Here are ten things you need to know about PCB designers, the electronics design process, and how we design printed circuit boards.
We often learn the hard way that engineering and business mix like oil and water. As engineers, we approach the design process with the best intentions, but business often provides endless roadblocks and challenges to our creative process. Why exactly does this happen? In every company around the world, there’s an issue with perspective. How managers perceive engineers and how engineers understand managers. The two sides sometimes don’t mix. Our goal in this blog is to help expand your perspective with everything you might need to know about a PCB designer. Whether you’re a manager or a fellow engineer, we all need to get on the same page.
Process, Design, and the Human Element
The process affects our ability to design, and it’s the process we take along a design journey that determines our success. Engineers are stifled with the bureaucratic process, having to jump through endless hoops to ultimately get nothing done. In startups, engineers roam about in the wild west, where things are so crazy that you spend just as much time getting things into place as you do design.
In both environments, a process is a problem, and then you throw in the human element. You bring a bunch of different people together, all with different personalities, ways of communicating, and ways of working, and you expect all of that process just somehow to work out, but it never does.
The biggest problem that businesses face is dealing with the humans within them. We all look at a PCB design in completely different ways. From marketing to engineering, fabrication, and testing, all of the unique personalities that make up a project all look at the PCB design process from different angles. Of course, everyone thinks their way is the “right” way.
Because of this, you find businesses with incredible talent and skills. Processes might take ages, respins chip away at budgets, and schedules never get met. At the root of this problem in the process is a need to intimately understand the human element and the personalities on your team. For us, that’s all about understanding the PCB designer.
1. Engineers Are Not Multi-Purpose Administrators
Back in the day, say 15-20 years ago, there was a fine line between an engineer and a technician. An engineer handled the theoretical side of the design process. They designed circuits, calculated, analyzed, simulated, and tested. All this was done on paper, with SPICE and schematic capture tools, and still is today.
On the other side of the fence, a technician handled the practical, day-to-day implementation. They took care of the PCB layout, the purchasing of components, the soldering, and lab maintenance. Their work was handled in yet another tool, made specifically for PCB layout.
These days, the line has blurred. PCB designers are now individuals that do the jobs of both the engineer, the technician, and more.
This line of division has slowly eroded over time through three economic periods, including:
- Post-Cold War, the 1990s. During the Cold War, the military was the largest purchaser of electronics, but when the Soviet Union fell, so did our spending on military equipment. The dot-com bubble then arrived in the 1990s with the idea that the internet would revolutionize how we connect and share information. We built an enormous infrastructure to handle the coming eCommerce Revolution.
- Tech Wreck, 2001. Much of the massive infrastructure we built in the 90s was overbuilt, and by 2001, the dot-com bubble burst. During this time, many companies began to consolidate and suffer, as did the engineers.
- The Great Recession, 2008. Significant contractions spread across the entire economy as the housing bubble bursts. This is where we see the real shift in engineering occur, with the replacement of a ton of administrators and technicians. By who? The talented engineers that manage to hold onto their jobs.
Cut to today, and we find ourselves with the multitasking, multidimensional engineer. They write documentation, they answer emails, they take phone calls, they schedule appointments, and they organize libraries. The problem is that all of these new hats the modern engineer needs to wear don’t fit all that well.
Engineers did not enter their field to become administrators; they entered their field to create things, make money, and change the world for the better. Take, for example, the legendary Bob Pease at National Semiconductor. Bob was an amazing engineer, but when you look at his desk, you can see that Bob is probably a terrible administrator.
In today’s business culture, Bob might be seen as a “problem” engineer that refuses to get with the program. But the real issue is the expectations that businesses place on engineers to wear a million different hats. They’re always overextended and getting burnt out.
2. You Can’t Just Replace a Senior Engineer with multiple Junior Engineers
This one might seem obvious, but businesses do it all the time. “Problem” engineers like Bob might be let go, and a company thinks they can replace Bob with three junior engineers fresh out of college for the same salary. What the company fails to realize is that it just lost 25 years of experience and learning from mistakes that no amount of green personnel will be able to replace.
