Tim's Takeaways: Say ‘No’ to File Hoarding: Data Management Tips

According to the Internal Revenue’s online resources, you should keep your tax returns and associated financial documents for three years. This goes up to seven years if you’ve filed a claim for worthless securities or bad debt, but for most of us, three years is the max. Now, in case you are wondering why I’ve started out with such a dry and boring fact, it’s because it uncomfortably applies more to me than probably any other person in the world. Yes, I admit it, I’m a tax return hoarder.

I’ve tried to tell myself over the years that keeping those documents was an act of preserving history, and from time to time they actually have provided some entertaining moments. For instance, looking back on our incomes from 20 or 30 years ago, or finding out how little we used to pay for health insurance, has made for some interesting jaunts down memory lane. The truth, however, is keeping those old documents was just plain laziness on my part. It was a lot easier to collect those documents every year, bag ‘em up, and toss them in the back of the upstairs closet where I didn’t have to think about them anymore. Unfortunately, my tax hoarding habits have produced some real problems:

  • The closet was running out of room
  • Critters tend to love piles of paper like this
  • My family was getting increasingly annoyed with the mess
  • All of that paper had become a potentially dangerous fire threat that kept growing each year


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To summarize, I had convinced myself that the massive amount of data that I had collected over the years was essential for one reason or another. In reality, my collection was nothing more than an unmanageable mess that served no useful purpose. Fortunately for me, this particular problem was resolved by a trip to the recycling center and $30 worth of paper shredding services. But there are a lot of different types of “collections” in life that need managing, and like my proliferating pile of paper publications, they all need their own eloquent solutions to keep from getting out of control. Take, for instance, the amount of data that is generated during the design of electronics.

PCB Design Data
The first thing to consider in our world of PCB design is just how much data there is that needs to be managed. From a casual overview it may not seem that extensive, but let’s break the average design down into its four separate pieces. This gives us the schematic, circuit simulation, PCB layout, and analysis, and that is just a generalization. Designs often have more pieces than that in them, especially when you consider the depth of system level design. But starting with the basic four pieces, we can break those up even further:

  • Design databases and associated system files
  • Library files and sub-library element files
  • Read-me, template, and example files
  • Reports, standards, specifications, special instructions, etc.

The main four pieces of design data will have their own output or interfacing files. For example, let’s examine the PCB layout data in greater detail. Circuit board manufacturing requires a lot of different design data including:

  • Artwork, drill, apertures, and other fabrication files
  • Drawings, component XY locations, artwork, and other assembly files
  • Netlists, test point XY locations, and other test files

These items are just a sampling as the average design will produce much more data than what I’ve listed here. Of course, all this must be multiplied for design revisions, backups, or alternate part numbers and board configurations. As you can see, the amount of data in a PCB design can easily stack up and create plenty of unexpected problems along the way—just like my collection of tax documents had.

Pitfalls of Data Storage
First, this data requires storage space. Everyone knows that, with all the advances in technology, our storage systems are larger now than they’ve ever been before, which is a great thing. However, what is easy to forget is how our databases and file sizes are also getting larger, and the amount of data that we are saving increases all the time. A friend once warned me, as we were moving someone else’s “stuff” into a larger facility, “People are like fish, they grow to fit the tank.” Ironically, this rather obscure law of nature seems to fit PCB design data as well. As soon as the data storage is upgraded, someone just fills it back up again.

Another problem to contend with when dealing with excessive amounts of data is confusion. It is not unusual for PCB designers or design groups to encounter one or more of the following problems:

  • Which design is the most current?
  • Incorrect databases being selected for work by designers
  • Essential design data stored on personal drives where it is inaccessible to others
  • Open file permissions allowing for critical data to be altered, corrupted, or over-written

Interestingly enough, in some cases, just the opposite is happening; not enough data is being saved and managed. Here are some of the problems that we’ve heard reported:

  • Original design history and data that is permanently lost
  • Missing changes or revisions creating a disconnect between design and manufacturing
  • Inability to produce traceability documentation and data for regulated or controlled products
  • Having to recreate databases from artwork, or completely redesign a PCB instead of simply rolling a board revision

Obviously, there can be a lot of problems associated with the storage of data generated during the PCB design cycle. The best solution is to incorporate proper management processes to keep all the design data in check; we’ll look more into how to do that next.

