When AltiumLive launched last year, John R. Watson, CID, of Legrand signed up as an instructor. He’ll be presenting at this week’s AltiumLive in San Diego as well. John leads a team of PCB designers at Legrand, and one of their latest tasks has been beta testing Altium’s new Nexus product management tool.
I spoke with John recently about his AltiumLive class, and the state of PCB design. He also discussed a few tricks for designing boards with components that are currently on an 80-week lead time, and why this problem is likely to get worse before it gets better.
Andy Shaughnessy: John, why don't you just give a real quick background about yourself and Legrand, and then we'll talk about AltiumLive.
John Watson: Sure. I'm a PCB designer and I’ve been in that field for about 20 years now. I came from a background of an electronic technician so I kind of worked my way up the ranks. I've been at Legrand now for three years and we are a building control systems company. We basically concentrate on lighting, shades and different controls that would be in a house or a home or residential or commercial.
I'm their senior PCB engineer, and I have about a group of about 50 designers that I work with throughout the world. Most of those are in China, as well as the East Coast and a few in Europe. They keep me busy!
Shaughnessy: I understand you guys are doing the beta testing for Altium Nexus.
Watson: Yes, it is been a fantastic experience. We started beta testing five or six months ago and we have really opened up some new areas for us in the sense that we basically had to reorganize how we do things. I've been with Altium since 1998, when it was Protel, and I have just grown up with Altium. They have really stepped out of the PCB design area and that includes the Nexus project management system, and I'll tell you, my project managers here are very excited about it. With Nexus, we're able to look at our process, where boards are and where we're at, and different things that are going on. We're able to tell exactly who's responsible for what, where things are getting snagged, and know how to push projects forward. So it's been a real interesting six months for us because we've had to go back and reexamine how we do things and how we should document this.
Shaughnessy: When it comes to project management, how is Nexus helping you?
Watson: In Nexus, we're able to sit down and set up a design flow chart and determine the flow of this project. Basically with PCB design, it is pretty cookie cutter. We go through the same process and we go through the same steps and things like that. So we're able to set down a design flow and it's basically just that: a flow chart of processes. Along the way then, we’re able to apply certain forms and certain data to that process. For example, if we're finishing up on the schematic side of a project we can then stop the project and do a design review. That design review can be a form that we put into the Nexus system. We assign certain people certain tasks and they then can electronically sign off on these things through the Nexus system.
So that has really streamlined our design review process. Basically what we can do is we are actually documenting and putting up a kind of a visual view of our process. I work with a lot of different designers at different levels and I always enjoy getting that new designer that says, "I'm a test technician or I'm working in another area but I want to learn PCB design." I love that. The mentoring opportunity is very exciting for me. So this is a great tool that I can sit down with them with and say, "Here is your flow chart. This is your process that you're going to go through and here are your forms, and here are the things you should be looking at on your checklist. Just double-check here and here and make sure everything's okay." I'm using it as a teaching aid for the younger PCB designers that are coming up.
Shaughnessy: It's good to hear you talking about mentoring. I know that most companies have gotten away from mentoring.
Watson: Exactly. I've heard two metaphors: It's like changing the tires on the bus while it's moving or drinking from a fire hose. There's been a lot of discussion in the PCB industry for many years now about how they're expecting probably in the next several years that more and more designers are going to be retiring. They're just going to be leaving and there is going a short fall of designers out there. I'm taking that to heart and I put myself out there for mentoring and writing and different things to try to help and try to mentor the younger group coming up.
Because I find PCB design one of the most exciting new areas in my life. It is just unbelievably exciting. It's always changing. If you look back 10 years ago of the industry and where we've come it is unbelievable. Some of the things that are coming down the pipe are just fantastic to be a part of. The whole technology is just blowing up right now, it's fantastic.
Shaughnessy: With all the 5G and autonomous cars coming online, it's a really exciting time.
Watson: It is absolutely unbelievable. In fact, one of my discussions I'm going to be doing at AltiumLive will be regarding the huge paradigm that's happening right now in the entire electronic industry. We're seeing a real problem of component shortages. It’s because of three industries. It's because of the IoT industry. They're expecting to have 2 billion new products into homes in the next few years where everything in the home will be controlled. The other two areas are the mobile phone industry and the automobile industry. Those three alone are really driving a lot of the part component shortages right now. That's going to be kind of a real problem headed for us here in a bit. We're in the middle of it now, but it's going to get worse.
Shaughnessy: Let's say you have a product coming out next Christmas. How do you design for that? We’ve talked to people who say some of these components are nine months out.
Watson: We actually have lead times for components that are 80 weeks. You can't prepare. One of the things that I'm going to mention next week is don't start with a bad design. You can't design in a part hoping that maybe this part will be available.
I've started seeing some creative things. We actually have our strategy here that we've been using of going off the path of regular, typical design techniques. Meaning this, one of the biggest shortages we're having is with capacitors. One of the capacitors we're having a lot of problems with is the .1 microfarad, the most common bypass cap available. What we're starting to do is if we can put it into our design to be flexible on values, voltages, tolerances, anything we can; we're getting it out of that norm. We're getting it out of that mainstream value and parameters and we're seeing that we're actually able to find parts that are out there that are not in that mainstream of parts that we have that are out there that are available.