This is like the equivalent of going to the doctor and choosing between a specialist that has 30 years of experience and one that is fresh out of medical school. What if you have a life-threatening disease? Which doctor are you really going to trust? The one with experience, of course. Your health is not an experiment left up to chance, nor is PCB design or an engineering process.
What companies need to realize is that there’s a massive difference between knowledge and experience. Junior designers might have all the basic skills needed, but they have none of the wisdom from years of experience. A senior designer has:
- Grown up with the industry as it has evolved, and they evolved with it.
- Weathered all of the major economic downturns, which means they were the better engineers.
- Learned from countless mistakes through respins and delays.
You also have to consider the complexity of today’s electronic designs. 15-20 years ago, it might have been a simple connection between A and B on a PCB. But these days, high-speed applications add new complexity to the mix. You might have a connection point between A and B, but by the time your signal gets to B, it might be unrecognizable with all the noise and EMI it encounters. This is a problem that only a seasoned engineer can solve, and our companies need to keep them around.
What we might be seeing as an industry is the horse and buggy problem of PCB design. Before automobiles came around, there was an entire industry for the horse and buggy. You had horse farms, alfalfa farms, whip manufacturers, harness producers, etc. But then the automobile comes along, and the industry collapses. While this industry is still around in niche roles today, it’s now a luxury.
What if this happens to PCB design? Only 27% of PCB designers are under the age of 45, and knowledge just isn’t being transferred to old and new. What we might end up with is businesses paying more for an expert consultant just to keep their team in line. Experience counts.
3. An Engineer is Not an Engineer
The word “engineer” is often used as a blanket term to describe all engineers, but this doesn’t tell the whole picture. Think about it, if every engineer was the same, then why would we have job descriptions? We wouldn’t. Engineers would be filling out job applications instead of resumes. Once we graduated, the concern wouldn’t be what kind of engineer I wanted to be but what company I wanted to work for.
Of course, this isn’t the way the world of engineering works. Every student that comes out of an engineering program is different. Say you have three students who graduate from college on the same day. They’ve all taken the same courses, but they all walk away with entirely different skillsets. Why is that?
- Environment. Maybe one of these students was exposed to engineering classes in high school or had a family member at home that was an engineer to guide them.
- Preferences. Engineering is an amazingly diverse field, and each of those students might have gravitated towards hardware, analog, power, etc., during their studies.
- Goals. Each student also has their own unique goals. One might be in it for the money, another for changing the world. Goals determine outcomes and experiences.
Upon graduation, each student will intern at different companies, get different experiences, and ultimately transform into their own variety of “engineer.” If you brought these three students together twenty years later, they would all be incredibly different. But in business, we often treat our engineers like lego bricks, thinking we can stack one on top of the other to get the job done. This just isn’t the case. Engineers are unique individuals with their own unique skills and ways of working and communicating. We need to embrace this.
4. Engineers Are Not Writers
Engineers are not taught specification writing in college. Look at the major map for any engineering program, and you won’t see a bunch of classes with term papers. In the workplace, there’s a false expectation that assumes engineers are writers, and one of the worst things you can do is stick a designer on documentation or technical writing project for weeks on end.
This leads us to a bigger problem, though. Because engineers are not writers, specifications don’t get made until they’re demanded. This isn’t the engineer’s fault; they love to jump into a schematic and start designing. But then you’ll typically get a breakdown in communication where email threads become a maze of confusion, test plans get hacked together, workflows are all over the place, and you forget about documentation and templates. Why does this happen? Because you’ve put an engineer in charge of administrative and writing-focused functions when this really isn’t their strength.
5. Schools Teach Theory, Not Practical Engineering Jobs
You won’t find practical jobs being taught at university, yet for some reason, we bring fresh graduates out of college into the workplace and expect them to get going immediately. Engineering students are taught theory. They’re taught to think in a dimensionless space on a schematic. Don’t get me wrong, these skills are necessary and sorely needed, but translating those skills into the workplace where you could be handling sensitive equipment is a recipe for disaster.
