The Designers Council has always been “for designers, by designers.”
The disciplines of engineering and board design and placement are rapidly merging today, obscuring the not-so-distant past when they were distinct fields. In fact, the percentage of designers with less than an associate’s degree continues to trend downward, and more degreed engineers are now involved in board design than even before.
As the perception and experience of those on the frontlines evolves, it’s easy to forget that just a generation ago, designers were looked upon by many as the redheaded stepchildren of the electronics industry. Heavily male, often trained on the job, perpetually worried for their careers: these were common traits of the nascent industry.
Across the US, a relative handful of visionaries began taking control of their future. Meeting in hotels and conference rooms, wherever they could find, they shared experiences and hints on the latest technologies, pushed for formalized training and better standards, and most of all, asserted themselves as a critical link in electronics product development.
What began as an independent grassroots movement has emerged into an international society complete with its own certification program. Twenty-five years after the Designers Council was officially formed, its originators and champions reflect on its early days.
Gary Ferrari (technical support director, FTG Circuits; first executive director of the Designers Council):
I went to college for electronics. Then I went into the service, where I was in charge of electronics on submarines. When I came out, I started my own service bureau for design. From that point on, I went to work for one company, and they wanted me to represent them at IPC – around 1980, 1981. That was my introduction to IPC.
With designers in the ’80s and ’90s and even earlier than that, the contract designers (job shoppers) were considered the elite. They went from one company to another company on contract, if a company was in real trouble and needed creativity. They learned a whole bunch of different things.
Susy Webb (senior PCB designer, Fairfield Industries, member of Houston chapter):
I “grew up” in the field using tape and Mylar for designs that were 2:1 or 4:1. Like most people at that time, I knew nothing about computers. But one of my customers offered to give me a computer and design software if I would do most of my work for him. I loved how easy it was to move parts and traces and make changes to existing designs. Gradually, I learned to be quite proficient with the software (the original PCAD).
Pete Waddell (president, UP Media Group; then editor of Printed Circuit Design Magazine):
For me as a jobber, it was, “Where is the best hourly rate? How much overtime and how much per diem?” I saw and worked on a lot of different types of boards, mostly for military or space programs, and I learned something with just about every design. But most of all, I learned a lot about design and life from a bunch of fascinating characters who were known as PCB designers. From straight-up suit-and-tie guys, off-grid sandal-wearing hippie types, to a lady who stabbed a guy in the neck with an X-acto knife.
Fred Pescitelli (cofounder, Atlanta chapter; first IPC Designers Council president):
It was exciting, with a lot of interest in the field, mostly draftsmen and mechanical designers moving into PCB design. A lot of technology improvements in the tools with CAD programs and computers, but also the electronics we were designing were moving at lightning speed. A big push for miniaturization, with all of the SMD technology we think of as old fashioned today. Not many designers had formal education. Most were the result of informal mentoring. It was satisfying as I look back at the number of designers that were taught in my department and moved throughout the industry teaching others.
Rick Hartley (principal engineer, RHartley Enterprises; cofounder, Ohio chapter):
With the exception of the RF domain and a few extraneous systems, like supercomputers, the electronics-based challenges in PCB designs of those days were not all that stringent. Layout in the ’70s, ’80s and early ’90s was more art than engineering.
Mary Sugden (founder, the Copper Connection, member of Silicon Valley chapter):
At that time, everything was exploding – new devices requiring new methods of connections. New computers, new programs. You didn’t know if you had the right program or not. More often than not, you got a job based on the computer skills you had, rather than the design skills.
Birth of a Society
Fred Pescitelli: I started Phoenix Designs in the early ’90s, and we had been involved in CAD user groups over the years. It became evident those user groups needed to focus more on the design process and the technology than the CAD software itself. It just seemed to make sense to reach out to users of other CAD systems and join together.
It was more of a gentle transition to a Designers Council. The core CAD group started to expand as other users joined in. I remember the feeling of new blood as we all started to share information. This was long before social media, and we mostly grew by word of mouth.
Rick Hartley: In the late 1980s a group of PCB design folks in our area held a meeting of local designers to talk about forming a group for the purpose of educating one another. As all older designers can tell you, prior to PCB West, there was no education available for board designers. Most folks had a mentor who taught them the basics. After the basics, you would invent a lot of techniques on your own. We decided to form this group solely to teach each other what we collectively knew and/or had learned on our own.
The group was small, 10 or 12 people, but we were all excited about the networking and learning experience, helping each other improve. I remember the excitement in the air that first night, as everyone anticipated a better future. That was also my first real networking experience. I immediately saw the huge value in face-to-face interaction with my peers.
