Tim’s Takeaways: Conquering Layers of Challenges in PCB Stackups

There is an expression, “You can’t have your cake and eat it too,” which is another way of saying that for those things in life that are either one way or the other, you can’t have both. That’s really a shame in my opinion. Oh, not about wanting something both ways. I think that we all know from past experiences that trying to accomplish something by going about it in what is obviously the wrong way never ends up the way we really want or expect it to. For instance: trying to get into shape without exercising; wanting to improve yourself without being willing to learn; or trying to fly a remote-control airplane without extending the antenna on the control box. (Even though it’s been many years, I’m still kind of bitter about that last one.)

I think it’s a shame, literally—not being able to have a cake and eat it too. Can you imagine? There are very few things on a plate that I like better than a slice of good, rich, moist, multi-layer chocolate cake. Your mouth is starting to water now, too, isn’t it? Just imagine having all of that chocolate goodness in a cake like that right in front of you, and then not being able to eat it. That would be sheer torture, and I think that is one of the reasons why I’m not the biggest fan of cooking shows. I can’t stand to watch them create something incredibly delicious and not be able to grab a fork and plunge in. But as we all know, there is a price to be paid for over-indulgence, whether it is in multiple layers of chocolate cake, or even multiple layers in a circuit board.

When I first started laying out printed circuit boards many years ago, I was working for a computer systems manufacturer whose PCB designs were all multilayer boards. While there were a great many things that I learned there, it also fostered one bad habit: I became accustomed to relying on being able to use multiple layers for routing instead of planning a more efficient layout.

“Can’t get this bus routed in? No problem; we’ll just throw in another couple of layers for you to work with.”

It probably wasn’t quite that easy, as memories like that tend to be a bit untrustworthy. It is true, though, that they were very generous with the amount of board layers that you had to work with, and critical board configuration decisions like layer stackups were created for me by others. This proved to be quite an inconvenience later in my career when my next employers didn’t give me the same flexibility in board layers that I was used to in order to work myself out of a jam. Instead, not only was I expected to work with what I had, but I was also supposed to reduce the layer count to improve on it whenever possible. This meant dealing with a whole new set of design rules and considerations related to board layer stackups that I had never had to work with before.

As we all know, it takes a herculean balancing act to create a circuit board that will deliver the maximum amount of performance for the least amount of manufacturing expense. Trying to sort out all the different pieces of the circuit board puzzle to achieve this balancing act can end up being a real brain teaser for new designers. Just for starters, you need to consider the following as you configure the board layer stackup that you will be working with:

  • Signal integrity
  • Power integrity
  • Placability
  • Routability
  • Manufacturability
  • Profitability

There are enough “itys” in that list to sink a ship, and we haven’t gotten to testability or designer confusability yet.

Thankfully, I worked with some great people who helped me to relearn some of the basics of PCB layout. They taught me how to work correctly with circuit board layer stackups, and why there was a whole lot more to multilayer boards than just providing more room to route on. It took some time, but after a while I came to a better understanding of the relationship between the different board materials and thicknesses, and how they should all be configured to design the board correctly.

I was very fortunate to have co-workers who helped me understand and refine the art of printed circuit board layout. I wonder, though, who will help today’s new designers work through problems like these. Company cultures are changing, experienced designers are retiring, and more is being expected of PCB layout personnel with less time to make it happen. How are today’s puppies going to learn some of these more advanced skills, such as how to correctly configure their board layer stackup? Here are some of my ideas on how this can happen:

  • Circuit board manufacturers: I have talked to different manufacturers, and one of the more common themes I’ve have heard is that they want to engage with their customers more before the board is designed. They typically have years and years of experience building circuit boards under their belts, and they understand the challenges that designers face better than most. They also are very aware of the capabilities and limitations of their own manufacturing processes, and the PCB materials being used. They want to help designers come up with the best layer stackup configurations possible because their customer’s success will ultimately translate to their own success. New designers can gain a wealth of information simply by working with their manufacturers.
  • Professional resources: There is more technical training available out there than you probably realize. It not only covers PCB layer stackups, but many other aspects of PCB design. You can easily find a variety of seminars and classes from various organizations and groups within the design industry. There are design conferences that feature instructional sessions from some of the brightest minds in our industry, along with product demos and information on new design methods and technologies. In addition, you can also find a plethora of online videos, white papers, and design-related publications that can help.
  • New technology: One of the more exciting things happening in our industry is the creation of new tools intended to help PCB design and manufacturing work better together. One of those tools is the IPC-2581 data exchange format. Many manufacturers now can take your board information directly from your CAD system and create a layer configuration that will best fit its needs. Then, using the same data format, they send that layer configuration right back to your CAD system for inclusion in your design.
  • You: One of the best resources to pass along some of these advanced PCB design skills can often be found by looking in a mirror. Yes, I mean you. If you’ve been laying out circuit boards for any length of time, chances are good that you already have a lot of knowledge that can be extremely valuable to those who are laying out their first designs. Don’t be afraid to reach out a helping hand to those who still have a lot to learn.