Any job in the engineering field requires extensive on-the-job training, especially for college graduates. We’re talking about jobs in test engineering, quality engineering, hardware engineering, component engineering, PCB manufacturing, etc. Businesses might want someone who can do the right work out of the gate, but that’s simply not how it works. Engineers need lots of training right off the bat for an engineering job. It’s going to take time.
6. Engineers do not learn business fundamentals
Just like engineers do not learn specification writing, they also do not learn business fundamentals. This is why engineering and business often mix like oil and water; both ends have a disconnect. You can have a company run by amazingly talented engineers, but if they don’t know how to market a product, all that money will go to waste.
Perhaps you have a business that treats its engineers like headcounts on a spreadsheet. In this situation, droves of talented engineers leave the company because management simply didn’t understand their place in the world.
Is there a solution to this? This question remains. An MBA was originally intended for engineers to learn business fundamentals, but how do you teach a business-focused person about the world of engineering? That requires a complete shift in perspective and some extensive training.
7. Engineers are focus thinkers, but they still need the big picture
Engineers tend to be focus thinkers instead of big-picture thinkers. How does this manifest? Engineers focus on depth, not breadth. They’re concerned with what’s going on in front of them rather than the whole picture. Figure out how to solve this problem, then move on to the next.
Companies play into the mindset by compartmentalizing departments and resources, which is ideal for engineers. There are design groups, layout groups, embedded groups, library groups, etc. It becomes easier to organize engineers in line with how they work to facilitate the sharing of resources.
This can also be a problem. Because engineers spend so much time focusing on one piece of the puzzle, they often lack visibility into how that piece fits into the greater whole. You might have an entire team of engineers designing a microprocessor, but what if none of them ever sees the finished product. How do they connect their work to the greater whole? Even engineers need to understand the bigger picture.
8. Engineers have to take the path of least resistance
Engineers will often take the path of least resistance, but this isn’t because of laziness; they just don’t have the time. You’ll find most engineers pulling 45, 50, maybe even 60 hours a week, none of which is overtime. Couple that with companies downsizing, and engineers don’t suddenly get less work on their plate; they just inherit the work of their lost colleagues.
This amounts to a monolithic amount of unrealistic expectations that lie on the engineer’s shoulders. So what does an engineer do? For example, the description field for a component. This information is incredibly important to have in a database, and it’s often the only description that will provide a complete summary of a part. But an engineer rarely fills it in; why?
They simply don’t have the time to sift through 20-page manuals just to understand how to fill that field. And they don’t have the time to wrestle with cumbersome and manual library management processes. They’ll get it to later, they might say but later will never come.
9. Engineers do not learn processes in school
Look at the PCB design workflow, and you’ll find yourself with many different methods. There’s the schematic design process, the PCB layout process, the component creation process, and the manufacturing process. The problem is that engineers fresh out of college are unfamiliar with these processes. This is where our academic institutions fail, which builds on our final point…
10. PCB design education is on the job but needs to be in school
Engineers do not learn PCB layout at college. Some programs might expose their students to prototyping boards, but those are only good for 5 MHz designs because of all the noise they create.
The point is, if a student does get exposure to a PCB design at school, it’s often in the form of a full board assembly. This is a fundamental problem with the way we teach engineers. Most schools simply won’t include PCB design in their curriculum because it costs money to fabricate and assemble.
It also doesn’t help that many PCBs are pre-made these days. Why learn how to design a PCB when you can just buy an off-the-shelf Arduino or Raspberry Pi for your robotics project? This might work great in the classroom, but business needs require custom PCB designs, and our graduates need training before entering the workforce.
It’s All About the Human Element
It’s the human element that affects our ability as engineers to design and to design well. In business, we’re bringing together a collection of personalities to achieve a common goal, but we need to recognize that every engineer has their own unique background and personality. Every engineer learns differently, works differently, and communicates differently. If we can just move beyond the assumption that engineers are masters of all, and start to focus on their strengths and unique qualities, then our design processes will probably move a whole lot smoother. This will take a perception shift from businesses to happen. We need to start seeing engineers not just as engineers but as individuals.
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