Happy Holden and Charles Pfeil Discuss the Past and Future of PCB Design, Part 2

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In Part 2 of this feature interview, I continue my conversation with industry icons Happy Holden and Charles Pfeil at the recent AltiumLive 2017 event in San Diego. In this half of the interview, we discuss the potential for artificial intelligence in EDA software tools, the graying of the designer pool, and what can be done to draw more young people to PCB design.

To read Part 1 of this interview, click here.


MATTIES: You mentioned you sold your service bureau to a fab shop, and you worked there for a while after. That was a strategic move on their part it seems.

PFEIL: It was. The designs were better because we were there all the time. We were in the same building as the fab shop, so it was good. With a service bureau, the boards aren't always necessarily made at the same place, but generally, yes. If you do design and fab, you can actually take short cuts.

MATTIES: This is really what you guys are advocating.

HOLDEN: That's how I got into design. I was the manufacturing engineering manager complaining to the VP about the quality of design. He said, "Well you obviously seem to understand the problems. They're going to make you the new design service manager so you can fix them." I should've learned from the Army: You don't bitch and complain or somebody's likely to make a dramatic decision. I didn't choose to get into design. It chose me. When we took the set of designers who used to report to the product division and now they were reporting to the manufacturing division, they went from the least important person in the product division of PhD gurus, to the most important people in manufacturing, because they dictated our quality, throughput, and profitability. They became the most important asset we had, even though they were doing the same job, just difference in emphasis.

MATTIES: After you sold your business you worked for the fabricator for a while. What fabricator was that?

PFEIL: It was Automata in Virginia.

HOLDEN: A fabulous shop, a real innovator.

PFEIL: I sold it to them in '85. They actually had an LDI machine, and were testing it in '87.

HOLDEN: That's why I visited them.

PFEIL: It was nice, but it was too slow. So it took some time for that process to get improved. But they were always innovating. One of the jobs they gave me was to set up an impedance testing process so they could understand what kind of impedance they would have on their boards. That was really interesting to do that.

MATTIES: So now you're with Altium. How long have you been there, and what's your primary function here?

PFEIL: It’s been two and a half years, and I’m a product manager working in development, with a focus on routing technology. Specifically right now we have a tool called ActiveRoute, which is adding automation to interactive routing. So you can select routes or select connections, give it a guide where to go, route on multiple layers, automatic tuning. Things like that.

MATTIES: Do you see a day where design is fully automated?

PFEIL: What a question. No.

MATTIES: Logic would say otherwise, right?

PFEIL: The reason why is the following: First of all, what CAD company out there is going to want to spend five to eight years’ worth of resources to develop that?

MATTIES: If they started 10 years ago it'd be the leader today.

PFEIL: There's always that. But second, when you think about PCB design, first of all you look at all the different technologies that you have to support. From an RF design to an emulation card, they're totally different. It requires a different way of thinking about it, different rules, different high-speed requirements. Different ways of creating the traces based on the behavior that's desired.

So to start with you'd have to start, "OK, I'm going to support this technology." You could say, "I'm going to support a board with a processor and standard interfaces." There are a lot of boards like that right now. What do you have to do to fully automate it? You need to have a full understanding of the circuit and the behavior or the physical aspects that are needed to fulfill the behavior requirement.

You could say, "Well, there are reference designs." For example, if I get a reference design for a DDR4, okay it's on four layers. Well, my design isn't four layers. So this reference design isn't going to work for me. I need to place some memory components on both side of it. So just with that one circuit you've got n number of different possibilities. How does a computer know which one to choose? You’ve got to be involved.

MATTIES: I’m thinking something along the lines of IBM Watson, right?

PFEIL: Yeah. Give me IBM Watson. We'll have it in a year.

MATTIES: But seriously, it's there.

PFEIL: I agree with that.

MATTIES: Even though it's a challenge collecting the data and building the algorithms.

PFEIL: Yes. It's a knowledge. You need the knowledge. You need to know about circuit. You need to know about the component technology. Frankly, not all that information's out there, especially on a new microchip. How are you going to get that information? If you're a partner with Intel you can get it, but you don't get all of it. These are the kind of things that will have to be overcome.


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