picard series. Look for tools that will:

  • Be easy to learn
  • Have an intuitive user interface (UI)
  • Possess features key to your design needs
  • Include access to an expansive parts library
  • Be in widespread use
  • Generate Gerber files usable by most manufacturers
  • Integrate smoothly with your manufacturing process

We believe this is the best way for designers on a continuing mission to improve quality, increase functionality, and fuel the innovative devices of tomorrow.

This column originally appeared in the June 2021 issue of Design007 Magazine.

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2021

Connect the Dots: There is No ‘Final’ Frontier for PCB Design

06-10-2021

Our ongoing mission: To explore more manufacturable designs, to seek out higher-quality boards and enhanced functionality, to boldly design PCBs that no one has designed before.

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Connect the Dots: A Closer Look at Surface Finish

05-17-2021

The final surface finish of a PCB is an important consideration. This coating between your components and the bare board is applied to ensure solderability and protect any exposed copper circuitry. Selecting the right type of surface finish can be daunting, and for good reasons.

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Connect the Dots: The Power Behind the (PCB) Throne—Power Supply Design Tips

04-13-2021

Delivering the required power to each component on a PCB can be a complex challenge. Designers have to manage converting AC to DC while also delivering the correct voltage and current to each component. A well-designed PCB results when the designer takes power supply seriously—paying close attention to the effects that power delivery can have on surrounding components, such as through heat management or signal interference.

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Connect the Dots: IoT is Changing How We Design PCBs

03-11-2021

Demand growth is fueled by business as well as consumers, with pandemic-accelerated healthcare and industrial machinery applications leading the way. IoT devices of every stripe will continue to improve and add functionality while also becoming smaller, lighter, and faster.

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Connect the Dots: The Case for Expansive Parts Libraries

02-10-2021

PCBs are the foundation of every electronic device, the home for the components that make up your assembly. Those integrated circuits, connectors, headers and passives are what makes it function. How it needs to function determines whether standard components alone can make it work.

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Connect the Dots: Design Tips to Avoid Part Fit Problems

01-19-2021

“Will my parts fit on the board?” That seems like it should be a rhetorical question that needs no answer but reality tells us, as you transition from the design stage to manufacturing, issues with parts fit are one of the most frequent causes of delays and cost overruns. Bob Tise and Matt Stevenson share six tips for ensuring parts will fit on your board.

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2020

This Month in Design007 Magazine: Connect the Dots—Is 2020 Really Coming to an End?

12-09-2020

As we approach the end of 2020, we are able to look back on one of the most challenging years that I have ever experienced. Throughout these trying times, Bob Tise and Matt Stevenson were consistent in their desire to share knowledge with everyone. Matt shares a synopsis of the topics they shared from the perspective of a PCB manufacturer.

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Connect the Dots: The New Recipe for Customer Service Success

11-11-2020

How are you holding up these days during the pandemic? Each of us is dealing with life struggles and changes differently. With this in mind, Matt Stevenson asks Al Secchi, global customer support and sales manager, what he has learned professionally from the pandemic and how to serve customers.

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Connect the Dots: Unraveling the Mysterious BGA Routing Mess

10-19-2020

A ball-grid-array (BGA) device can be a daunting component to route, especially in fine-pitch arrays featuring solder ball counts in the hundreds and pitch values as tight as 0.5 millimeters. Bob Tise and Matt Stevenson describe how you can take the mystery out of BGA routing and create a PCB design that can handle all those pesky narrow spaces.

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Connect the Dots: How to Know If a CAD Tool Is Right for You

09-21-2020

The tool that defines PCB designers is our CAD software, and many discover quickly that not all CAD tools are created equally. Bob Tise and Matt Stevenson answer the question, "How can designers find the right CAD tools to fit their particular methodology and needs?"

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Connect the Dots: The Nuts and Bolts of Electrical Testing

08-12-2020

In this column, Bob Tise and Matt Stevenson explore the world of electrical testing. They examine a variety of testing methods, what options to look for in a PCB manufacturer, and how to ensure that you're getting the best value out of the electrical test options available to you.

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Connect the Dots: Reassessing the Risk of Offshore PCB Manufacturing

07-15-2020

Offshore board production has long been considered an effective way to reduce the cost of producing electronic devices here at home, but those savings often demand a higher tolerance for delivery issues and come with lowered expectations for quality. Bob Tise and Matt Stevenson explain.

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Connect the Dots: The Power of Forward Thinking

06-06-2020

Innovation comes in many forms and from more places these days. Bob Tise and Matt Stevenson discuss how innovative electronic devices all contain PCBs, and share pro design tips for bringing new products to the market.

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Connect the Dots: Picking a Prototyping Strategy

05-29-2020

No matter how simple or complicated your electronic project, PCB prototyping is part of its journey from concept to reality. This process of turning the design into something physical can teach you a lot about what needs to be tweaked and improved before your PCB is ready for full production. Bob Tise and Matt Stevenson explain how before you can prototype, you have to design.

