Design Circuit: There Is No Knowledge That Is Not Power

Reading time ( words)

I’m starting this month’s column with an exercise in guided association. Let’s clear your thoughts and tie you to the moment: Listen to the sound of the wind, the whirring of your desk fan, or the hum of the fluorescent lighting. Do you feel grounded? Are you ready? If so, speak these three letters: IPC. 

Now, reflect on the other words that came into your head.

I bet you conjured up words like standards, specifications, committee meetings, CID, or something similar. And of course, this makes perfect sense—for decades, IPC and its committees have worked to become the premier standards body for global electronics manufacturing. However, if you’re like the many board designers I’ve spoken to since I arrived at IPC, the key phrase that probably did not come to your mind was continuing education. 

This month, I want to tell you why you absolutely should associate IPC with opportunities for continuing education. I will detail how IPC Education’s newest programs can empower you to grow as a printed board design professional and become more competitive in both your current job and the job market at large. 

First, I think it’s important to discuss why IPC cares so much about your professional growth. Put very simply, we exist for your success. Our mission statement declares, “IPC is dedicated to furthering the competitive excellence and financial success of the electronics industry.” A key part of achieving that goal is ensuring that employees have the knowledge and skills to compete in an ever-changing global marketplace. 

IPC Education exists to identify skill gaps in our industry and develop training materials to close those gaps. These materials start as a question posed to electronics engineers, tool operators, managers, designers, and other industry professionals around the world: where does a lack of knowledge and skills hamper you or your company’s ability to perform at a level that ensures your continued competitiveness and profitability? IPC Education, its learning specialists, and a team of industry experts work to answer this question by developing effective and engaging educational programs to meet its challenges. The end-users of these materials get the best of both worlds: industry experts who define and ensure the accuracy of the required knowledge and skills, and instructional experts who create meaningful learning experiences. 

Many of you already benefit from these educational programs. If you are CID or CID+ certified, it means the study materials you received before the examination were developed by IPC Education in conjunction with IPC Certification. But these materials extend past the CID and CID+ certifications. Over the past few years, IPC EDGE’s online learning platform has pushed the boundaries of what can be delivered to the electronics industry. IPC EDGE is an online learning management system that incorporates live video instruction, on-demand lectures, a central forum for all course materials, and built-in quiz and testing features that provide a robust virtual learning experience. 

The online training courses are targeted at a wide variety of sectors and supply chains within the electronics manufacturing industry. Popular courses include topics on ESD control, assembly courses for novice operators, and program management and process troubleshooting courses for managers and engineers. More germane to this publication, IPC EDGE now offers two very popular courses focused on printed board design engineering: “PCB Design Fundamentals I: Schematics” and “PCB Design Fundamentals II: Fabrication.” 

This past winter and spring, I took both courses on the fundamentals of PCB design. As someone with a background in materials physics for semiconductors, I went into these courses with more understanding of chip-level design than board-level design. And while I already had learned quite a bit about printed board design (specifically layout) by managing design-focused IPC standards development committees, I considered myself to be a novice. 

By the end of the course, I was pleasantly surprised at how quickly and by how much I came to understand the processes of board design—materials selection and stackup; strategic component placement; designing for manufacturing, cost, and testability; multiple signal integrity topics; design tool operation; the general fabrication workflow, and much more. It helped that the instructor, Kris Moyer, has decades of experience in board design and was more than willing to put in extra hours to help his students understand the concepts discussed in class. 

Both courses are undergirded by a hands-on design project that spans PCB Design Fundamentals I and II. This project tasks students with designing a data acquisition unit replete with FPGA and sensor bundles. The assignment is no small task, and both the project and course were genuinely challenging. But the payoff was well worth the effort, and the hours I put into the design tool while perfecting my layout—checking design rules, applying new concepts learned in class, racking my brain to intelligently re-pin and fan-out the FPGA—created a firm understanding of design that I now use when communicating with members of my standards development committees (or dazzling my non-engineering friends who still think that printed boards are little wafers of magic).

The classes I took consisted not only of novices like me but a dozen other individuals from across the industry who brought a wide range of educational backgrounds and industry experience. For example, there were electronics manufacturing veterans who had been designing boards for decades and wanted a refresher on more advanced topics like signal integrity and design tool usage. On the manufacturing side, there were fabricators who wanted to gain insight into the design process of the boards they were minting. I also noted there were individuals from across the organizational hierarchy—managers like myself, as well as individuals working in entry-level positions who wanted to gain a leg up on their competition. The diversity of the class made for interesting discussions, and Kris was quick to defer to individuals who possessed skill sets relevant to the lesson. 

Considering the diversity of the professional demographic who enroll, it is worth noting there are generally no hard prerequisites for IPC EDGE courses. For example, the only requirements for the PCB Design Fundamentals I course is a general understanding of electronic components (capacitors, resistors, inductors, etc.) and a basic familiarity with board-design ECAD tools. However, I will say that while I was much more comfortable with mechanical CAD software upon starting the course, I was hot-keying my way around the design tool in no time. This is probably because the tool is so user-friendly, due in no small part to the course instructor’s expertise. 

Rather than bask in the success of these courses, the IPC Education team, and its ensemble of industry savants and educational experts, are just getting started. The PCB Design Fundamentals I course is starting up its summer term, and, later this year, IPC Education will debut courses that are a bit more specialized than this one. The syllabi of these courses generally build off the topics covered in the PCB Design Fundamentals courses and include design for military/aerospace applications, rigid-flex design, design for extreme environments, and advanced packaging concepts. 

I actually have my hands on the syllabus for the advanced packaging course—the perks of being IPC staff—and I’m excited for what’s in store. Students will learn about compressing circuit topology to suit next-generation, high-density form factors, all while maintaining signal integrity. There are lessons devoted to the use of microvias and sequential lamination to build HDI designs, as well as how to synthesize these advanced techniques into building high-component-density circular or non-standard geometry boards. It sounds like this course is going to be a lot of fun! More importantly, this advanced packaging course—and all the current and upcoming printed board design-focused IPC EDGE courses—will be a worthwhile and valuable addition to any printed board designer’s toolkit. More than that, they are valuable to any member of the electronics engineering manufacturing supply chain who wants to improve through continuing education. 

Again, there’s that magical phrase—continuing education. 

While I doubt you will undergo forced word-associations anytime soon, I hope I’ve planted a new synonym to IPC—continuing education—in your head and that you will explore the options for professional development available through IPC. At the very least, I hope you will embrace the philosophy that guides Carlos Plaza, IPC Education’s director of education development, as you go about your daily life. When I talked with him for this article, he said, “The rapidly changing world of work makes lifelong learning essential to our personal and professional success. That is what drives me to action. Every day, I look forward to applying empirically-tested insights into how people actually learn to create training programs that truly meet the needs of our constituents.” Be like Carlos: wake up every day excited for what you can learn and the value it will add to your own life, your company, and the industry as a whole.

Now, take another moment and listen to the breeze, your fan, or the hum of your overhead lights. Ask yourself, “What can I learn today?” If the answer involves brushing up on your layout skills or learning something new about via-in-pad construction or some other printed board design topic, then IPC can help you. 

Regardless of where you go or who helps you on your journey of continuing education, heed the words of Ralph Waldo Emerson: “Skill to do comes of doing; knowledge comes by eyes always open, and working hands; and there is no knowledge that is not power.”

This column originally appeared in the July 2020 issue of Design007 Magazine.



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