Dan Beeker, senior principal engineer with NXP Semiconductors, was one of the speakers at the first AltiumLive event in San Diego in 2017. Now, he returns to AltiumLive 2019 in Munich from January 15–17 with a keynote titled, “It’s All About the Space.” Here, he discusses his keynote, which focuses on the need for designers to understand the behavior of electromagnetic fields, and why the status quo for advanced PCB design must change from, “We are going to fail,” to, “We are going to pass.”
Andy Shaughnessy: You attended the first AltiumLive show in San Diego in 2017. What made you decide to come back again?
Dan Beeker: I was extremely honored to be selected as a keynote at the first AltiumLive. I saw it as a great opportunity to share my unique perspective to an audience that shared my interest in finding ways to create successful designs. Getting to meet the other keynote speakers and the extremely talented customers who attended really were the icing on the cake. When I was offered the opportunity to speak again at AltiumLive Munich 2019, there was no question I was going to be there!
Shaughnessy: You are one of the keynote speakers. In your keynote description, you say, “It’s All About the Space.” That sounds interesting! Tell us what you mean by that.
Beeker: We all are involved in developing products that generate, control, and consume electromagnetic field energy. EM fields move through space, or dielectrics, and carry the energy—not "electrons flowing through wires." This perspective can mean the difference between success and failure in our products. If this were true, then the load would see the energy immediately, and there would not be issues with signal integrity and EMC. We prove this is true on a regular basis, but seem to be oblivious to the reason. To make it easier to remember, I wrote a song, which I play over and over before each class I teach to brainwash everyone. (Here is a link to the audio with Dan’s daughter playing and singing to the tune of Meghan Trainor’s hit song “All About That Bass.”)
Shaughnessy: Do you think the PCB designers of today and tomorrow are going to have to master topics like that? For instance, EM field behavior used to be considered primarily in the engineer’s wheelhouse.
Beeker: Understanding fields is absolutely critical. The problem seems to be that the traditional EE programs do not do a very good job of connecting the ideas of EM physics (scary bad math) and the actual electronic circuit behaviors. This leads most engineers to rely on circuit theory and much simpler mathematics. The secret I have discovered is that you do not have to be a math wizard to understand the management of EM fields. It is simple geometry.
Shaughnessy: That does seem to go against conventional wisdom. Dan, you’ve mentioned before that some designers and engineers have become too accepting of failure, and they almost expect their designs to fail the first time. How did it get to that point?
Beeker: First, I want to take a moment to talk about the current state of the industry and electronics and the impact that the proper understanding can have. If you design systems based on the actual physics involved, you can design a system that will be compliant both from a signal integrity perspective and from an EMC perspective.
The physics of electronics is quite simple if you just follow the rules. The problem is that most people do not understand what they do for a living. We design and manufacture systems that generate, manage, and consume electromagnetic field energy. You can also do three things with electromagnetic field energy: You can store it, move it, or convert to kinetic energy. When we start to think of things in that perseverative, it all becomes a lot simpler. The problem is that people want it to be complicated. As a result—especially driven by the changes in IC geometry and the increased difficulty of passing EMC standards as they continue to become more and more stringent across a wider band of frequencies—the status quo for the industry has become failure. Everybody expects to fail EMC.
They design the module and do not feel confident that it will behave properly. This is well known, and unfortunately, accepted. The problem is that nobody budgets for redoing the modules, either from a time or cost perspective. They end up in a situation where they must do the new design in an expedited manner, pay to expedite charges for materials to fabricate the new boards, to manufacture the new boards, beg for time in the test chambers, and then do it over again with no confidence that it is going to pass the second, third, or fourth time.
I work with customers; they always come to me after they have failed two or three times; usually, the solutions are very simple. Most of my board analysis time is about three to five minutes. Typically, I get to the board stack and am done. If done improperly, it enables you to violate the rules instantly. We cannot continue to do this. That is not engineering; that is children playing in a sandbox.
Engineering means that you come up with a method and solution. We must understand the physics of electronics and we must create systems that manage it properly. The status quo cannot continue to be, “We are going to fail.” It must become, “We are going to pass,” and that comes from the knowledge that you have followed the rules and that you must accept those rules.
We must start teaching the rules in school and start getting the engineering teams around the world into the proper training so that we do not have continued failure. This is not okay. Hundreds of millions of dollars are wasted every year building boards they know that will not pass compliance.
Shaughnessy: A word to the wise is sufficient. Maybe this can be a clarion call for action. Thank you, Dan.
Beeker: Thank you for the opportunity.