ADE workers

ADE workersThe Printed CircuitInterconnection Federation is planning a new initiative to help improve UK PCB design skills.Paul Gregg reports
Britain’s PCB designers are feeling neglected. As a group they are suffering from low self-esteem and their low rating in the production team’s pecking order could have dire consequences for UK Ltd’s future prospects. But help is at hand.  
The crisis of confidence among PCB designers has been a long time coming. It has its roots in the demise of apprenticeship schemes and the loss of traditional production skills that gave the designer an all round background. At the same time, the rapid growth in CAD software enabled companies to think that was all that was needed to transfer a circuit design onto a board. Everyone forgot that CAD is a tool – no more, no less.
OEMs increasingly used outside board shops and assembly houses to cut in-house costs, to the extent that the PCB design function became marginalised. Feeling themselves isolated, PCB designers have been contacting the Printed Circuit Interconnection Federation (PCIF), saying that they often feel like “orphans”. “They should be one of the highest paid engineers with a company instead of one of the lowest,” points out PCIF director, Brian Haken.
The PCIF has responded with the launch of a new initiative.
According to the Federation, there are real cost savings to be made from better integration of the PCBdesign into the overall product design process. A one per cent improvement in costs at the design stage could be worth ?200m a year to the PCB industry. The Scheme
PCIF maintains that concepts such as Design for Manufacture (DFM) and Design for Assembly (DFA) have to be grasped by the whole production team, not just one or two individuals. To help raise the status of a PCB designer to the level of engineer, the Association of PCB Design Engineers (ADE) has been created to operate under the PCIF umbrella.
It will run courses and an accreditation scheme for board designers. The Institute bases the certification that follows the successful completion of a course and examination, upon the accreditation scheme that is operated by Interconnection and Packaging Electronic Circuits (IPC) in the USA. The idea is to make the qualification a global one, so that it will be recognised worldwide.
“In creating the ADE, we want to educate PCB designers, so that they regain their status as design engineers,” says PCIFdirector Brian Haken. “It is a problem that is common throughout Europe”.
Permanent training facilities are in the process of being created throughout the UK, and the ADE has established four chapters – Scotland, the North, the Midlands and the South. The first round of chapter meetings took place in November last year, attracting around 50 designer per chapter. The next chapter meetings will take place in March and May, before a PCB Design Conference is held on June 7,8 and 9th at Sandown, Surrey.
In today’s market, re-engineering and design reiterations at a later stage are no longer an option. Time to market constraints mean that new product launches must be released within a specific time frame, within which an OEM can maximise its full profit.
Typically, new products are being launched every nine months, with updates every three months. For example, between 1979 and 1995, Sony developed 277 different models of the Walkman, which worked out at about one every three to six weeks. Inevitably a number of those different models would require new PCB designs.
All too often, it is forgotten that the skills required to be a PCB designer encompass more than knowledge of design rules. They also include an understanding of board fabrication, assembly and test methods, as well as knowing about laminate materials, and how these materials react to changes in temperature, humidity and vibration, etc.
Once the circuit has been designed and a netlist exists, the personnel responsible for component purchasing must be called in. They may well say whether a component is commercially available, or whether a part is single sourced.
Boards will have to be laid out again when devices having a different package are ordered from the one specified.
There is also the suitability of the board material itself for some of the latest high speed circuit designs. For example, FR4 laminate is no longer suitable for laser or plasma drilled micro-via holes.
According to Haken, there is a lot to be learnt from best practice within Japanese electronics design groups. “I can only repeat what we found five years ago, when we visited Japan as a mission. They do not design in isolation. They design as a team,” says Haken.
Another important reason for raising the profile of the PCB design engineer in the UK, says the PCIF, is that it will help create an industry where inward investors can recognise the high level of design for manufacturing skills that exist here. As Haken points out: “The day that you do not have those skills will probably be the day that you lose manufacturing as well.”

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