Pete Waddell: When I got the gig as editor of Printed Circuit Design magazine, there was a guy at DuPont in Switzerland named Michael Weinhold who was trying to start an organization called the International Circuit Designers Association, or ICDA. A couple of guys in Atlanta, John Gregory and Matt Kehoe, were working with Michael and put together a meeting of designers and interested parties at Georgia Tech, if I recall correctly. Dieter Bergman, who was at the IPC at the time, also attended the meeting and may have made a presentation.
Gary Ferrari: Dieter was always for design. He worked for IPC as technical director. He came up to me one day [and asked], “What can we do for the designers?” Designers have sore eyes from staring at the tube all day long. They don’t have an organization they can be part of – a community. “So let’s do it,” Dieter said. We figured it out. Dieter suggested a Designers Council.
In Europe, they had a Designers Council they were putting together. They came Atlanta to try to kick that off. It was $300 or so to join. The first Designers Council meeting was in Atlanta, the home base for the group from Europe. We had a bunch of people there. There was a little group in Atlanta that was meeting once a month. Fred Pescitelli was in charge of that.
Susy Webb: I really enjoyed getting to know more about my profession and more people in my profession, so I was hooked!
[There was a] feeling of belonging that came from discussing common design problems and issues. I remember saying there should be an “education group” within our larger group, and someone said, “You’re hired!”
Up and Running
Fred Pescitelli: The Designers Council would not have been possible without the tireless effort and untold hours invested by the designers themselves. Much of the travel expense was on their own dime, rather than a company expense. That being said, without Dieter’s vision and determination and Gary’s knowledge and organization, success would not have been possible.
Gary Ferrari: It was a big team effort. Chapter presidents ran local chapters on their own. Designers all over the world were pushing to make this happen. Our second president, John Sabo, created the slogan: for designers by designers. We still use that.
Pete Waddell was extremely instrumental in getting this whole council going. Pete was a big promoter. Dieter and I shared the honor of being co-creators.
Thom Dammrich was president of IPC when this all happened. He’s the one on the inside who made it all happen. He was instrumental.
IPC Gets Involved
Thom Dammrich (then president, IPC):
I was hired as the president of IPC in about 1990. IPC worked with designers and recognized they had a critical role to play in the industry. We wanted them to be familiar with the standards and contribute to the standards to keep us in front of things.
As more and more designers were getting involved, they suggested we create a forum for an exchange of ideas among designers and elevate their visibility and engagement with the rest of the industry.
Fred Pescitelli: We naturally knew of the IPC and what they were all about, and had met the people who were getting it all done. Dieter Bergman and Gary Ferrari contacted me and filled me in on their vision. After a few conversations with them, and some preliminary meetings with our membership, they came down and gave us a presentation on the vision. We were concerned about losing control of our local council, but after seeing the plans, we agreed, and Atlanta became the first local council.
Gary Ferrari: After the first Designers Council chapter meeting, it grew in leaps and bounds. People were calling me. We were building chapters all over country. We had 29 chapters in record time.
Fred Pescitelli: I was involved from the beginning, progressing from education chairman and finally as the chairman of the Designers Council.
Rick Hartley: In 1992 or ’93, we heard about the IPC putting together a national Designers Council, based on the successful group in Atlanta. I and another local designer, Kandice Antritt, immediately booked a spot in the next IPC national event. At that meeting we met Gary Ferrari and Dieter Bergman, the two spearheads of the effort to organize designers.
We immediately hooked our wagon to IPC, as we saw them having the ability to reach people we could not and to provide services we could only hope to have. Even better, when we announced our first meeting under the national umbrella, Pete Waddell offered to mail invitations to all the magazine’s subscribers within a 150-mile radius of our locale. Our first meeting under the national umbrella brought in 60+ people. We immediately hit the ground running with 45+ regular members. At this point we still relied mainly on self-education, but also brought in national speakers like Gary Ferrari, Mike Fitts and Clive Maxfield, among others.
Mike Buetow (then technical projects manager, design, IPC; now editor in chief of PCD&F):
I joined IPC in January 1994, working primarily with Dieter on design standards and the Designers Council. One of my first events was PCB West, where we held a special evening meeting for the Designers Council. We held a lot of evening meetings back then! Chapter representatives like Rick Hartley, Max Thorson from Compaq in Houston and Janice Lund from American Power Conversion in Boston were among those who spoke.
Ferrari Takes the Reins
Thom Dammrich: IPC played a leadership role in organizing the Designers Council, staffing it and helping it grow and add value for designers and the industry.
