Why EDA Component Creation is Broken

How painful and frustrating is it to stop working on a new hardware design because the component you need to add isn’t already in your parts library?  Not only do you need to switch your train of thought from being creative to being meticulous in transcribing the part details and designing a symbol and footprint, but you’re also aware of the fact that you’re going to have to check and re-check to make sure you did it 100% perfectly.  Since the design work and the sanity check are both prone to human error, there is a tremendous inherent risk involved with the undertaking of adding and using a new part.  This makes the whole process tedious and cumbersome, but necessary.

The first thought that then runs through your mind is, “Can I offload this work?” Of course, if you work for a large company with a big budget, you can just tell some intern to design the part for you, or outsource it to a company that specializes in part creation, but you’re still groaning inwardly at the prospect of re-checking the design once it is done.  Finding an online parts library to download will also sometimes save you some time, but again, re-checking the parts is necessary to maintain your sanity, especially from a mysterious online source.

Most people don’t have those luxuries, and if (and invariably when) they make a mistake and manufacture the PCB they have to eat the cost of a re-spin, delay shipping their product and have a difficult conversation with their manager.  Re-spins take time, cost money and as a result kill thousands of dollars in profit. This makes the risk of a re-spin kill a manager’s sleep.   This puts pressure on the design engineer to attempt to avoid that risk by spending more time manually re-checking designs and kills his or her life.  Working as a hardware designer tasked with designing parts is akin to working as a court stenographer, except even they are being automated out of business.

Maybe there are some easier “parts problems” to tackle… Like, why do we share part data sheets and not the designs for the schematic symbol and PCB footprint?  Or, if I go to the effort of finding the data sheet, why can’t my software magically create my part for me?  A standard file format is probably not in keeping with the business model for part suppliers or the various desktop EDA tool companies.  Speaking of which, why are so many people still using desktop software for this?  If more designers used a cloud-based tool that made collaboration and sharing this kind of information easier, wouldn’t that be a good first step?  In that collaborative forum, we could keep track of how many times a certain part was used which would give a numerical value to the risk in using the part design, saving time spent on re-checking it.

There has to be a better way.  A large majority of innovation has been centered around the idea of eliminating human error to drive efficiency and cost savings. Automated textile manufacturing in the 18th century helped drive the industrial revolution.  “Spell check”, something almost everyone with a computer takes for granted, first arrived on personal computers in the 1980s.  Google is now creating self-driving autos that eliminate the human error from driving a car! You’d think we could figure out a way to eliminate human error from designing schematic symbols and PCB footprints!

Self-driving cars? Yes.  Verified Parts Creation Service? No.

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What do you think?  Does designing new components irk you the way it does me?  Do you find the work of designing a new part empty, hollow, tedious and wasteful?  Do you lie awake at night worrying if the pads on the PCB footprint you (or your intern) created are the wrong size?

Let us know in the comments section below…

Where are the Electrical Engineering jobs?

You’ve toiled away at school and earned yourself a shiny degree in electrical engineering. So where are the jobs? While there are many different factors that come into play when looking for a job that’s right for you, picking an area that employs a huge number of electrical engineers might be a good place to start.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the state that employs the most electrical engineers is (no surprise) California, with the most densely populated region being San Jose, Sunnyvale, and Santa Clara. Check out our map below for a state by state overview!

The Bureau is releasing the latest edition of the Occupational Outlook Handbook later this month so stay tuned for our in-depth breakdown of the current salary, demand, and occupational growth of electrical engineering positions!


Acquisitions in Hardware

6 Things they don’t teach you in school about being a hardware engineer

6 Things they don't teach you in school about being a hardware engineer

1. School gets you half way there. The rest is self-driven.

There’s really no school for hardware design. I’ve gotten way more out of self-directed learning than sitting in a classroom. Make sure to learn from mentors, regularly read articles written by industry experts, attend seminars, read white papers from big semi companies, and participate in forums. It’s good to look beyond what you think you know. Don’t just assume the way you’ve been doing it is the best way. The degree of collaboration and knowledge-sharing in hardware pales in comparison to the software world.

2. Mistakes are valuable.

Even if it takes you 7 days to figure out, causes hair loss, and many sleepless nights, you’ll come out of it way more equipped with hardware knowledge than before.