Data Management
The first step of good data management is to decide who owns what. This pivotal point can actually end up becoming a sticking point for some design groups, as data ownership gets swatted back and forth between personnel like a shuttlecock in a badminton game. The important thing to remember here is that it isn’t nearly as important who owns the data as it is that the data is actually owned by someone. In other words, if the design group is going to own its own data, that’s fine. If, on the other hand the company’s IT department is going to own the data instead, that’s fine too. As long as someone has the responsibility for ensuring that the design data is available, secure, and part of the regular workflow of the design group, the actual ownership isn’t as important. So don’t let the little detail of ownership derail anyone from setting up proper data management processes.

Speaking of those processes, it is essential to have good data management processes in place. These processes need to clearly outline who is responsible for data ownership, as well as what each individual user’s data responsibilities are. Additionally, file security protocols should be in place, and the processes should specify generation and storage procedures for users to prevent data losses or corruption. The processes should also outline what data should be generated for specific vendors, and what the standard manufacturing file sets should contain. These data management processes should also detail the company’s archival and vault procedures, and where to go with additional questions.

Another important part of effective data management is to ensure that the right data is being created and collected in the first place. As we mentioned earlier, a lot of data can be generated by the PCB design process, and you don’t want to get swamped by every single sub-library or system file in your design directory. On the other hand, you don’t want to casually delete a seemly innocuous file that actually contains some key traceability data in it either. So how can this dilemma be managed efficiently? While it may seem like data hoarding is the right way to go, we also know that it can create its own mess of problems. Thankfully there appears to be an answer to CAD file organization in some new design data automation tools.

Many design teams are turning to database solutions for file generation such as the IPC-2581 file format generators. CAD systems using this format will automatically add the necessary fabrication and assembly files into an IPC-2581 formatted database, making output file generation for your manufacturers quick and simple. As Patrick Davis, a product management director for Cadence Design Systems, said in the September 2021 issue of Design007 Magazine, “I don’t need dumb data. I need something that allows us to actually communicate back and forth efficiently.” With tools like IPC-2581, you can be sure that all the data that is needed for manufacturing is included in one easy-to-access database.

Whether you use design automation like IPC-2581, or you come up with your own data management processes and procedures, the important thing is to keep at it and not be overwhelmed by design data. With the proper data management and a clear delineation of who is responsible for what, you can keep the piles of data under control. Until next time, friends, keep your file systems neat, clean, and organized; and of course, keep on designing.

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

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2021

Tim's Takeaways: Say ‘No’ to File Hoarding: Data Management Tips

11-24-2021

There are a lot of different types of “collections” in life that need managing, and like my proliferating pile of tax paper publications, they all need their own eloquent solutions to keep from getting out of control. Take for instance the amount of data that is generated during the design of electronics. The first thing to consider in our world of PCB design is just how much data there is that needs to be managed. From a casual overview it may not seem that extensive, but let’s break the average design down into its four separate pieces. This gives us the schematic, circuit simulation, PCB layout, and analysis, and that is just a generalization. Designs often have more pieces than that in them, especially when you consider the depth of system level design.

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Tim's Takeaways: The Collaborative PCB Design Process—A Necessity for Efficient Manufacturing

09-24-2021

Circuit board design used to be a more complicated and lengthy process than it is now with the need to build scores of test circuits, develop multiple prototypes, and toiling with manual design operations. The one good thing about all of this time was that it gave ample opportunity for everyone to be involved.

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Tim's Takeaways: Some Timely Advice

07-14-2021

Who inspires you to be a better designer? For Tim Haag, he finds motivation in the story of Bert Christman. Read on for how this daring Navy pilot's life relates to advice in the world of circuit board design.

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Tim's Takeaways: DDR Routing, and Other Big Fish in the Lake of Technology

05-21-2021

Tim's fishing story relates well to designing circuit boards. Intrigued? Read on, he explains how "there's always a bigger fish."

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Tim’s Takeaways: Conquering Layers of Challenges in PCB Stackups

01-25-2021

When he first started laying out printed circuit boards many years ago, Tim was working for a computer systems manufacturer whose PCB designs were all multilayer boards. While there were a great many things that I learned during my time working there, it also fostered one bad habit; He became accustomed to relying on being able to use multiple layers for routing instead of planning a more efficient layout. Here, he breaks it all down.