Along with the variety of online resources, I want to mention this edition of Design007 Magazine you are currently reading. As you already know, this month’s issue is focused on PCB layer stackups, and it is chock full of information and data from those who know what they are talking about. If you know someone looking for a little help with determining the most optimum PCB layer stackup for their design, be sure to point them this way.

The good news is that with all of the help available from manufacturers, professional resources, new technologies, co-workers and peers, you have the ability to create the perfect layer stackup for your PCB design. The more I think about it, the more I realize that I was wrong about my first statement. I guess that this is one way that you can have your cake and eat it too. Parden me while I grab a fork.

In the meantime, keep on designing, everyone.

This column originally appeared in the January 2021 issue of Design007 Magazine.

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2021

Tim’s Takeaways: Conquering Layers of Challenges in PCB Stackups

01-25-2021

When he first started laying out printed circuit boards many years ago, Tim was working for a computer systems manufacturer whose PCB designs were all multilayer boards. While there were a great many things that I learned during my time working there, it also fostered one bad habit; He became accustomed to relying on being able to use multiple layers for routing instead of planning a more efficient layout. Here, he breaks it all down.

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2020

Tim’s Takeaways: PCB Vias, ‘You Have a Go’

11-13-2020

Do you remember the old TV show “Stargate SG-1?” With the exhortation of “SG-1, you have a go” from their commanding officer, the stargate would instantaneously transport an intrepid band of heroes to new and exciting locations each week. Tim Haag details his realization that the stargate is nothing more than a giant via in space!

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Tim’s Takeaways: Thermal Management for PCB Designers—Staying Out of the Fire

09-09-2020

If there’s one thing in life that really feels the pressure of being in the hot seat, it’s the PCBs that we design. But PCB designers often feel a lot of pressure while doing their work, which puts them squarely in the hot seat. Tim Haag shares four techniques in thermal management for PCB designers.

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Tim's Takeaways: Navigating Industry Expectations

05-29-2020

While some expectations are normal—and, well, expected—in the workplace, there are also those that do more harm than good. Tim Haag unpacks negative expectations and shares suggestions for improving communication in the workplace, as well as positive expectations that you can set for yourself.

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Tim’s Takeaways: Working From Home—5 Tips for Newbies

03-24-2020

Due to the COVID-19 outbreak, many people who have worked in an office environment for their entire career have suddenly found themselves shifted to working remotely. At first, this may seem like it isn’t that big of a change, but it may be a bigger deal than you realize. Tim Haag, who has worked from home for over 17 years, shares five tips for making the most of this situation and working successfully from home.

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Tim’s Takeaways: Clearing Up the Buzz

02-14-2020

My first “real” job in the world of electronics was working at a Radio Shack store back in the late ‘70s. It was a step up from flipping burgers, but it didn’t last long. However, there was one notable aspect of that job; I was there during the time that Radio Shack introduced its first personal computer—the TRS-80. Although it is practically unimaginable now, in those days, there wasn’t much in the way of personal computing available for the general consumer.

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2019

Tim's Takeaways: Realizing a Higher Standard for PCB Design

10-09-2019

To the untrained eye, one circuit board may look pretty much like any other, but as we know, there are major differences between them. Not only are they different in purpose and design but also in how they are manufactured for specific industries. If you are designing medical equipment, for instance, you will have to meet many different regulatory requirements from organizations, such as the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), World Health Organization (WHO), and International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC), among others.

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Tim's Takeaways: Clear Communication Takes the Cake

07-10-2019

Whether baking a cake or building a circuit board, it’s all about clear communication. If the person writing the recipe had not made the choice to clearly communicate what their intentions were for baking that cake, I would have been lost. A missing ingredient here or an incorrect oven temperature there and my birthday surprise would have ended up in the garbage in the same way a successfully built circuit board starts with clear communication from the designer. Circuit board manufacturers want to create a perfect PCB for you, but they can only do so to the extent of the instructions that you give them.

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Tim's Takeaways: Rules Keep You from Crossing the Line

06-20-2019

Driving rules are designed to keep drivers between the lines of traffic instead of crossing over those lines into dangerous situations. Similarly, design rules are also intended to keep PCB trace routing between the lines instead of crossing over them as well. But you might be surprised how many people refuse to use the full potential of their DRCs to protect themselves, and in some cases, refuse to use them at all.