3. Every problem has a solution. Every single one.

That doesn’t mean you’ll like the solution. But it exists. And if you keep plugging away methodically, trying things, experimenting, trusting your intuition, seeking help when you can, a clue will appear that will ultimately be the turning point in figuring out a problem. Remembering this has helped me get through some despondent times when I was stuck on deep FPGA timing problems, power supply start up issues, and signal integrity mysteries.

4. Power supply problems can be like the chicken-or-the-egg conundrum.

Fixing a power supply problem can be extremely tricky. While debugging, you can be damaging your board and changing the very thing that you’re debugging. And just because a section of the board powered up and started to work, doesn’t mean it will continue to work.

Try to choose power supply devices that are debug-friendly (i.e. a digital controller that you can read status from). Be methodical and power up each supply one by one. Build in debugging test-points for all important circuit nodes and pins on controller chips. Power-up LEDs are super helpful. This way, fixing the problem won’t be like untangling one long piece of string.

5. Never underestimate the value of good hand-soldering skills.

Just like it doesn’t make sense to go to fashion school and not learn how to hand-sew, not knowing how to hand-solder will come with many limitations. You’re going to come across a number of instances where you’ll have to rework your board: parts have to be removed and replaced, passives have to be changed, jumpers have to be added, etc. Knowing how to solder by hand will open up a number of new debugging channels for you, allowing you to pinpoint problems more effectively.

6. There’s great knowledge value in imparting what you know to others.

Nurture a co-op student or intern. Teach them everything you know. You’ll be surprised at how hard it is to support and explain what you’ve always understood to be true. Not only will this be valuable for the listener, but verbally walking through things will deepen your own comprehension on the topic.

How 3D printing is changing the hardware revolution

How 3D printing is changing the hardware revolution

In the past 5 years there has been a huge swing in the popularity of 3D printers in the startup, maker and hobbyist communities. With the release of the Reprap – the first ever self-replicating ‘manufacturing’ machine – and Makerbot, thousands of 3D printers have followed to fundamentally change the world and face of the hardware revolution.


Rapid prototyping

3D printing’s most obvious benefit would be its ability to rapidly prototype an idea. Taking lead time from weeks to hours has changed the capital and time cost of prototyping a product. So far, the results have been profound. Never before have you been able to “compile” your project to real life. Ideas are becoming a real thing with the click of a button. With more iterations comes faster innovation.


Access and affordability to the masses

With Open Source 3D printers hitting the market, the price to own a printer has dropped an order of magnitude, making it actually practical to have your own prototyping machine. Just like when the printer (the regular paper variety) became a household item, 3D printers are changing the mindset of what you can do on your own. This is everything from making hard-to-order parts to an army of toy soldiers. Or building your own house. Some Dutch architects have already started the first 3D printed house in Amsterdam!


Open source industrial design

Think grabCAD and Thingiverse. Communities of designers have flourished from the plummeting cost of having something printed in conjunction with the explosion of free and open designs. Much like early open software libraries, open CAD models are making industrial design a collaborative industry where new products are freely created, while repetitive designs are crowd-sourced.


Manufacturing closer to home

The advantage of manufacturing in Asia is price. With the drop in equipment cost and minimal need for human interaction, the value gap is steadily closing. In the coming years, expect industrial manufacturing to move closer to where it is actually designed and being sold.


What’s next? 5 industries to be widely disrupted

The way we design and build electronics has already changed and will continue to evolve a tremendous amount: Printing circuit boards at home, not relying on an obscure manufacturer in China, etc. But other verticals will benefit from the technology and many of them have already started using it at a wide scale.

  1. Food

    Anything that exists in liquid or powder form can now be printed. That translates to around 75% of the ingredients that are most commonly used in industrial food supply chains today. Next Christmas, sales guys will 3D print chocolates and send them to their best clients (if they haven’t already started). Soon, making kids eat their veggies will not be an issue as their meals will be shaped like their favorite superhero. Disruption it is!

  2. Health / Medicine

    Taking 3D printers and combining it with other sciences is really, really cool. Take an emerging technology and combine it with leading edge science and you get magic: 3D printed organs and the first 3D printed skull… enough said.

