Design Tradeoffs Print E-mail
Written by Mike Buetow   
Monday, 30 April 2012 18:30

As many EMS firms are trying to grab a bigger piece of the design services market, one thing we’ve noticed when we tour their digs is how relaxed those designers appear. Their seating setups vary by company – some sit in open cubicles, others have individual offices, and still others share a common but separate office, akin to a bullpen – but no matter the configuration, the occupants project an aura of control and confidence.

Contrast that to the OEM designers we speak with, who almost uniformly come across as harried.

We’re not sure why this is. Perhaps those at EMS sites are more confident about their job security, knowing that more designs are being shipped their way each year, while their OEM counterparts feel under the gun, worried that their bosses, having already outsourced fabrication and (in many cases) assembly, might at any time let design go, too.

Even so, those designers who responded to our annual salary survey overwhelming were employed by OEMs. Does that suggest EMS designers are significantly fewer in number, harder to reach, or just less interested in filling out a survey? We don’t know.

What we do know, however, is that designers are not as easily compartmentalized as they once were. More have advanced degrees and increasing responsibility. They have become as indispensible as they are integral, even if more than one-third of respondents still worry about their jobs.

About three-fourths of those who responded were based in the US (probably because the survey was conducted only in English). Most of them have more than 20 years’ experience, suggesting that cost-cutting measures elsewhere aren’t decimating the field.

The average annual US household income was $63,000 in 2011. Given that, designers are doing well. Some 73% of respondents indicated their salary exceeds $60,000, with 17% topping $100,000. For comparison, the median income for a bachelor’s in engineering is $82,712. And most continue to get raises in line with or exceeding the average US raise of 2.8% last year. After the rollercoaster of 2008-10, stability is welcome.

Keeping up with the Joneses is one thing. Keeping up with technology is something else. More than one-third of our respondents again said maintaining their technology fluency is their biggest challenge. That’s understandable – as consulting editor Jan Vardaman notes this month in "On The Forefront", advancements in everything from wiring materials to substrate systems are ahead. Moreover, an impending shift to copper pillar offers exciting possibilities for tighter silicon and package routing, but with those come the headaches of greater crosstalk and signal integrity issues. Technology, like life, is about tradeoffs.

Here are the full results and story, elegantly compiled by senior editor Chelsey Drysdale: To view last year's results, visit

One more note on the salary survey. Of those designers who recommend or approve products or services, only 78% get to weigh in on CAD tools. While we understand why some designers are out of the loop on this – many EMS companies buy tools as directed by an end-customer, user be damned – it’s still jarring in this day and age that those tasked with such a critical job don’t get a bigger say in how they perform it.

Heading 'West.' We are happy to announce the technical program for our annual PCB West conference and trade show in the Silicon Valley will be posted in the next couple weeks at Last year's show drew 2,000 registrants and more than 1,200 attendees. Even if you aren't one of the designers whose employers reimburse for training, there is a full day of free technical tracks ranging from spotting common design errors to understanding microwave transmission lines. And we've added a full day of assembly-related presentations as well, including talks on VOC-free materials, bottom terminated components, PoP design and cleaning, and next-generation RF products.

From Sydney to Shanghai. It was a year ago that Altium decided to pack its bags and relocate its headquarters and R&D to Shanghai. The company’s revenue was up 20% year-over-year in the second half of 2011, and the pretax income, excluding charges related to the move, was $4.6 million, up from a loss of $315,000 the year before. It’s way too premature to call the move a success, but on the other hand, those who thought the PCB software company would vanish into the Chinese ether have quieted down.

Last Updated on Monday, 30 April 2012 20:29




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