Tutorials, news, snippets, and other various musings about the electrical engineering industry.
Technology’s Effect on PCB Design Fundamentals
Since the days of film, I have been a photography enthusiast. As time marches on, I am constantly blown away by the tremendous advances technology has had on modern-day digital photography. However, as I read through the conversations on the numerous photography groups I am a part of, the topic of digital photography’s influence on photographic fundamentals comes up time and time again.
With digital photography you can take a picture, look at the LCD and instantly know if your image is technically sound. Don’t like what you see? You can change it and instantly see the results of your decisions. Back in the days of film, you didn’t have this luxury—you had to know photography fundamentals inside out to give yourself the best chance to capture the image. Not to mention, you only had 36 shots to get the image (unlike the thousands you can take with today’s memory cards).
Even with all the photography knowledge in the world, you could still botch an image and by the time you discovered it, the moment has passed, and the image is forever lost. This lead to the questions: has technology created a slew of "lazy" photographers? Has technology created photographers who can produce beautiful imagery without a true understanding as to how they have done so, or is it spurring innovation by no longer allowing them to be confined by "rules"?
Have PCB Designers Become "Lazy"?
As the conversation was had within these groups, it got me thinking about the impact automation and technology has had on PCB design fundamentals. We tend to talk ad nauseum about how technology and automation have helped make our lives easier, but have we really stopped to think about how it impacts the understanding of basic PCB design principles?
Are we creating a group of PCB designers who rely so heavily on automation and software to do the work for them, that they lack a true understanding of the reasons WHY things are done the way they are? Oftentimes, we forget tools are just tools. They don’t always solve the problems one can run into during the design process—it’s the person operating them who does this. The industry has led engineers down the path of automation to the point where engineers are relying on their software to check their design, while perhaps not fully understanding what to check for—causing them to run into manufacturing issues down the line.
Has the art of physical design been lost and ECAD has just been trying to pick up the pieces? Have things like constraint managers, DFM checks, auto routers, etc. become a crutch to those who might lack fundamental knowledge?
Granted, technology helps expedite the "mundane" tasks, but some tasks are quite important. Sure, you can place components on a PCB and connect them all, but you’re going to be in for some unpleasant surprises if you neglect certain key fundamentals (component spacing and trace thickness, for example). If you forget about the “little things” while you take advantage of the technology at your fingertips, you will only cause more of headache in the future when your PCB doesn’t work.
You can liken this to the calculator in school. Your teacher always emphasized the importance of “knowing how to do the math on paper” versus just punching in numbers on the calculator. Turns out your teacher was onto something, since not knowing “the path” to the answer usually resulted in a wrong answer. In addition, understanding how you came to solve a problem will help you be able to apply that knowledge to a future one. The same applies to PCB design. Knowing what and why your CAD program does what it does, coupled with expert knowledge of PCB design, will (usually) make for a more streamlined and pleasant experience. You might even save some money on the project if you’re not redesigning the same PCB over again too.
Do Less Rules Mean More Innovation?
On the opposite side of this coin, we can also ask: "has the advent of technology and automation helped spur our constant stream of innovation since engineers no longer need to worry about mundane, everyday tasks?"
In the art world, many of the works appreciated today are pieces that ‘broke the rules’ at the time of creation. Granted, there are some who just executed fundamentals beautifully, but it’s the rule breakers who helped evolve their genre. Can the same be said for PCB design? Maybe.
Automation and the latest software capabilities have made it much easier to get a design into a PCB. This makes it possible for inexperienced users to complete full designs. Also, with time-to-market being a driving force in the industry and technology evolving at a pace faster than we can keep up with, fast PCB layout is a requirement. Even though one may argue that newer engineers lack the fundamental design knowledge, they are somehow keeping up with the pace set up for them.
So, is knowledge of fundamentals essential for PCB design success or knowledge of where to look and resourcefulness more important? Technology is always changing, so no matter where you are in your career, there will probably always be something you do not know and, if you don’t know something, you are going to have to figure it out to be successful.
Community can help combat this lack of foundational knowledge, as well consistent collaboration with vendors. They can help guide you in a way to use automation effectively. However, to do this, an intimate knowledge of your design is essential, and this doesn’t necessarily require knowledge of fundamentals, only an idea.
Keeping an Open Mind
While fundamental knowledge and experience can be important to design success, the key is the intimate knowledge of your design. Once you have this, then technology and automation can help play a significant role in accelerating your design process. Just like in photography, if you know what you want your final image to look like, you can then take steps towards achieving it—be it through knowledge of fundamentals or perhaps a simple forum post.
No matter how you cut it, technology and automation are a requirement today. However, since the tools don’t have the capability to understand what’s in your head (maybe in few years, thanks AI) it is up to you, the designer, to define this. While it is important to embrace technology and automation, it is essential to understand your design parameters to move forward.
Ultimately, everything boils down to having an open mind; experienced designers need to adapt to ever-changing technology, while newer users should learn from the past. Failure to do so could not only prevent you from completing your design successfully, but it can also keep you from reaching your full potential.