  3. Military

    Replacement parts

    When you’re stuck in an isolated place where FedEx can’t deliver the replacement parts you need for the Apache, printing them on-site will be the fastest and cheapest way to move on. Roger that.

    On the flip side, the fact that 3D printed guns became a reality is probably one of the most scary consequence of the printers’ spread. And the first gun that was made – the Liberator – is both dangerous when it works and when it doesn’t.

  4. Toys

    Remember as a kid when you thought about all the cool upgrades you could apply to your toys? Kids won’t have to experience this frustration of never being able to play with a Spiderman action figure that wears a green cape, has a black horse, and a huge laser gun.

    They will just download open source models, modify them and 3D print them. Broken? No tears. Just press Cmd+P!

  5. Automotive

    I was on the phone with Don Carli the other day and we talked about 3D printing applications to the automotive industries. He told me BMW was already doing it, which surprised me a little, but it makes a lot of sense. Bentley also 3D prints small and very complex parts for their new models.

Changing the way manufacturing is done will benefit a number of different industries as well as economies . They will no doubt become faster and more agile as 3D printing becomes more precise and affordable.

Resistance to Schematic and Layout Review

Resistance

The team lead or line manager enters the room and calls a department meeting or a design review session. Suddenly, almost everyone on the team starts mumbling or reacting with groans.

You’ve probably all experienced this situation. As a hardware guy, you have little tolerance for interruption, especially for long and tedious meetings that impede your productivity. The idea of having to sit and listen to other people discussing a blurry projected schematic, or working through a printed PDF booklet just so that your design-challenged colleague at the other end of the room can find out what he’s doing wrong, can be really upsetting.

The concept of design review has been around for a long time. Everyone knows the value of double-, even triple-checking your work (think back to elementary school). Every discipline has worked out a formal or informal collaborative process for checking and validating work: Writers have editors, accountants have auditors, and software engineers came up with pair programming a decade ago.

Software’s got it right.

There used to be a time when the conceptual design phase for software development lasted much longer than it does today. But it eventually became widely recognized that the static, non-iterative model of development (school teachers call it the waterfall model) was not effective in producing quality products on a competitive schedule.

So software development evolved to what it is today: agile and iterative. Its rapidly-changing nature creates continuous opportunities where peer code review is valuable and necessary for quality results.

In the same light, regular peer schematic and layout reviews should be seen as a logical component in the hardware development process. Some direct benefits to incremental design review include:

  • Fewer defects and errors in final design
  • More errors caught early on when they’re cheaper to fix
  • Improved communication and knowledge about design content (bus factor)
  • Mentorship of junior members of the team

And some longer-term, indirect benefits:

  • Lower number of revisions & re-spins
  • Faster time-to-market
  • Less time spent on debugging

Egos, isolationists and crappy toolsets.

Reading those lists of benefits, it should be a no-brainer to implement design review into the development cycle of every project. And yet, many hardware companies still don’t have peer review as a regular and mandatory part of their design process. Why? There are two very straightforward answers when you dig into the basics of human psychology.

  1. Ego
  2. Outdated reviewing methods

Let’s start with ego. We’re talking about hardware engineers right now but this applies to a vast majority of people at their workplace. We naturally feel like our work is an extension of ourselves. Someone judging our work is like having them judging us.. Two different types of people/engineers emerge at this point: The first class consists of collaborators, team players, and those who see it as constructive. When confronted with a problem they can’t solve, they will naturally turn towards a peer who knows the answer. For these guys, peer review is a beneficial process.

The second class is made up of isolationists. When confronted with a problem they can’t solve, they would rather unproductively try to find a workaround for hours (even days) rather than reach out to their peers for help. These guys can’t admit that someone else may know something they don’t.

Attitude over aptitude

In 2002, it was reported that the average career in high-tech lasts around 8 years. The isolationists are doomed for a shorter one, as their body of knowledge exclusively lies in what they are able to figure out on their own.

Overinflated egos can’t be good team players because their faculty to share with and learn from others is impaired. On the other hand, collaborators showing a continuous interest in learning will increase and sharpen their skills, remaining productive (and employable) in a constantly-changing field.

Design review can be painless.

