The afternoon of the first day began with a keynote from Thomas Wischnack, senior expert for Hardware Development at Porsche Engineering Services, billed as “The PCB Doctor,” who would diagnose and treat common design challenges. He began by emphasising that rather than helping developers to cure sick PCBs, his objective was to help the PCBs by curing the developers! Dismissing some of the mythology surrounding EMC, he made it clear that there was no black magic-only physics, and that designs could often be made simpler after being “cured” and all unnecessary components had been removed. He offered interactive consulting for developers, project managers and management, and analysis of hardware, software and interfaces as well as coaching and assistance during validation and production setup. He reviewed some of the common pitfalls which caused designs to fail and once again stressed that the laws of physics could not be cheated and would win whatever the constraints of costs, project plans or project managers.

The basic question was always: “Where does the current flow?” and he had some set ideas on ground planes and where and where not to place ground connections, although not everyone agreed with his philosophy of avoiding copper flooding on outer layers-in particular with respect to the control of plating thickness.

To give an illustration of a design he had helped to optimise, he introduced Rainer Beerhalter, responsible for the design of large LED displays such as those used for outdoor advertising. Each 250mm square module had 176,000 tracks and 11,000 components of which 4096 were individually controllable LEDs. Power consumption had been reduced from 1kW to 420W per square metre: substantial when it took 272 kW to power the perimeter display in a football stadium!

Next came another parallel session, this time with a choice of three professional development courses: an introduction to PCB design with Altium Designer 18, presented by field applications engineer Damien Kirscher; creating documentation for successful PCB manufacturing by TTM field applications engineer Julie Ellis; and effective methods for advanced routing, by San Diego PCB’s Mike Creeden, kindly stepping in at short notice to deputise for Altium senior product manager Charles Pfeil.

I chose to attend Mike Creeden’s tutorial on advanced routing-lucky to get a seat it was so popular! Creeden discussed the routing and power delivery challenges of today and tomorrow. “Where to start? What are the goals for the end usage? What are the cost drivers? We want Revision 1 to work! Visit your PCB fabricator and learn his capabilities.”

He remarked that as speed and performance increased, so did heat, driving a reduction in operating voltages and resulting in reduced package sizes and increased pin counts. With increasing placement and routing density, power delivery and signal integrity became all the more important. To ensure success, routing should be properly constrained. But over-constraining rules should be avoided. The key was in finding the right balance of compromise. “Do a good placement-it will tell you a lot about how feasible it is to route.”

He emphasised the importance of power delivery and power integrity analysis: “If you can’t power your ICs, how can you route them? Where do you put your power plane? Where is your signal return path?” He held the audience enthralled-they hung on the every word of a top IPC Designer Certification Master Instructor as he led them through the complexities of HDI and via fan-outs for fine-pitch BGAs and explained board stack-up options, sequential lamination, thin materials, blind and buried microvias. “How many signal layers do I need?”

An understanding of electromagnetic theory was fundamental to predicting electrical performance and signal integrity at gigahertz frequencies, managing a field to achieve high capacitance and low inductance, and to realise stack-ups that supported functional EMC. “Ground is the most important signal in the circuit.”

Routing differential pairs to efficiently and accurately meet requirements was a feature of the Altium Designer 18 release, and Creeden called upon Altium field applications engineer Carsten Kindler for a live demonstration to illustrate how the system automatically adjusted line widths and spacings according to the stated design rules-one of several enhancements that led to new automation possibilities.

Another difficult decision to make-this time to choose one of three technical breakout sessions: Bernd Schroeder from Fraunhofer Institute for Reliability and Microintegration, describing a novel thermal analysis tool from Altium for online computation of thermal maps based on power dissipation values of components; Martin Gaudion from Polar Instruments, discussing methods for calculating insertion loss with roughness of copper foil; or Dirk Stans from Eurocircuits reviewing the pitfalls to be avoided when creating production-ready PCB and PCBA data.

My choice was the Dirk Stans workshop. A hobby-horse of mine in my PCB fabrication days had been trying to build the interface between design and pre-production engineering-with limited success because few purpose-built software tools were available two decades ago. I was interested to see how Eurocircuits, most of whose sales are on-line, had equipped themselves to deal with over 100,000 orders annually from 11,000 customers for prototype and small batch work, much of it on quick-turn delivery. You certainly need a slick front-end to be able to offer that sort of service!

When Stans spoke of the days when DfM principles existed mainly in the heads of a few professional layout people and a virtual wall existed between the designer and the fabricator, over which the designer would throw the manufacturing information in the hope that the guy on the other side would sort it out, I knew exactly what he meant! “But now I have made a window in that wall”-he described how he had developed a comprehensive set of smart tools and processes to enable intelligent communication through that traditional barrier, and in many cases to educate and assist the customer in avoiding production delays or adding unnecessary cost to the job. He listed some of the key features of his on-line tools, and explained in detail how they enabled accurate price calculation and capability and manufacturability assessment, as well as identifying cost drivers and advising on efficient material utilisation. He showed examples of typical design errors, data anomalies and design-rule violations revealed by his automated analytical procedures; in each case the customer had the opportunity to view the problem, approve any proposed change and formally accept it before proceeding.

The capability of the system extended to the benefit of the assembler, with routines for resolving CAD to CAM issues, rationalising ‘jibberish’ bills of material, access to extensive component libraries, and the facility to optimise the PCBA design flow with smart menus, PCB visualisation tools, automatic pre-CAM procedures, BOM and component placement checkers and PCBA visualisers.

There was obviously still the option for people to talk to people, and Eurocircuits offered wide-ranging technical support, but the proven facility existed for the automated creation of production-ready PCB and PCBA data.

The day’s formal programme completed, a superb buffet dinner was provided for delegates. But where did they sit? They realised the significance of the coloured tags on their ID badges-they indicated membership of a team, mainly composed of people they had never met before. One table, one team. And after the dessert dishes had been cleared away, each team was presented with a large box and told not to open it until directed.

On the word “go” all was revealed. Each box contained components, tools and instructions for the building of a battle robot. No chainsaws of flame-throwers, just an articulated spike for bursting balloons, of which two were to be attached to the back-side of each completed machine. From my neutral position it was fascinating to observe the dynamics of team formation, cooperative work-sharing and product-assembly against the clock. Records were broken!

The robots having been successfully assembled, although sometimes only after an animated debate and a couple of re-work cycles, the second part of the exercise was a knock-out tournament-last team standing after everyone else’s balloons had been punctured. Great fun, great spirit of competition, and great to see the “connect” element of the AltiumLive theme being further promoted. And the beer was good!

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