Mike Buetow: It was clear the Council needed a champion, someone who had the energy and was seen as loyal to the designers’ cause. Dieter had the drive but not the bandwidth, and it had been about 20 years since he had been a designer. We needed someone who had more immediate street cred.
Gary Ferrari: It was growing so much we needed someone on staff at IPC to make it all happen. We couldn’t find anybody, so I gave up my job and worked for IPC for eight years. My primary function as executive director of the IPC Designers Council was to grow the council.
When designers were asked about one of the projects they should work on, they all said education. That’s what they wanted. They also wanted a certification program to prove they knew what they were doing. Designers wanted something they could hang on the wall that said, “We’ve been certified.”
Pete Waddell: Shortly after the IPC formed the Designers Council, and started putting together a certification program, there was a lot of excitement and high hopes surrounding the DC, and people, especially Gary Ferrari, put in a lot of time and effort developing the CID (Ed: Certified Interconnect Designer) programs.
Mary Sugden: Certification was kind of confusing to start with: certified by whom and to do what? The idea of communicating a person’s skills – a lot of time when you are looking for a good designer to hire, it is hellacious to pick someone out of the group who has the skill and knowledge you are looking for. Sometimes people fib, too!
Gary Ferrari: A company would hire someone who said they were a designer. They would invest six months before finding out if a person was any good. Companies were looking for some level of security.
The certification program determined if they had a body of knowledge to do a good job, to create a good designer. It didn’t ensure they’d be a good designer, just that they had the skills.
Pete Waddell: My personal desire was for an education-based program. Although there is training involved with the CID program, my opinion is the program is more of a test of a designer’s knowledge, rather than an education-based program.
Thom Dammrich: I think any profession that really wants recognition as a profession requires some level of certification that demonstrates competence and some code of ethics. Without these, I am not sure you can call yourself a profession.
Mike Buetow: We based the certification on IPC-D-275, the design standard at the time. We had been advised by a consulting firm we had hired to build the program around a consensus body of knowledge, as it would leave us less exposed to litigation from someone who might have failed the test. We had hundreds and hundreds of designers sign up for workshops on the standard, but they had to pay extra for the exam, and very few were taking it. Finally, John Riley, then IPC’s director of training and education, suggested we build in the cost of the exam to the workshop. From there, the numbers soared.
Fred Pescitelli: Certification was important for a host of reasons. One reason that doesn’t get much attention is it allowed individual designers a way to judge themselves against the totality of the design function. In essence, it gave them a way of knowing what they didn’t know because they hadn’t been exposed to it.
It also provided designers a single place to focus on gathering the information they needed to learn to become a well-rounded designer. Certification became the road to a recognized professional career for many designers. They finally got recognition by their employers and potential employers for their knowledge and proficiency.
Rick Hartley: Certification is important in most professions, as it tells hiring managers and others the individual has reached a minimum level of knowledge necessary to do their job. The training associated with the CID and CID+ programs is, for some, educational and for others simply a review. Either way, possessing the letters after your name sends a message that you have reached some level of knowledge in your profession.
Susy Webb: Designers needed a way to show management (or hiring managers) they had the skills necessary to design good quality boards, both from an electronics and manufacturability point of view. It also gave them a way to show they were involved in their own continuing education, which was needed for their changing and challenging careers.
Mary Sugden: The Designers Council and certification really helped employers get down to the good ones and eliminate the ones who wanted the job but didn’t really have the skills for it. Also, a lot of designers had good skills but didn’t interview well. The Designers Council and certification kind of fixed that.
The Future of PCB Design
Rick Hartley: We [the Ohio chapter] were strong for 12 to 14 years, until changes in the economy made everyone extremely busy, and we slowly drifted apart.
Gary Ferrari: The average age of a designer has been going up and up. What’s happening is a big designer shortage. It will get worse. There is a tremendous surge on the certification side. Engineers are being forced to do design, but they don’t know about manufacturing and assembly. On the fab side, designs come in and aren’t manufacturable. They need to be redesigned. People are worried. It is a tremendous issue several of us are trying to address. [The retirement wave] will happen within the next five years.
We’re working with IPC to bring in a STEM program. We need to talk about that as well. Moving forward, we need to train engineers because that’s the reality right now. We also need to start at the high school level and put programs in place. Kids are hungry. They are naturals. But they are untapped.
Rick Hartley: It was nothing like it is today. And yet exactly like it is today. All the “design for fabrication/assembly/testing” and many other mechanical, thermal and functional issues did exist in those days. People who understood those issues were generally the most successful designers. That is still true today!