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Tim's Takeaways: I Think I’ll Go for a Walk

04-08-2019

Many years ago, my boss at a PCB design service bureau had his own unique way of encouraging us to take a break. He would come through the design bay and call out in his deep baritone voice, “DARTS!” and we would all follow him into the break area for a quick game. In addition to the benefits of taking a break, forcing our eyes to focus in and out as we threw a dart was a great way to relieve us all from the eye strain of older CRT monitors.

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Tim's Takeaways: A Job Worth Doing

02-28-2019

I get it. We PCB designers are made of the kind of tough stuff where we will work ourselves to death if given the chance. But in our all of our efforts, are we really doing it right, or could we somehow be doing it better? Let’s take a moment to consider some other ways that we might help ourselves to improve.

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2018

Tim's Takeaways: Contract Positions—Go the Extra Mile

10-10-2018

For newbies just entering the industry or experienced designers who have always worked for a corporation, the transition to contractor can be a real culture shock. The allure of working from home and setting your own hours can quickly be replaced by the realities of chasing jobs and wondering where your next payday will come from. However, there are some wonderful aspects of working as a contractor that can make it very worthwhile.

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Tim's Takeaways: Where Have All the Designers Gone (and Who Will be Taking Their Place)?

08-17-2018

We have a lot to pass on to the new designers. We must stress the importance of understanding of the roots of our industry and why this design knowledge is important. I have worked with many designers who don’t understand anything about the output of their design files. They go through a procedure, hit a series of commands, and presto: The design files are all wrapped up in a neat little zip file ready to go out to the manufacturer. That’s all well and good, until something breaks or a manufacturer has a specific question. It would be a great thing to make sure that the designers of tomorrow understand what a Gerber file and an aperture list really is.

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Tim's Takeaways: Hiring the Right PCB Designer

06-04-2018

Like the rest of you, I’ve had times of unemployment, when your daily job is looking for work. You find yourself writing and then rewriting your resume, searching online forums and job search sites, and applying to every job that you can find. I’ve also hired people, and I know what hiring managers face. But hiring managers may be hurting their companies by drawing up a list of expectations so tight that highly qualified people may be slipping between the cracks.

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Will Cool Technology Attract the Next Generation of PCB Designers?

04-17-2018

If I had the opportunity to design some boards that went into medical detection equipment like my new blood pressure cuff, I would be extremely motivated to do that. Maybe what we should be focusing on is not just playing with the new toys, but showing the younger generation different ways to think about how they can improve upon these new toys.

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Customer Support: What do PCB Designers Really Want?

03-19-2018

First, let’s throw a leash around the elephant in the room. That’s my way of saying, “Here are some things that designers want, but we in the support business just can’t give it to them.” The first one that comes to mind: Customers have asked, manipulated, and even tricked me in their attempts to get free software.

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Tim's Takeaways: Good Support Isn’t Just for Customers

03-06-2018

I have been working in PCB CAD tools customer support for years and years, and it isn’t that often that the tables are turned and I have someone who is supporting me. I’ve got to say, it was a pleasure being the recipient of some quality support.

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2017

True Design Efficiency: Think Before You Click

10-09-2017

At the captive shops that I’ve worked with, where the designers were more involved in the entire design cycle and had better access to the corporate libraries, staff engineers, etc., the story was often the same. Some designers would jump into the deep end of the pool of design without any thought to drowning while others would be so busy lacing up their life preservers of preparation that they would take too long getting out of the shallows and into the depth of their design. So, what’s the best approach here?

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Tim's Takeaways: It Really Wasn’t My Fault

09-07-2017

I once received verbal instructions from an engineer who directed me to make a certain change. I didn’t think anything of it. Many months later, this same engineer told me that there were troubles with the board and all its successive versions because of the change that I had made. He ended up making it right in the end. But in hindsight, what could I have done to save myself a couple of months of suspense and worry?

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Tim's Takeaways: Stepping into the Great Unknown

08-16-2017

Many years ago, I was given the opportunity to switch my career path from senior circuit board designer to CAD systems administrator. I wasn’t certain that I wanted to give up the comfort of being a designer; after all, I had been one for a long time. But I knew that this transition would help my overall knowledge base of everything CAD-related, as well as better position me in my quest for a management position. So, I pulled the trigger and accepted the new job even though the idea of stepping into the great unknown like that was very intimidating.

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Tim's Takeaways: Design Tools of Tomorrow--A Real 'Marvel'

04-05-2017

Imagine if you could interact with your design as a hologram floating in front of you the way Tony Stark did in the movie "Iron Man." Wouldn’t it be amazing if you could pick a section on your holographic design with your hands and expand it to the point where you could peer into it, spin it around, and manipulate it as you desired? Want to push a trace down to a different layer? Just give it a nudge in the right direction and the holographic display changes it to the next layer. Don’t like the way a certain area fill looks? Then just grab it with your fingers and pull it out and throw it into the virtual garbage can.