Reviewing hardware designs has not been commonly included in the standard development cycle in a majority of companies for another reason: The tools are not adapted. PDFs, projectors, meeting rooms and highlighters are completely outdated ways of reviewing design. Back-and-forth email threads and over-the-shoulder methods are also inefficient and a waste of time. The key is to introduce a technique which allow each member to contribute to a review when they’re focused and willing to do it. It also shouldn’t include an archaic, middle-step that slows down the execution of fixes.

If you’re thinking about implementing an efficient design review process within your team, let us know. We’re happy to help. There’s no longer an excuse to not review designs!

Doin’ It Right: Engineering hardware like you engineer software.

Engineer hardware like you engineer software

When software engineers have a problem with their engineering process, they solve it by writing software. Other engineering disciplines have it harder. Lacking instant automation, other fields accumulate ‘rules of thumb’ that they hope to maintain throughout the design process.

So it’s hardly surprising that the tools and processes software engineers invent for themselves emerge years before they enter mainstream engineering design thinking.

Tools like version control were among the first systems created by software engineers out of sheer necessity. Others have defaulted to elaborate workarounds, exchanging updated documents by email and tracking changes by adding version numbers to the file name.

But software engineering has so much more to offer: a culture of re-usability, team-based development, test suites, and code review. Few of these have seen application in full-force outside the discipline of software.


Why?

Because the rest don’t know what they’re missing. If the epitome of hardware engineering is to single-handedly design an entire board or module over several weeks and send it to manufacturing, it’s easy to forget what the world might look like if other talented colleagues were a part of the process. What if others could start incorporating your module into their design while you complete the layout? What if
they could run your latest test suite – or design rules – against their design to guarantee compliance? What if everyone on your team could continuously review the unfolding design, layer-by-layer, from their desk, and highlight problematic areas?

Did it ever occur to anyone that the idea of printing a picture of every layer of a circuit board on paper was ridiculous?

More than ever, hardware today requires engineers with wide expertise to be successful. Your RF guy, video guy and processor guy need to be able to work meaningfully together, in real-time. Because it’s not 1997 anymore.


Forward.

Upverter’s product suite is designed to address this problem. How can we lend hardware engineers the same empowering boost that software engineers were able to construct for themselves thirty years ago? How can we enable hardware engineers to be more agile?

Of course, they are different domains. Shipping software to the web is a considerably less risky prospect than shipping a prototype to manufacturing. But if more is at stake, we should be doubling down on tooling, on automated testing, on collaborative review. Even if the cost of prototyping isn’t problematic (and it often is), the opportunity cost is astronomic.

What if you could halve your number of pre-manufacturing prototypes? What if design review wasn’t a meeting to be dreaded by the team, but a routine, straightforward daily activity? What would this do to your competition?

Ultimately, shipping should be a celebration, not a fear. It should be a moment of certainty, of success, of comfort that you and everyone on the team has had total insight into the evolution of the product, and that every issue has been tracked, identified, and addressed.

And we think we can get there.

4 Reasons to do a Better Job at Design Review

On this blog, we often point out analogies between hardware and software development. Here’s one such analogy: just as it has become easier to write software thanks to technology, behavioural evolution, and better processes, new tools have appeared that make it easier for hardware engineers to design better devices.In this post, we want to talk about one of these tools: schematic and layout design review. Design review is code review for hardware. It is the stage in the design cycle when one’s work is peer-reviewed for errors.

We were curious to know how companies implemented their design review process and what tools they used to achieve it. So we ran a survey over the last few weeks and talked to 400 engineers worldwide from all over the spectrum: big firms, startups, medium-size businesses, and so on. Surprisingly, we realized that in the era of advanced technology the most commonly used tools for design review were… highlighters, red pens, printed PDFs, and meeting rooms. One of the most elaborate devices used to complete design review must have been a projector or a laser pointer. Nothing really innovative there!

Having reflected on the survey, we came to the following conclusions.

1 – You already know the value of design review

Drawing a schematic is basically an exercise in carefully reading datasheets, app notes, and reference designs to learn how to best connect up each component for your application. This is in addition to all of the work involved in developing the top-level architecture for your board and selecting components to meet the product requirements. Each of these steps is an opportunity to make a mistake.

