Rick Hartley is Bullish on PCB Design, 3D Printing

Tim Haag, Consultant | 10-31-2018

At the recent PCB West in Silicon Valley, I met with long-time design industry veteran Rick Hartley to discuss the changing landscape of circuit board design, the layout designers of the future, and how designers can benefit from 3D printing of circuit boards.

Tim Haag: Rick, I have seen and enjoyed your writings and teachings for years, but for those people out there that maybe don't know you as well, could you give us a little bit of background?

Rick Hartley: Sure. First of all, thank you for saying that. I started in 1965 as a technician right out of college. I had a two-year degree at that time, working in the R&D department of a major corporation. I spent a couple of years there and then moved to a small company. At the small company, I started night school to pick up an engineering degree. I worked for a while in field service, for a while in R&D, and did a lot of different things. Eventually, I became an EE. Along the way I designed a few circuit boards and somehow, about 12 years into my career, I was asked by the company if I would be willing to help with some circuit board layout because I was the only person in the company, other than our layout guy, that had any experience with circuit boards. I said, "Sure. Why not?"

I spent half of my week designing boards and the other half designing circuits. I did that for about six months and decided that I preferred circuit board design to circuit design, so 41 years ago, I became a full-time circuit board designer. I moved to other companies, but that's how it all started. I began life as a technician, became an EE and eventually a board designer. The irony is that I believed that being an EE and understanding circuit theory would make me a better board designer, but it did not help at all. I had so many new disciplines to master: design for fabrication, assembly, test, and repair, thermal analysis, etc. My circuit theory training was basically useless. It came in handy later but did not help much in the early years.

Haag: Today, you teach these classes, and you also do contract work.

Hartley: Yes, mainly those two things. Once I became a board designer, I first worked in the industrial control market. I went from that to the computer industry for a while in the '80s, and then eventually into aerospace, telecommunications, and back to aerospace.

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That's how I got to where I am. I started having signal integrity problems in boards back in the late 1980s, and once that happened, I was forced to figure out what was going on and why. That's how I got started in this whole teaching thing. I went to a conference and heard people asking, "What do I need to do about this kind of problem? I have no idea what's going on." I realized that I had some knowledge, not much, but I had some knowledge in that area. So I thought, "Why shouldn't I put together a class so I can help people learn this stuff?" That's how it all started. That was back in the early '90s.

But what am I doing today? I retired four years ago from full-time work, and I work from my home office. I do basically two things. First, I do a lot of teaching, mostly in companies. I do public classes like PCB West and the PCB2Day seminars, of course, and sometimes IPC conferences, but most of the training I do is corporate training. People will come to an event like this, hear a class and think, "Gee, we need more of this in our company." Then, they call or email me, and we arrange a one-, two-, or three-day class in their facility for their whole engineering staff. I do a lot of that. Second, I consult to help solve both signal integrity and EMI problems. Those two areas are mainly where my time gets spent these days. It's a lot of fun.

Haag: Based on what you said in class this morning, occasionally you blow away a three-day weekend checking out impedance calculators.

Hartley: Yes, I know. Isn't that insane that anybody would do that? But I did, and my wife was not very happy with me.

Haag: Believe me, I've had plenty of weekends putting time in on the computer to be met with an icy cold stare.

Hartley: I'm sure you have.

Haag: Let’s talk about the future of PCB design. I did tape-ups when I first started. I was working on some of the original CAD systems, like Calma.

Hartley: I remember those early systems.

Haag: I worked my way up through the ranks, and back in those days, most of us who were designers didn't have formal training or education. We came from being draftsmen or technicians, but that's changing. Where do you see the job of the PCB designer in the future?

Hartley: That's a good question. You're absolutely right. In the past, we came from the world of technicians, sometimes artists, or mechanical designers. Susy Webb came from the art community, and I don't think a lot of people know that.

Haag: I didn't know that.

Hartley: The reason she got into circuit board design was that hand taping was very artistic, and the companies that wanted her to do work for them knew that she could give them what they were after and the kind of board layout that they wanted. Because it wasn't highly technical back then; you simply needed to get all the dots connected in the '60s, '70s, and '80s. As long as you accomplished that, it all worked out fine, right? Remember those days?

Haag: Yeah, just hook them up.

Hartley: Just hook them up. That all started to change when rise times of ICs got faster. When that happened, people suddenly started having signal integrity problems. They suddenly started having EMI problems, and it caused people like Lee Ritchey, who was an expert way back in the day, to put together classes to help others learn this. The existing guys, as you said, have come from many domains into this world, but they've learned through conferences like this. I told someone the other day, and I'm sure you know this, that PCB West is the best conference anywhere on the planet for printed circuit design. If you are into board design, this is the place to be.