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Tim's Takeaways: 'Sparks' to the Rescue in RF Design

01-03-2017

Just like the early days of radio where Sparks the radio specialist was in demand to get the job done, we now need RF specialists to work together with electrical engineers to create the intricate designs required for RF circuits. You are now Sparks, the go-to specialist who will take care of RF design business.

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2016

The Basics of Hybrid Design, Part 3

06-16-2016

The world of hybrid design is growing, and we have lots of hybrid-specific functionality built into our software that helps designers meet and conquer the unique hybrid design requirements that they are faced with. And yet many designers out there (and I used to be one of them) have no idea what is meant when people start talking about hybrid design.

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The Basics of Hybrid Design, Part 2

05-16-2016

In the first part of this series, we discussed the basics of hybrid design from the PCB designer’s perspective, and here we will continue that discussion.

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The Principles of Hybrid Design, Part 1

04-25-2016

What exactly is a hybrid design? We are seeing more and more of our customers exploring the world of hybrid design, and we are getting new customers for whom hybrid design is their sole focus. The world of hybrid design is growing and we have lots of hybrid-specific functionality built into our software that helps designers conquer the unique hybrid design requirements.

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2015

Tim's Takeaways: The Utility Belt

05-12-2015

The utility belt is a great thing to have. Batman would be long dead without his, and Tim “The Tool Man” Taylor would be useless without his. But for a circuit board designer, a utility belt is equally important. All of us at one time or another will have questions about the CAD system we use, and one essential tool to have in your utility belt is a list of people you can go to for help. At the top of this list should be your CAD system’s friendly customer support staff (like me).

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DFM: The PCB Designer as Arbitrator

04-08-2015

Design engineering is usually a combination of electrical and mechanical engineers. Although these two groups can have their own dramatic conflicts between each other, they will usually end up working together because they ultimately serve each other’s needs. But the manufacturing engineering requirements usually come from a completely different department or from an outside manufacturing vendor.

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2014

Like it or Not, You're a Role Model

12-24-2014

"During the years that I built my skills as a circuit board designer, many people helped shape my character. Some were impulsively brilliant at laying out a board, while others were steady and consistent in their approach to work, dotting every 'i' and crossing every 't.' But they were all patient with me, answering my questions, showing me the ropes, and setting good examples for me to follow," says Columnist Tim Haag.

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Blink and You Will Miss It

11-05-2014

Tim Haag writes, "Friedrich Nietzsche said, 'That which does not kill us makes us stronger.' Well, that adage certainly proved to be true in my situation. If I hadn't been ripped from my secure position and forced to contract for a short season, who knows how my future would have eventually unfolded. And if it hadn't been for that brief season of hardship, would I have had the strength and flexibility to succeed later on?"

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Tim's Takeaways: Blink and You Will Miss It

11-05-2014

Tim Haag writes, "Friedrich Nietzsche said, 'That which does not kill us makes us stronger.' Well, that adage certainly proved to be true in my situation. If I hadn't been ripped from my secure position and forced to contract for a short season, who knows how my future would have eventually unfolded. And if it hadn't been for that brief season of hardship, would I have had the strength and flexibility to succeed later on?"

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There Are No Stupid Questions

09-10-2014

Many of us who have been designing boards for years have had to deal with annoying questions from "the kids." You know who I mean: The rookies, newbies, greenhorns, or puppies just starting out in their design careers. We've all had to answer questions like, "Why is library development so important?" or "Why is solder mask green?"

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Tim's Takeaways: There Are No Stupid Questions

09-10-2014

Many of us who have been designing boards for years have had to deal with annoying questions from "the kids." You know who I mean: The rookies, newbies, greenhorns, or puppies just starting out in their design careers. We've all had to answer questions like, "Why is library development so important?" or "Why is solder mask green?"

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Design Rule Checks - For Your Protection

07-09-2014

Columnist Tim Haag writes, "I have designed multitudes of PCBs over the years, but I have a confession to make: It can be hard for me to run that final design rule check. I know that it is important, but at the end of a long design cycle, I just want to be done. I don't want to redo anything, and I sure don't want to look at my own errors. Do any of you feel that way?"

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Tim's Takeaways: Design Rule Checks - For Your Protection

07-09-2014

Columnist Tim Haag writes, "I have designed multitudes of PCBs over the years, but I have a confession to make: It can be hard for me to run that final design rule check. I know that it is important, but at the end of a long design cycle, I just want to be done. I don't want to redo anything, and I sure don't want to look at my own errors. Do any of you feel that way?"

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Customer Support: Not Just for Customers Anymore

06-04-2014

Columnist Tim Haag writes, "In my role as the customer support manager, I have seen plenty of examples of customer support. But my point here is not to focus on customer support as a function of a support technician. Instead, I want to explore the concept of how we should all strive to provide the best level of customer support in our jobs, no matter what we do."

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