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2020

Tim’s Takeaways: PCB Vias, ‘You Have a Go’

11-13-2020

Do you remember the old TV show “Stargate SG-1?” With the exhortation of “SG-1, you have a go” from their commanding officer, the stargate would instantaneously transport an intrepid band of heroes to new and exciting locations each week. Tim Haag details his realization that the stargate is nothing more than a giant via in space!

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Tim’s Takeaways: Thermal Management for PCB Designers—Staying Out of the Fire

09-09-2020

If there’s one thing in life that really feels the pressure of being in the hot seat, it’s the PCBs that we design. But PCB designers often feel a lot of pressure while doing their work, which puts them squarely in the hot seat. Tim Haag shares four techniques in thermal management for PCB designers.

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Tim's Takeaways: Navigating Industry Expectations

05-29-2020

While some expectations are normal—and, well, expected—in the workplace, there are also those that do more harm than good. Tim Haag unpacks negative expectations and shares suggestions for improving communication in the workplace, as well as positive expectations that you can set for yourself.

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Tim’s Takeaways: Working From Home—5 Tips for Newbies

03-24-2020

Due to the COVID-19 outbreak, many people who have worked in an office environment for their entire career have suddenly found themselves shifted to working remotely. At first, this may seem like it isn’t that big of a change, but it may be a bigger deal than you realize. Tim Haag, who has worked from home for over 17 years, shares five tips for making the most of this situation and working successfully from home.

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Tim’s Takeaways: Clearing Up the Buzz

02-14-2020

My first “real” job in the world of electronics was working at a Radio Shack store back in the late ‘70s. It was a step up from flipping burgers, but it didn’t last long. However, there was one notable aspect of that job; I was there during the time that Radio Shack introduced its first personal computer—the TRS-80. Although it is practically unimaginable now, in those days, there wasn’t much in the way of personal computing available for the general consumer.

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2019

Tim's Takeaways: Realizing a Higher Standard for PCB Design

10-09-2019

To the untrained eye, one circuit board may look pretty much like any other, but as we know, there are major differences between them. Not only are they different in purpose and design but also in how they are manufactured for specific industries. If you are designing medical equipment, for instance, you will have to meet many different regulatory requirements from organizations, such as the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), World Health Organization (WHO), and International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC), among others.

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Tim's Takeaways: Clear Communication Takes the Cake

07-10-2019

Whether baking a cake or building a circuit board, it’s all about clear communication. If the person writing the recipe had not made the choice to clearly communicate what their intentions were for baking that cake, I would have been lost. A missing ingredient here or an incorrect oven temperature there and my birthday surprise would have ended up in the garbage in the same way a successfully built circuit board starts with clear communication from the designer. Circuit board manufacturers want to create a perfect PCB for you, but they can only do so to the extent of the instructions that you give them.

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Tim's Takeaways: Rules Keep You from Crossing the Line

06-20-2019

Driving rules are designed to keep drivers between the lines of traffic instead of crossing over those lines into dangerous situations. Similarly, design rules are also intended to keep PCB trace routing between the lines instead of crossing over them as well. But you might be surprised how many people refuse to use the full potential of their DRCs to protect themselves, and in some cases, refuse to use them at all.

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Tim's Takeaways: I Think I’ll Go for a Walk

04-08-2019

Many years ago, my boss at a PCB design service bureau had his own unique way of encouraging us to take a break. He would come through the design bay and call out in his deep baritone voice, “DARTS!” and we would all follow him into the break area for a quick game. In addition to the benefits of taking a break, forcing our eyes to focus in and out as we threw a dart was a great way to relieve us all from the eye strain of older CRT monitors.

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Tim's Takeaways: A Job Worth Doing

02-28-2019

I get it. We PCB designers are made of the kind of tough stuff where we will work ourselves to death if given the chance. But in our all of our efforts, are we really doing it right, or could we somehow be doing it better? Let’s take a moment to consider some other ways that we might help ourselves to improve.

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2018

Tim's Takeaways: Contract Positions—Go the Extra Mile

10-10-2018

For newbies just entering the industry or experienced designers who have always worked for a corporation, the transition to contractor can be a real culture shock. The allure of working from home and setting your own hours can quickly be replaced by the realities of chasing jobs and wondering where your next payday will come from. However, there are some wonderful aspects of working as a contractor that can make it very worthwhile.

