A few months back, I had the opportunity to meet Mike Creeden at the 2020 Altium Live conference. For those who don’t know, Mike ran San Diego PCB, a well-regarded PCB design company and is now the technical education director at Insulectro. As someone growing a design company of my own, I knew It would be foolish to miss an opportunity to pick his brain. Between comparing notes and getting to know each other a bit, it was immediately clear to me that Mike was incredibly passionate about education and the PCB industry. He had also encountered and solved many of the business issues I had been running into (but more on that another time).
It’s been my (and my intern’s) experience that PCB design education is notably lacking from college EE curriculums. Even basic understanding of how to design a PCB and the manufacturing, routing techniques, and test processes involved are completely unaddressed. When I was in school, the first PCB we designed was downright cringe-worthy. We used the free version of Eagle with a former instructor’s libraries, and then we were asked to keep rearranging components on the board until the autorouter could solve everything on a two-layer board. The board was made without solder mask or silkscreen. No concepts of return paths, power distribution, decoupling, shielding, manufacturing, or principles beyond the bare minimum of electrical conductivity were covered in the class. This was a college level course I’m still making payments on.
This may have been passable before engineers were expected to know how to design circuit boards, but that’s not the case today. I’m a big fan of Eli Hughes’s term, “full stack hardware engineer,” because it really does capture the expectations for what we’re required to know today. The full stack engineer understands everything from idea to manufacturing; the PCB is a major part of that process.
It’s also clear to me that trying to cram it all into a four-year degree is probably not possible. Our outstanding intern Austin Gilbert also shares this sentiment. So much of what we do here at Velocity Research is not even mentioned in the classes at his university. Colleges still depend on the industry to cover this material, but many companies keep their techniques confidential.
Figure 1: Velocity intern Austin Gilbert working on a project.
When Mike told me about PCEA, I immediately saw this as the solution to the knowledge gap between industry requirements and college education. Part of its mission statement is to inspire, educate and unite PCB designers. There aren’t a lot of great places to learn these techniques other than having a good mentor or a company that’s going to invest in training you. That company still needs a good source of truth, though. Perhaps this is why the electronics industry is still riddled with outdated myths and rules of thumb.
After talking with Mike and Scott McCurdy, we established the Michigan chapter of the PCEA. It’s my vision that this will be the group that provides the latest education tools to aspiring PCB experts. This group will connect students and veterans to close the knowledge gap between what is offered through formal education and what is required to be successful in the industry.
It’s going to take a few things to happen, though, and some principles will be required for the group to secure acceptance and attract valuable members. To pull this off, the first thing to tackle is managing the elephant in the room.
Figure 2: Dugan Karnazes shows Austin and engineer Nathan LaWarre around a schematic. (Images courtesy of Dugan Karnazes)
If you join PCEA, you do not have to share your company’s secret techniques. Doing that would give us a bad name, anyway. This group is meant to be the vehicle that advances the technical ability of the industry so that we all benefit. Much like the Automotive Industry Action Group developed the PPAP approval process, and IPC has its host of standards and certifications, the PCEA has an opportunity to develop the skillset and resources necessary for electrical engineers to successfully design circuit boards without depending on individual companies or sales reps for technical information.
The leaders that I admire most are the ones who devote themselves to benefiting everyone, regardless of the benefits they receive. PCEA is our pathway to influencing the courses that are offered in college curriculums, training a generation of even better engineers, and transferring the knowledge from our industry’s beloved greybeards to those just entering the industry.
Dugan Karnazes is the founder and CEO of Velocity Research.