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I spoke with Max Seeley of 3M about a design class he presented at AltiumLive in Frankfurt, Germany. We also discussed autorouting and the continuing advances in EDA tools, as well as the schism between users who embrace new technology and those who still prefer to layout their boards the old-fashioned way. Which camp do you belong to?
Andy Shaughnessy: Max, please give a real quick background on yourself.
Max Seeley: I work at 3M in St. Paul, Minnesota. I’m in the digital solutions group, which is part of the Corporate Research Systems Lab at 3M. My group focuses on embedded electronics that add smart technologies and connectivity to a wide variety of products made by 3M. Yes, we do make things besides Post-it Notes! My group has done a lot of work on medical devices, consumer electronics, and personal safety. A lot of our work is small form factor, very high performance with at least one radio if not two or three.
Shaughnessy: You’re an engineer by trade?
Seeley: Yes, I have a degree in physics as well as electrical engineering.
Shaughnessy: Do you spend a lot of time designing circuit boards?
Seeley: My job at 3M has evolved. When I started here, I focused on PCB design with overlap into electrical design. In addition, I ran our electronics rapid prototyping center, where we can manufacture and assemble PCBs in-house. I’m still doing a lot in PCB design, but I’m focusing more on leading the electrical design portion of the design process. I’m also doing a lot with signal and power integrity.
Shaughnessy: What is your class about here at AltiumLive?
Seeley: I will be co-presenting the class with Carl Schattke, a designer with an EV manufacturer. Carl and I bring two different perspectives to the process. I’m an engineer who does the design capture and then takes that all the way through the process. Carl works in a situation in which he gets the electrical design passed off to him from an electrical designer and handles the layout in its entirety. The interesting part is that we talked about this originally and thought there was going to be some divergence in the approach when a circuit board takes those two distinct paths; however, what we found in collaborating on this presentation is that there isn’t. Carl and I support a set of practices and use of certain tools to make sure that the design intent and functionality is captured in the PCB in a way that results in a design that’s very robust and passes all certification testing.
The main topic of the presentation is that space in between completing design capture and putting down your first trace on the PCB. We break the presentation down into four main areas; one of them is retrospective a little bit. We’re going to talk about best practices and some of the tools that are available in the schematics that will translate to a robust PCB layout. We’ll cover some of the simulation that needs to be performed before layout, such as important discussions and decisions that need to be made in the design process. As a result, you make decisions farther down the chain that result in bigger changes in the design process. Then, we want to talk about setting up the PCB and some of the initial tasks that need to be done once you’re in the PCB in Altium Designer.
Shaughnessy: Is this similar to what you taught at last year’s event, or is this a new twist on it?
Seeley: I’ve given a presentation on best practices in schematics, so there will be a bit of overlap there, but the other topics are new. At a previous AltiumLive, I also gave a presentation on timing analysis.
Shaughnessy: As far as the industry, what technology is exciting to you now?
Seeley: I’m excited about what we’re going to see in Altium Designer, and I think that translates to what we’ll see in the industry in general. I don’t think this is news to anybody, but we see more and more functionality being brought into ICs. An electrical engineer’s job is shifting from someone who designed discreet blocks of electronics with specific functions to connecting these functional blocks together and focusing more on the high-speed interconnects that connect those functional blocks. Some people view that as being an electrical engineer takes less skill. It’s pretty infrequent that when I design a complex circuit based on an op-amp, a lot of that functionality is integrated into the ICs now. That’s shifting.
An electrical engineer, in my opinion, has to be a signal integrity and power integrity expert because that’s what it’s going to take to design those interconnects. Where those disciplines were two different people in the past, that’s going to become the electrical engineer of the future. I think what’s going to happen, as a result of that and AI, is we are going to see the tools become more intelligent in designing those interconnects. Now, it’s not as manual of a process as it used to be. I’m not going to spend as much time laying down the individual traces; instead, I’m going to spend more of my time setting up the parameters for those interconnects, and the tool will do the work for me.
What I’m describing is an autorouter for all practical purposes, but we’re talking about an autorouter that has intelligence. It’s more able to handle situations that aren’t specifically specified in the constraints of the autorouter. In addition, this is going to be the big thing: I’m going to set up this autorouter to connect these two functional blocks in my design, it’s going to do what it thinks it wants me to do, and then I may go in and change things. The autorouter is going to watch how I change things, and it’s going to learn from how I modify what it did. Every time it does the job, it’s going to get better and better for me—not putting in exact numerical constraints on what can happen or rules, but on how I change things after it’s completed its job.
Shaughnessy: Do you use an autorouter regularly?
Seeley: I do not.
Shaughnessy: A lot of designers hate them. They keep getting better and better, but is it mainly because you like designing and have a certain way of doing it?
Seeley: The challenge for me as a designer is that we all establish our methods for doing things, so change is difficult. Often, these tools come out—regardless of who makes them—and they don’t work as intended, or they do something goofy.
Shaughnessy: Designers say that autorouters get 80% of the design done, but then you spend 80% of your time cleaning up that 20%.
Seeley: That’s very true with an autorouter. Once AI comes into the equation, that will change. Here’s the thing: you can read about how to set up the constraints for the autorouter, but there’s always this learning curve that goes on; for example, “When I set up a constraint this way, I get this behavior.” But when that piece of software becomes adaptive and learns from me, that’s going to be a groundbreaker.
Shaughnessy: When you ask EDA companies, most of them will say, “We plan to use AI.” But then designers will say, “No, we’re the AI. AI will put us out of a job.” Are designers paranoid?
Seeley: Yes, and if you stay static in your skillset, you will be out of a job. That’s one of the hardest things about being an engineer. We put an incredible amount of time into honing our expertise, and it’s a moving target. It’s what makes it fun, but it’s also hard to adapt and not dig your heels in. I constantly fight that battle myself.
Shaughnessy: Is there anything else you’ve seen at the show so far that was impressive?
Seeley: Even though it’s counter to what we’ve discussed, I’ve seen a lot of new things presented in Altium for interactive routing that I’m excited about. Of all the functions that I do in my job, my favorite thing to lay out a PCB. You can see why I’m digging my heels in a little bit even after what I said before. Yes, I see what’s coming in the industry, but I love laying a trace down on a board and building that board up. My favorite part is seeing some of the new features that are coming in Altium Designer 20 that are going to make that easier for me.
Shaughnessy: Thanks for talking with me, Max.
Seeley: Thank you, Andy.