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Tim's Takeaways: Where Have All the Designers Gone (and Who Will be Taking Their Place)?

08-17-2018

We have a lot to pass on to the new designers. We must stress the importance of understanding of the roots of our industry and why this design knowledge is important. I have worked with many designers who don’t understand anything about the output of their design files. They go through a procedure, hit a series of commands, and presto: The design files are all wrapped up in a neat little zip file ready to go out to the manufacturer. That’s all well and good, until something breaks or a manufacturer has a specific question. It would be a great thing to make sure that the designers of tomorrow understand what a Gerber file and an aperture list really is.

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Tim's Takeaways: Hiring the Right PCB Designer

06-04-2018

Like the rest of you, I’ve had times of unemployment, when your daily job is looking for work. You find yourself writing and then rewriting your resume, searching online forums and job search sites, and applying to every job that you can find. I’ve also hired people, and I know what hiring managers face. But hiring managers may be hurting their companies by drawing up a list of expectations so tight that highly qualified people may be slipping between the cracks.

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Will Cool Technology Attract the Next Generation of PCB Designers?

04-17-2018

If I had the opportunity to design some boards that went into medical detection equipment like my new blood pressure cuff, I would be extremely motivated to do that. Maybe what we should be focusing on is not just playing with the new toys, but showing the younger generation different ways to think about how they can improve upon these new toys.

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Customer Support: What do PCB Designers Really Want?

03-19-2018

First, let’s throw a leash around the elephant in the room. That’s my way of saying, “Here are some things that designers want, but we in the support business just can’t give it to them.” The first one that comes to mind: Customers have asked, manipulated, and even tricked me in their attempts to get free software.

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Tim's Takeaways: Good Support Isn’t Just for Customers

03-06-2018

I have been working in PCB CAD tools customer support for years and years, and it isn’t that often that the tables are turned and I have someone who is supporting me. I’ve got to say, it was a pleasure being the recipient of some quality support.

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2017

True Design Efficiency: Think Before You Click

10-09-2017

At the captive shops that I’ve worked with, where the designers were more involved in the entire design cycle and had better access to the corporate libraries, staff engineers, etc., the story was often the same. Some designers would jump into the deep end of the pool of design without any thought to drowning while others would be so busy lacing up their life preservers of preparation that they would take too long getting out of the shallows and into the depth of their design. So, what’s the best approach here?

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Tim's Takeaways: It Really Wasn’t My Fault

09-07-2017

I once received verbal instructions from an engineer who directed me to make a certain change. I didn’t think anything of it. Many months later, this same engineer told me that there were troubles with the board and all its successive versions because of the change that I had made. He ended up making it right in the end. But in hindsight, what could I have done to save myself a couple of months of suspense and worry?

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Tim's Takeaways: Stepping into the Great Unknown

08-16-2017

Many years ago, I was given the opportunity to switch my career path from senior circuit board designer to CAD systems administrator. I wasn’t certain that I wanted to give up the comfort of being a designer; after all, I had been one for a long time. But I knew that this transition would help my overall knowledge base of everything CAD-related, as well as better position me in my quest for a management position. So, I pulled the trigger and accepted the new job even though the idea of stepping into the great unknown like that was very intimidating.

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Tim's Takeaways: Design Tools of Tomorrow--A Real 'Marvel'

04-05-2017

Imagine if you could interact with your design as a hologram floating in front of you the way Tony Stark did in the movie "Iron Man." Wouldn’t it be amazing if you could pick a section on your holographic design with your hands and expand it to the point where you could peer into it, spin it around, and manipulate it as you desired? Want to push a trace down to a different layer? Just give it a nudge in the right direction and the holographic display changes it to the next layer. Don’t like the way a certain area fill looks? Then just grab it with your fingers and pull it out and throw it into the virtual garbage can.

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Tim's Takeaways: 'Sparks' to the Rescue in RF Design

01-03-2017

Just like the early days of radio where Sparks the radio specialist was in demand to get the job done, we now need RF specialists to work together with electrical engineers to create the intricate designs required for RF circuits. You are now Sparks, the go-to specialist who will take care of RF design business.

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2016

The Basics of Hybrid Design, Part 3

06-16-2016

The world of hybrid design is growing, and we have lots of hybrid-specific functionality built into our software that helps designers meet and conquer the unique hybrid design requirements that they are faced with. And yet many designers out there (and I used to be one of them) have no idea what is meant when people start talking about hybrid design.

