Do lightning-fast processors presage the fate of the American designer?

About 20 years ago, when I first learned to use a computer to design boards, several of us started dreaming up a generation of design tools that would allow us to sit in front of a monitor wearing a headset to “think” our place-and-route techniques. It wasn’t enough to get off the light table and on to these new Telesis machines; we’d talk about taking things a step further. This Star Trek-style technology would eliminate keyboards and light pens that got in the way and slowed our work. Remember, these were the days of DEC PDP11-based machines with a 20Mb hard drive the size of a show box.

Skip ahead in time to 2010. Most of us are familiar with the technology of networking multiple computers to gain a jump in processing power. In fact, most of today’s PCs use multiple cores. Sometime next year, Intel is expected to release a line of Core-branded chips with six- and eight-core processors. But it’s what Intel is working on next that has the potential to really shake things up.

Last month, researchers from Intel Labs demonstrated an experimental 48-core processor. That’s right, 48 cores on a chip about the size of a postage stamp. That’s 10 to 20 times the number of processing engines in the current off-the-shelf computers.

Some of you are thinking it’s going to take a small nuclear reactor to power the thing, but according to Intel, newly developed power management techniques permit the cores to operate very energy efficiently – at as little as 25W, or 125W at maximum performance. According to a company announcement, Intel plans to provide at least 100 of the devices to industry and academia to help spur software and programming models.
With that kind of processing power, all sorts of new applications could become reality. It would probably permit computer manufacturers to eliminate board memory and even some of the hardware we take for granted, such as the keyboard and mouse. Some have speculated that computers with this level of power could even read brain waves. Hey, did someone say design by telepathy? George Jetson would be proud.

This leads me to a conversation I had with some friends just recently. These four friends work for one of the large communications companies and have been involved in PCB design at one time or another. Two have moved into management but are still associated with the design group. After we caught up on what had been going on in each other’s lives, we moved on to our profession. While kicking around several thoughts, one friend raised the core question many designers think about at one time or another: “What is the future of PCB designers?”  

Many OEMs are outsourcing more of the physical place-and-route design work. In many cases, the work goes offshore to developing countries anxious to add design to their manufacturing expertise. One of my friends suggested that today’s OEM designer eventually would become more of a product manager. Many companies currently work on designs around the clock using design teams physically spread around the globe. Someone has to manage the process, and I suppose the idea of having an in-house designer do so makes sense. In North America, we continue to see an aging of the design force. Fewer young people are coming up through the design ranks and fewer engineers are joining this industry. It doesn’t take a crystal ball to see that at some point there just won’t be people to fill the positions, even if the jobs remain in-house.

I hope this is not the future of PCB design in the US. I’d much prefer to see the generation that grew up with ever-evolving video games as something they take for granted transition to a video game called PCB Designer. Maybe tools that put the whole design and verification processes into a virtual realm would motivate some of the gamer generation to rethink PCB design as a career. When they grow up, they can become product managers.

Me, I’m excited about that laptop with a 48-core processor. It will probably glow in the dark like a nightlight. 

Pete Waddell is the design technical editor of PCD&F (; This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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