Design Automation Tools, Today and in the Future


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Kelly Dack has been designing PCBs for over three decades, at OEMs of all kinds. Now a PCB designer with a Washington state contract manufacturer and a certified trainer with EPTAC, Kelly enjoys waxing philosophic about PCB design and design automation in general. I asked Kelly to answer a few questions about the direction EDA tools are headed, and whether he’d like to see more control, or more automation in his PCB design tools. 

Andy Shaughnessy: You’ve been a PCB designer for quite a few presidential administrations, shall we say! In general, what do you think of today’s design automation tools?

Kelly Dack: I’ve heard them described by different designers as just different sets of hammers, in that they all get the jobs done. That classic metaphor might need to be modified a bit. Take for instance a modern roofing hammer. With the help of a nail gun, utilizing pneumatics and standardized nails on reels, hammering a shingle onto a roof is now highly automated. The tool systems can be very effective, but often with automation can come frustration. My sister Karin recently purchased a nail gun to re-roof her garage. The gun kept jamming so she returned it to the store and came back with a different model. It worked for a while but then it jammed too. She ended up having to try different nail types and even exchange the gun again for a different brand in order to finish her roof. Any old timer watching the job would have said, “I could’ve had that job done with an old fashioned hammer by now.”

I think this story could be considered a metaphor for PCB design automation today. Design automation requires a consistent application and vision, budget, time, trial and error and repetitive need in order to be considered an efficient PCB design solution.

Shaughnessy: For your day-to-day design work, would you rather see more automation in your tools, or have more manual control? Is it just a matter of having the correct mix?

Dack: Great question, and I can stick with the same metaphor. Like my sister had the vision to see her garage roof quickly finished using an automated tool, I’d love to be able to slam out board designs using more automation. But as my sister needed to pull out the compressor, order special nails, run the hoses and replace equipment before ever starting the job, the PCB design automation strategy for a particular job may not be worth the effort. Just because we have automation tools we should not be obligated to use them unless they really improve the task at hand.

Shaughnessy: In what areas of design do you usually favor more automation?

Dack: Repetitive processes and processes prone to human error. The CAM output routine is a simple example. The software I use allows me to set up a CAM output file routine and hit start. The two-layer, four-layer, and six-layer jobs I do usually have consistent stackups so pre-programmed routine works well. Unless it doesn’t. But because my process is consistent it is easy to find where the process the error occurred. I find that output errors usually occur with something inconsistent in the design; unique patterns of associated copper that must be switched on, etc. To facilitate automation I find myself striving to be more consistent in my design methodologies.

To read this entire article, which appeared in the May 2016 issue of The PCB Design Magazine, click here.

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