Every seasoned hardware engineer has had the experience of spending many frustrating hours debugging something on their prototype only to discover the root cause was a careless error in the schematic or layout that should have been caught earlier. This results in wasted time, a costly board spin, or worse, being completely blocked from testing a particular part of your board. Every hardware engineer knows that after spending many weeks working on the same schematic you’re simply unable to see errors any more. You need a fresh set of eyes to take a look. This is what design review delivers.

2 – There are all sorts of reasons that people fail at design review.

It’s well-known that design review isn’t done effectively right now. 75% of the engineers we spoke with told us they are well aware that they needed to do a better job at design review. Similarly, 71% of our beloved guinea-pigs described their process as ‘inefficient’, 23% found it truly ‘painful’, and only 6% were happy with their current tools and processes. The interesting question is why this is the case.

Our survey has revealed that: In order to really add value via design review you have to understand the product requirements, carefully read all of the datasheets/app notes/reference designs, understand what the designer is trying to accomplish, and then look for errors. If you don’t read the datasheets and get into the mind of the designer, you don’t add much value because then you’re only able to find the really obvious mistakes (like a power pin being unconnected), which are much less likely to be present. Design review requires you to spend a certain minimum amount of time which can easily be a few days for complex designs.

To that end a colleague is often asked to look at the design at the very end of the process, making the design appear large and daunting. As a result, the colleague, who is very busy him or herself, feels rushed and simply skims over the design and datasheets. They may not thoroughly focus on each section. Often the team culture doesn’t accept, nor encourage, an engineer to dedicate a few consecutive days to design review.

Another familiar scenario is a designer completing a schematic, sending it out to the team for review, scheduling a meeting with everyone a few days later, and everyone showing up to the meeting without having looked at the schematic! Everyone expected to talk about the design as a team. This approach is not as valuable. With layout it’s even worse. A completed layout, especially one with 8+ layers, can be so complicated that’s it’s too daunting and difficult to review all at once at the end. Finally, a lack of tools to streamline the process is the most prominent reason that companies skip design review or is the most likely reason for why they fail at design review (think back to those red pens and meeting rooms).

3- Design review shouldn’t be a separate task in the design cycle.

The best way to do design review, in our humble opinion, is to set up an incremental design review process. A short review should be done after each component (or small group of components) is placed on the schematic or layout and is mostly connected. This task is much more manageable for busy engineers. It may only take 1 hour or less to go over the datasheet and check for mistakes. It lets engineers ask questions early about design decisions. And best of all, when the design is finished and ready for final review, all team members are already familiar with every part of the design and will be much more effective at reviewing. In other words, we suggest distributing the review time throughout the design process instead of doing it all at the end. To dig into the analogy with software development, can you imagine writing an entire application and reviewing the whole code base at the end? This wouldn’t make much sense. And the claim that incremental design review works is not just a hypothesis: 97% of companies that implemented an incremental design review process in their standard design cycle found more defects on average than teams that did not. Even better, 72% had one less board revision.

Incremental design review needs to be instilled in the team culture. Managers need to foster an environment where mistakes are okay. Engineers shouldn’t feel uncomfortable putting their work up for incremental review. There needs to be a very supportive team culture where it’s understood that the primary goal is to create the best product possible and become better designers along the way. Mistakes should be celebrated (as long as they’re only made once) because you learn something really important with each mistake.

4 – Current design review tools may as well be from the Middle Age

Ok, this one may be a bit extreme but… red pens, and (non 3D) printed PDFs are probably the most inefficient tools to achieve a proper design review. Why? Because if you annotate and comment on printed PDFs then it’s likely that one poor dude will have to go back and fix all the defects. And he’s probably going to get several copies of the design with different issues pointed on each of them. Then he’s supposed to summarize all of it and adjust the design with as little delay as possible. With this approach, how do you understand design decisions? How do you keep track of what remains to be fixed? How does someone other than the overwhelmed designated-victim assess the project status and define an ETA?

But don’t panic, it is definitely not your fault. Nor your manager’s. There are currently no good tools for design review especially if you want to do incremental design review. Actually, that’s not true: there is now one tool to do this. Its called Upverter. But this is not the right time or place to talk about this 🙂