But where is the future coming from? The future will be EEs who are going to be forced into laying out their own boards. I've talked about this with a number of people. They're going to make many of the classic mistakes because EEs forced into board layout often make non-manufacturable boards. You know where I'm going with this; they often do it wrong. They get the circuit right, but that's about it. These are bright people. In time, they will figure it out. It’s the early designs that are often non-producible. I certainly made those mistakes back in the day.

Haag: It will work, you just can't build it.

Hartley: That's right. It may not even work if they don't understand the behavior of E&H fields. If they only understand circuit theory and not fields, it still may not work properly, so that's likely where the future is going to be. It will be EEs who will be forced into this, who will be coming to this conference and others like it and who will learn their way in the arena the same way we did, by hook and by crook. Because there's no formal education for board designers and I don't know that there will ever be a formal education for this profession. I'm not sure it'll ever happen because academia doesn't see it as a serious discipline. Of course, it's an incredibly serious discipline. You cannot make circuits work and pass EMI testing without proper layout.

Haag: When you think about the number of boards that are in every single device around us…

Hartley: Some EEs, as well, still think it's just a matter of “connecting the dots,” which is their problem; although many EEs are starting to realize the importance of fields and are showing up for my classes in droves. Hopefully, they also realize the importance of manufacturability and show up for that training as well.

Haag: I have seen a lot of interesting things today at the show. I just came from one class on 3D printing of PCBs. It's only in the prototyping stages now, but my first thought was, “What would Rick Hartley think about this and its potential?” Because as I listened to that, I was wondering about the differences between prototype and manufacturing and rigidity of the boards. All of these different factors come into play, to say nothing about the signal integrity and all that stuff. What do you think about 3D printing PCBs?

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Hartley: That's an interesting question and a heck of a thought. I'd never thought about it before, but I went to a company just a few weeks ago in the Detroit area to do a two-day training session. At the end of the second day, they walked me through their manufacturing process. They are a low-volume, very high-tech company. They ship some of their product in plastic enclosures. They are very elegant, but because of the volumes, they can't afford to create a mold to form the plastic enclosures; it's too expensive. We're talking about tens of thousands of dollars to do that, so they 3D print all of their plastic enclosures, which are very elegant and interesting.

I guess the answer to your question is that, if they can figure out how to print plastic, dielectric plastics, and conductors with the 3D printer, then why couldn't we 3D print a circuit board? The way this particular company 3D prints its enclosures, they actually use a powdered plastic to build it one very thin layer at a time from the ground up. Why couldn't you do a circuit board that way? Just build up all the layers, including plated holes.

Haag: That's exactly what people are doing now.

Hartley: I don't see any reason why not, and it wouldn't necessarily affect signal integrity. The signal integrity would be more impacted by whether or not the designer gets the traces relative to the planes in all the right places to ensure that fields are contained, and that energy is moving where it's supposed to. As long as all of that takes place through the proper design channels, if the 3D printer could replicate what the designer put in the system, it should work as well as a board that comes from a fabrication house. It may never be good for high volume, but for prototyping, I think that sounds like a great idea; eventually, maybe even high volume.

Haag: In all of these science fiction shows in the past, they just opened up a bin and out came whatever it was that they needed.

Hartley: All of a sudden we're going there. Isn't that amazing? That is really cool. I never thought about that, but man, that's a great idea.

Haag: It was an interesting presentation to listen to.

Hartley: You know, I'm celebrating my 55th high school reunion this coming Saturday.

Haag: Congratulations.

Hartley: Thank you. Yeah, I'm getting old! A buddy of mine from high school and I are coaches for the Science Olympiad team at the school, and we do all kinds of interesting things. We build cars that are self-propelled, battery-propelled and powered with rubber bands. We've built mousetrap cars—cars that are propelled by the energy released by a mouse trap. Just all kinds of really intriguing things. We have a 3D printer, and whenever we're building something and need a part that you just can't buy or make easily, we 3D print it. We've come up with some really intricate pieces with a fairly simple, inexpensive 3D printer. I can only imagine what a high-end, elegant 3D printer is capable of.

Haag: I was going to ask you about what comes next after the show, but you've already told us. You have a high school reunion.

Hartley: Yes. Then after that, I have more classes. I'm doing several between now and the end of the year at companies, PCB Carolina, and a public class in Chicago for UP Media—one of the PCB2Day seminars. It's a two-day presentation of much of the stuff I present at PCB West. It actually is a little more than what I do here, but it's similar. As I said, I have classes in companies coming up, and I have several consulting jobs to deal with once I leave here. The Monday after I get home, I'm going to drive down to Cincinnati to meet for four hours with a company to talk about a concern they have and some consulting time they need, so there's a lot of that stuff in my future.

Haag: You are a busy guy.

Hartley: Yes, I am a busy guy, and I'm enjoying every minute of it.

Haag: Thank you for talking with me. It's been a privilege for me, because like I said, I’ve read so much of your stuff over the years.

Hartley: Thank you. It's been a privilege for me to talk to you because I've read your stuff for as long as I can remember, so thank you for talking with me as well.

Haag: You're very welcome.