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Connect the Dots: Increased Focus on Health and Wellness Transforms the PCB Industry

04-04-2020

Our increased focus on health and wellness drives technology advancement for personal devices and those used in the delivery of healthcare. Bob Tise and Matt Stevenson explain how this trend also drives both PCB production innovation and a long-overdue update of the employer/employee relationship.

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Connect the Dots: The Seven-year Etch

03-16-2020

PCB etching seems like a simple task on the surface, but quite a few things can go wrong during this process. Adhering to best practice and continuous improvement is a must to help avoid issues with your finished board. Bob Tise and Matt Stevenson share their design tips for a better etching process.

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2019

Connect the Dots: A Penny for Your Thoughts on Copper

11-19-2019

You're probably thinking: “Bob can’t possibly write an entire article dedicated to the use of copper in PCBs.” To that, Bob says, “Hold my beer.”

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Connect the Dots: Build Quality Into Your Boards and Processes

11-06-2019

To the procurement clerk, a PCB may seem like it is just a line item on a bill of materials (BOM) or parts list during the production of an electronic device. At Sunstone, we know differently. The PCB is the building block for all of the components and parts in your electrical project.

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Connect the Dots: A Proactive Approach to Controlled Impedance

10-09-2019

You can save time, money, and effort if you are aware of the impedance math when you sit down to design your board. Gain this awareness by using a good impedance calculator, and you can build the right tolerances into your design. Impedance testing becomes a double-check of your work instead of the tool you rely on to tell you if your documentation is correct. Documenting impedance requirements properly is more onerous than most people realize. Though it seems simple, PCB documentation is a details game that often leaves knowledge gaps for your manufacturer.

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Connect the Dots: Managing Global Supply Chain Uncertainty

09-03-2019

We are well into the second year of tariff-centric trade policy, and one thing appears certain—uncertainty is here to stay. Though most of the media focus has been on cars and steel or consumer prices and corporate profits, the enduring challenge for both the electronics and PCB industries has been maintaining reliable global supply chains.

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Connect the Dots: Five Best Practices to Ensure Manufacturability

08-01-2019

When you send your design for manufacturing, your partner does not know what type of device the board will be part of nor the conditions in which it will have to perform. It’s common for harsh environments or exposure to mess up a board’s performance. If you call out materials that will not tolerate the end-product’s operating environment, bad things can happen—such as a smoking board, for example. Be sure your board can tolerate thermal stress or solder joints risk breaking and damaging components.

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Connect the Dots: The Future of PCB Manufacturing Doesn't Belong to Robots, but to the Users

07-09-2019

Is the world ready for the consequences of rapid automation? Will the use of robots displace entire categories of workers? Can artificial intelligence really “think”? How will manufacturing, including PCB manufacturing, be affected by all of these smart robots? These questions actually come from a pamphlet published in 1955: "The Age of Automation: Its Effects on Human Welfare."

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Connect the Dots: Accurate Gerber Files Are Mission-Critical for Smooth PCB Manufacturing

05-30-2019

Gerber files can reveal design issues ahead of the quote process and ensure your manufacturer has everything needed to produce your boards correctly. After consulting with Engineering Support Specialist Eric Haugen, we explored some best practices for making sure that Gerber files are accurate.

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Connect the Dots: Preparing for Tomorrow’s Technology Today

05-16-2019

At a recent Sunstone Circuits planning summit, Matt Stevenson, VP of sales and marketing, and Bob Tise had a wide-ranging discussion about emerging technologies and how they will impact PCB manufacturing. The following is an abridged transcript of this conversation.

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Connect the Dots: MakeHarvard 2019: Bigger and Better!

04-09-2019

Sunstone Circuits was eager to return to MakeHarvard as a sponsor and creator of a competition category this year, also serving as both mentors and competition judges. If you were there, you saw us—we were hard to miss in our bright orange vests. As mentors, we were out and about helping students and answering questions.

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Connect the Dots: Exploding PCBs: Don’t Lose Track of Voltage in Your Design

04-01-2019

Managing split planes? Your CAM tool will not do it for you. We see this almost every day—not exploding PCBs, which pretty rare—but rather problems created by having more than one voltage on a power plane layer. From where we sit, this is one of the more insidious and costly challenges facing PCB designers.

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2018

Connect the Dots: Six Tips to Ensure Parts Fit on Your Board

12-12-2018

One of the most frustrating mismatches with alternative through-hole parts occurs when the land pattern matches, but the pin size is off. If hole sizes are too tight, pins may not fit through the holes, or if they do go into the holes, they may not solder well. Solder will need to flow through the gap between the pin and the hole barrel. If there is not enough space to allow enough solder mass to flow through the hole, the circuit board will absorb heat from the molten solder and cause the solder to solidify partway up the hole. This is called a cold solder joint and can result in a premature failure of your circuit.

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Connect the Dots: New Landing Design to Reduce Thermal Pad Failure

11-16-2018

You’ve finally finished your design. All the traces are correct and the IC landings are to the manufacturer’s specifications. A short run of test boards performs perfectly. For best results, you select a reputable domestic board house for production and a quality assembly shop to do the soldering. When the finished boards arrive, everything looks great. You’re in high spirits and congratulate yourself on a job well done. Then the reports start coming in.

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