Digital Transformation: Leveraging Digital Automation to Accelerate PCB Design

steph_chavez300.jpgWhat exactly is digital automation? I see it as the simplification of manual tasks that have been optimized in the digital world to the point where they require the least amount of effort to successfully do what they are required to do in the real world. We adopt digital technologies everywhere else in our lives, so it should be a natural progression to do so more fully in PCB design.

A good example of digital automation that comes to mind is something as simple as using an app on your cellphone to scan in a business card for collecting contact data information, and then collating this data digitally and providing a usable output. Another prosaic example is using a GPS to provide directions interactively to efficiently get you from point A to point B in the least amount of time. When you go to a restaurant and use your phone to place your order to quickly get a hot meal served to your table, most of this process flowed through the digital world. Think about all the items and processes that can now be tracked and optimized, and how these captured metrics can be used to increase efficiency and lower cost. Now, we all know PCB design is not quite that simple, but the concept of digital automation is basically the same. So, how do we leverage digital automation?

When it comes to leveraging digital automation in PCB design in today’s industry, designing faster, better, and cheaper are critical imperatives in the face of several factors that challenge most engineering teams—ranging from addressing the law of physics in today’s complex designs, the reduction of project budgets and resources, and coming out of the dark cloud of COVID-19. Over these last two years, we adapted to the new virtual work environment, working with remote team members as each of us were basically in our respective physical isolation. Yet, many in the industry also had to adapt to functioning in multiple domains and collaborating and integrating with multiple disciplines in the quest for success. We have evolved in this digital world, and many have started leveraging digital automation.

Here are just a few examples of leveraging digital automation regarding printed circuit engineering:

  • Process automation
    • Taking a manual process and streamlining it with software. This applies to the most basic things (e.g., CAD instead of mylar), but since everyone is on CAD, it really applies to automated steps on the journey from concept to manufacturing. Examples include levels of constraint-driven automation in routing, simplified component creation, data management, and integration between disciplines to facilitate collaboration, streamlined hand-off to manufacturing.
  • Verification automation
    • Replace manual peer reviews. For example, schematic integrity, layout checks for manufacturability or performance.
  • Automation enabled by AI
    • Apply AI to evaluate multi-discipline tradeoffs (e.g., power vs. thermal, performance vs. manufacturability), and recommend best options to improve decision making.
    • Apply AI for generative design, where the recommendations from the previous step are automatically executed, for example, placing place decoupling capacitors at optimal locations around an IC to provide the right amount of clean power.

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Digital automation for productivity and efficiency is the sought-after utopia of the PCB design and manufacturing processes. Today’s electronic design automation tools are better suited and more capable than ever in arming engineering teams with tighter integrations, system model-based engineering, and verification automation to achieve this ideal approach in the never-ending quest to attain the highest level of repeated success from one design or project to another. Yet engineering teams continue to face complex challenges internally within their ecosystems and externally to their companies.

With the geopolitical and economic turmoil headlining the news today, combined with the slow recovery from this pandemic, supply chain disruptions continue and intensify the challenges for project teams to design their products while struggling to evolve internal legacy processes and dated methodologies to get to market as fast as possible. Engineering teams must now implement supply-chain resilience at the point of design.

Like many others in the industry, I have embraced our new working environment and have not let it stop me from evolving my skill set as a printed circuit engineer to include designing for supply-chain resilience as well as mastering my CAD tool. Yes, like so many others, roughly two years in physical isolation has me extremely eager to get back out there. Surfing threads on LinkedIn and YouTube, where anyone can easily find educational PCB design content, has gotten to a point of information overload due to the amount of content out there. Viewing content in the virtual world is not quite the same as physically attending an industry conference in person, where in-person, face-to-face interactions and collaboration amplify the potential for success.

I spent an entire week in Santa Clara, California, attending PCB West in October. Oh my gosh, it was crazy awesome. The excitement and buzz of those who attended, presented and or showcased on the show floor was the highest I have ever seen in in my lengthy career attending this conference. It was obvious that people were anxious and eager to get back to in-person interaction and collaboration. Everyone gathered in groups and talked about printed circuit engineering in one form or another. I was finally back in my element, and I know the feeling was mutual for so many others. We all had that same feeling of euphoria.

Among the many discussions I had at the conference, one recurring topic was automation. The gap between the old and the new generations of PCB designers continues to grow, and lack of education and training opportunities within the industry has caused a significant shortage of experienced and talented PCB designers. Those of us who have been around for more than 10 years and still have a lengthy runway in our career in PCB design have a great future ahead of us. Yet, as I see the pool of young EEs entering the PCB design ranks with a mindset shaped by growing up in the digital age, I am delighted to see that a digital virtual existence, automation, and optimization seem to come naturally to them. I have a good feeling for the up-and-coming printed circuit engineers, and I am confident that the industry will be in good hands.

In my PCB West presentation, “PCB Design Best Practices,” I addressed my pillars of best practices. These are:

  • Digital integration and optimization
  • Engineering productivity and efficiency
  • Digital prototype-driven verification
  • System-level model-based engineering
  • Supply-chain resilience

In this two-hour session, I explained that leveraging digital automation throughout each pillar increases the potential for overall success while reducing design cycle time. This increases multi-discipline collaborations and multi-domain integrations, and reduces project cost and risks. I shared my experiences in how leveraging digital automation allowed me and my teammates to achieve success faster than legacy methods and approaches to PCB design.

I was surprised to hear that many others agreed with me regarding the adoption and leverage of digital automation. We know we should take advantage of it, and we wonder why more in the industry are not doing so at a faster rate. For one reason or another, implementing and leveraging digital automation always seems to run into resistance in one form or another. Whether it’s with implementing tool automation, process optimizations, or multi-discipline collaboration, digital automation has not been fully accepted and implemented.

Below are several typical rationales for not implementing and leveraging digital automation:

  1. Internal company culture resistance to change (one of the biggest roadblocks to overcome).
  2. Current process “works” and is standard (the manual approach).
  3. Unfamiliarity with automated features in a tool.
  4. Feeling less in control or don’t trust a new tool.
  5. No time to learn or train on new functions in a tool.

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I can attest to all these perspectives firsthand as I have progressed in my career on many diverse, global engineering teams, spanning every market sector: commercial, aerospace, military, and medical.

Not every step in the design process can be automated, but we should always be on the lookout for opportunities to leverage digital automation when and where we can. There are many areas that can take advantage of and leverage digital automation, from multi-discipline collaboration, such as analog, digital, RF, and ME, to multi-domain integration, such as electrical, mechanical, systems, software, manufacturing, verification, and producibility. Today’s engineering tools are ripe for this.

If you can reduce your design cycle time by the slightest percentage and get to market that much faster, isn’t it worth it? I strongly believe it is. Time is money. Getting your product to market the fastest, with the best quality, the least amount of cost and risk, and within the shortest potential schedule can make all the difference. Believe me, leveraging digital automation in printed circuit engineering makes a difference.

In the coming months, I’ll be discussing the five pillars of best practices in PCB design in detail in a podcast series. I’ll also be sharing my opinions from my career experiences on the diverse topics of printed circuit engineering on my social media channels.

References

  1. A Manual of Engineering Drawing for Students and Draftsmen, 9th Ed., by French & Vierck,1960, p. 487.

This column originally appeared in the November 2022 issue of Design007 Magazine.

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