Designing pretty boards doesn’t have to take longer.
Under pressure to reduce costs and improve time to market, the PCB design process is often a target, and rightly so. Not only is software continuously enhanced to reduce cycle time, but there is pressure on designers and design teams to increase productivity. As someone who has been in the PCB design industry for over 45 years designing and working with software engineers to develop new methods and tools, I believe I can offer some insight into making each PCB designer more productive.
I grew up crafting boards with a desire (or, some would say, an obsession) labeled today as the “Artist Syndrome.” Time was the artistic side of the PCB designer was considered a badge of honor. Today it is sometimes stereotyped as a drag on productivity. Hence, over the past decade, the term “syndrome” has been tacked on to describe those of us who apply our artistic talent to design.
I know times are changing, and those of us who still appreciate and respect the art of PCB design need to change with them. The good news is we don’t have to lower our standards. Rather, we need to apply new methods that enable us to be even more productive without abandoning our artistic edge.
There is a secret about the art in PCB design. It is not about creating artwork; rather, it is about the designer’s efforts to obtain a quality result through precision and efficiency. As much as the first-generation PCB designers (and those who have followed in their footsteps) like having the artist label, it is actually a misnomer due to a misunderstanding of what we are trying to accomplish. Yes, the design looks like a work of art, but that is only because the designer became obsessive about locating every component, trace and via in a manner that fulfilled their objective and subjective criteria for quality.
Objective quality means the design fulfills the behavioral requirements for the circuitry, and it is optimal for assembly, fabrication, test and reliability. Subjective quality means the precise and efficient location of all the PCB objects in order to fulfill the objective quality requirements turns out to look like a work of art. The artistic appearance of a design is a secondary effect of designing with a goal of quality.
Each year Mentor Graphics conducts the Technology Leadership Awards. [Ed.: UP Media president Pete Waddell is a judge.] Customers submit designs to be judged by a panel of industry experts, with awards presented to the best designs in various technology segments and one singled out for the best overall design. The criteria evaluated include efficiency (component and route density) and complexity (multiple types of circuits, difficult to route components, high-speed requirements). What’s interesting about the winning designs is that they all look beautiful, like art. Sometimes a very complex design was done so well, it looked simple. So let’s remember that the goal isn’t art; the goal is quality, and the result often looks appealing as well.
Quality as the goal. We should be able to agree that a design with objective quality is a fundamental requirement. Now we need to address the issue of productivity. How can a designer used to being very precise to make an efficient design complete it faster and still maintain the quality?
Answer: Trust the software. This is not like Luke trusting the Force by fully surrendering to it. It is more like trusting the software when you can. I certainly understand that designers have been unwilling to surrender to software automation for one reason: quality. Historically, designers often say they don’t use autorouters because it takes more time to clean up after them than it does to route it manually. This has been true for years, but again, times are changing. Obtaining quality results is a requirement in software development. Developers now understand that unnecessary vias, excessive meandering, poor pad entries, or anything else that compromises fabrication or performance is undesirable.
Designers should evaluate the latest software on a regular basis and determine if they can be more productive, while maintaining the desired result of precision and efficiency. The next generation of designers will also benefit from tools that enable quality results without requiring an “artist” moniker on their résumés.