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The Basics of Hybrid Design, Part 2

05-16-2016

In the first part of this series, we discussed the basics of hybrid design from the PCB designer’s perspective, and here we will continue that discussion.

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The Principles of Hybrid Design, Part 1

04-25-2016

What exactly is a hybrid design? We are seeing more and more of our customers exploring the world of hybrid design, and we are getting new customers for whom hybrid design is their sole focus. The world of hybrid design is growing and we have lots of hybrid-specific functionality built into our software that helps designers conquer the unique hybrid design requirements.

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2015

Tim's Takeaways: The Utility Belt

05-12-2015

The utility belt is a great thing to have. Batman would be long dead without his, and Tim “The Tool Man” Taylor would be useless without his. But for a circuit board designer, a utility belt is equally important. All of us at one time or another will have questions about the CAD system we use, and one essential tool to have in your utility belt is a list of people you can go to for help. At the top of this list should be your CAD system’s friendly customer support staff (like me).

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DFM: The PCB Designer as Arbitrator

04-08-2015

Design engineering is usually a combination of electrical and mechanical engineers. Although these two groups can have their own dramatic conflicts between each other, they will usually end up working together because they ultimately serve each other’s needs. But the manufacturing engineering requirements usually come from a completely different department or from an outside manufacturing vendor.

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2014

Like it or Not, You're a Role Model

12-24-2014

"During the years that I built my skills as a circuit board designer, many people helped shape my character. Some were impulsively brilliant at laying out a board, while others were steady and consistent in their approach to work, dotting every 'i' and crossing every 't.' But they were all patient with me, answering my questions, showing me the ropes, and setting good examples for me to follow," says Columnist Tim Haag.

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Blink and You Will Miss It

11-05-2014

Tim Haag writes, "Friedrich Nietzsche said, 'That which does not kill us makes us stronger.' Well, that adage certainly proved to be true in my situation. If I hadn't been ripped from my secure position and forced to contract for a short season, who knows how my future would have eventually unfolded. And if it hadn't been for that brief season of hardship, would I have had the strength and flexibility to succeed later on?"

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Tim's Takeaways: Blink and You Will Miss It

11-05-2014

Tim Haag writes, "Friedrich Nietzsche said, 'That which does not kill us makes us stronger.' Well, that adage certainly proved to be true in my situation. If I hadn't been ripped from my secure position and forced to contract for a short season, who knows how my future would have eventually unfolded. And if it hadn't been for that brief season of hardship, would I have had the strength and flexibility to succeed later on?"

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There Are No Stupid Questions

09-10-2014

Many of us who have been designing boards for years have had to deal with annoying questions from "the kids." You know who I mean: The rookies, newbies, greenhorns, or puppies just starting out in their design careers. We've all had to answer questions like, "Why is library development so important?" or "Why is solder mask green?"

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Tim's Takeaways: There Are No Stupid Questions

09-10-2014

Many of us who have been designing boards for years have had to deal with annoying questions from "the kids." You know who I mean: The rookies, newbies, greenhorns, or puppies just starting out in their design careers. We've all had to answer questions like, "Why is library development so important?" or "Why is solder mask green?"

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Design Rule Checks - For Your Protection

07-09-2014

Columnist Tim Haag writes, "I have designed multitudes of PCBs over the years, but I have a confession to make: It can be hard for me to run that final design rule check. I know that it is important, but at the end of a long design cycle, I just want to be done. I don't want to redo anything, and I sure don't want to look at my own errors. Do any of you feel that way?"

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Tim's Takeaways: Design Rule Checks - For Your Protection

07-09-2014

Columnist Tim Haag writes, "I have designed multitudes of PCBs over the years, but I have a confession to make: It can be hard for me to run that final design rule check. I know that it is important, but at the end of a long design cycle, I just want to be done. I don't want to redo anything, and I sure don't want to look at my own errors. Do any of you feel that way?"

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Customer Support: Not Just for Customers Anymore

06-04-2014

Columnist Tim Haag writes, "In my role as the customer support manager, I have seen plenty of examples of customer support. But my point here is not to focus on customer support as a function of a support technician. Instead, I want to explore the concept of how we should all strive to provide the best level of customer support in our jobs, no matter what we do."

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