We've gotten creative with our designs, but also I think a lot of times we were over designing some of our products. And I think a lot of companies do. I've been talking to a lot of assembly houses recently in preparation for AltiumLive and they see of a lot of designs that come through that don't require such a high level of tolerances, for example. They have a 0-ohm resistor with a .1% tolerance, but it’s not necessary. One of the things that I'm really pushing on our designers is to keep in mind what we're building and the class that we're building.
So, we can go with a 5%, or we'll go with a 10%. Those parts are out there and we kind of sidestepped the entire problem by doing that. Because it's just vicious out there right now with components. It's absolutely unbelievable.
Shaughnessy: And people are just stockpiling components, right? What else can you do?
Watson: Yeah. Once you're into a vendor, they now have special guidelines. They've switched over to allocation where they're now rationing out their components. Once you get into that, then the companies are just panicking. That's the best word I can come up with, panicking. They're doubling and tripling their orders and they're just stockpiling. Exactly right.
We have a tool in Altium called Active BOM that lets you check your parts and basically go out and check your vendors and see what their recommendations are as far as if this is a good part or not. That's sort of in connection with this little talk's about. It's a nightmare. It's really opened my eyes to really how bad it was. I knew it was out there, but I didn't realize how bad it was.
Shaughnessy: You taught at last year's AltiumLive, which drew hundreds of designers. What did you think of their inaugural show?
Watson: We had a great time. Last year I was talking about Altium Vault, which was the precursor to the Nexus system, and basically more of the organization of Altium and how we can use it to better improve our designs.
Shaughnessy: Are you going to be at the Munich show in January?
Watson: I will. I am very excited about Munich. That's going to be great. I think Europe might outdo San Diego in the United States this year. That would be great. I'm really excited about the interest and how the response has been for these events.
Shaughnessy: Is there anything that you want to mention that we haven't talked about?
Watson: Last year when I first heard Altium was going to do a convention, I was in the middle of doing beta testing on Altium 18. So I knew they were going to be doing this release and my first thought really was, “I sure hope this doesn't turn into a two-day commercial for Altium 18.” They sit you down there and give you demos and tell them how great this product's going to be, etc., etc. I was absolutely delighted when that didn't happen. This turned into something I don't even think Altium was expecting last year. I kind of just sat back and watched this.
There was such camaraderie and friendships that were being developed and team building and different aspects of this whole conference. Over two days, there was just a phenomenal growth because we're all from different levels. It wasn't like this was just for the experts. This was where everybody was able to benefit from it. They had probably two or three sessions of Altium 18. But the rest of it was made up of team-building and learning about printed circuit boards, and that's the same way it's going to be this year. I almost don’t consider this an Altium convention.
Shaughnessy: I see they added this University Day at the beginning just so that if you wanted Altium stuff, there it is, but the rest of the event would not be vendor-specific at all. It's not just a user group.
Watson: I will be speaking at University Day this year. I'm very excited about that also. But as I said, I would not even have called this an Altium convention; this is a convention of fellow PCB designers that have come together and they're just getting away from their work. Kind of getting away from all that and concentrating on themselves and on their careers and just taking care of themselves, you know?
Because with PCB design you're always learning something new. It's a never-ending task. It's not where you can wake up one morning and you've arrived. It's always learning. And just about the time that you've learned it and you think you've got it nailed down it changes. You've got new technologies or different things like that. New parts that come out, new problems, new issues. Keeping people trained and keeping them up to speed on those sort of things is vital.
I've noticed several changes recently in PCBs. There seems to be a lot of discussion now about high-speed design, the DDRs and the length tuning and all of that. I've been reading a lot with the automotive industry that there's actually going to be a push towards high-power stuff. And I think there's a gap there. Everyone's been kind of lost in this high-speed stuff because it's cool. As far as the high-power stuff, I find even a lot of the EEs have issues with it because they're unaware of the compliance and the requirements and different things like that and how that impacts the PCB design.
I think in the future, high power is going to hit the PCB area a little bit of a broadside, because they've been concentrating so much on the sleek and the shiny stuff that they’ve lost the direction of going to the high-power stuff.
Shaughnessy: It's a really good time for us. I remember designers complaining about EDA tools for years and years. But what else do you want the tools to do?
Watson: I actually just wrote about that in a white paper. It’s the belief that the PCB software area is like the trailer on the back-end of the truck. I don't believe that. I believe that the EDA industry has taken the lead. I remember years ago sitting down with a calculator and determining what the height and the frequency of a trace would have to be to determine the length based on the miter angle, etc. Now you type in a number and you scale it out and, BAM, there it is. I keep trying to remind Altium that some of us do get paid by the hour out here (laughs). We push the button and it starts running. We go get our coffee, come back and it's all finished. We're having to come up with new excuses about why it takes so long. The tools are unbelievable.
Altium has constantly kept shocking me. They come up with new things. You're going to see in Altium 19 some brand new things that are just mind-blowing because now they have a whole new platform to work with going from 32-bit up to 64-bit. And boy, they are now just really ramping it up.
I'm going to sound like a marketing guy, but now Altium is sitting in a fantastic position and I think they are the leader in the industry. The fact that they have the engineers behind them means they're well ahead of jumping on the next new thing.
Shaughnessy: Thanks for your time today, John. Maybe we can meet up in San Diego.
Watson: Thanks, Andy. I’d like that.
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