PCBs Are Getting More and More Complex, Are Designers Keeping Up?

Written by Computer Keyboard Picture on . Posted in Pcb inspection, Small run pcb, Turnkey pcb assembly

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The printed circuit board assembly (PCB) has revolutionized our lives in ways that could not have been envisioned when they were created early last century. Now, with the rise of the Internet of Things (IoT), the PCB is becoming more and more complex and some worry that designers are not keeping their skills up. This has become a concern when people talk to low volume PBC manufacturers in particular. New Electronicsandnbsp;tackled this topic earlier this year.

According to New Electronics’andnbsp;reporting, the importance of the PCB was highlighted at the 2016 Electronics Design Show (EDS), which drew more engineers than ever before. The Director of Sales for Altium UK Phil Mayno put it simply when he says, “The PCB is important.”

Mayo led a workshop at the conference. According to him, “For decades, the humble PCB has been the cornerstone of all electronic products. Today, perceptions of the PCB range from a simple interconnect medium to a fundamental component of a complex electronic system. Regardless of the perception, the reality is that modern product design is now more than ever reliant on the PCB and its associated electronic technology.”

Mayo believes that some low volume PCB manufacturers and others do not understand the true value of this piece of technology. He thinks they underestimate the need to keep up their skills to design and make PCBs. He says, “And thatandrsquo;s where designers start looking for things like simulation and magic wands. But they still need to know about component placement; especially with devices like DDR memory. Itandrsquo;s knowing about interconnect; itandrsquo;s about what I call andlsquo;proper engineeringandrsquo;. While these are things that arenandrsquo;t taught, they are also difficult to learn ‘on the job’.”

The Abaco Systems EDS presentation, Design Services Manager Ian McCormick said, “A PCB is a complex 3D puzzle with several conflicting requirements, including: component density; a restricted number of layers; signal integrity; controlled impedance; and thermal and mechanical constraints. It’s a jigsaw puzzle without a picture and only the shapes for clues. Engineers need to place components for efficient routing while satisfying mechanical, thermal and signal integrity requirements. But only one solution will satisfy all.You need a knowledge of electronics, but you also need to be artistic, creative, logical and good at problem solving.’

Mayo thinks the development and proliferation of the IoT has made things more complex. Of this, he said, “It (the IoT) has created something of a smokescreen.” He believes that the IoT would never have been created and would fall apart without PCBs.

To Mayo, one way the IoT is changing things is by changing the scale. He says, “The IoT device might be made in millions; volumes beyond the experience of most UK companies. That brings real business challenges.”

This development has complicated the process of manufacturing for many low volume PCB manufacturers. Mayo notes, “One low volume PCB manufacturer I talk to is being approached every day by companies looking for prototypes. Some are proper start ups with real ideas, some are makers, but few, if any, of them have the skills and knowledge needed to specify a PCB.”

The IoT is not the only new thing changing up the PCB landscape and creating a need for more qualified designers. Another area that has been growing is the area of LED lighting. Mayo says, “This market includes e-mech companies who need to come up with innovative MCU based solutions. That means a PCB and they also donandrsquo;t have skills in house or the right mindset. But PCB manufacturers canandrsquo;t afford to educate their customers and it becomes an almost self defeating problem as most PCB designs will be low volume.”

There are tools available to low volume PCB designers and manufacturers. The key to using them is knowing how. Mayo adds, “Altium Designer can draw 1andmicro;m traces. But good luck in getting a PCB with 1andmicro;m traces manufactured.”

Is there a solution to these problems? Mayo thinks that there is. He says, “Designers need to get out more. There are exhibitions, conferences and other good sources of information out there. But companies also need to invest in proper training otherwise the issues will only get worse.”

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