As one of my favorite electrical engineers is fond of saying, "I have job security. After all, electricity doesn't really change."
But even if electrons still move through circuits the same way they did 30 years ago, the industry and the design process have changed enormously.
AAC had the chance to speak with Lawrence Romine, Vice President of Global Marketing at Altium, about six trends he believes are pushing engineers towards a philosophy of “unified design”—and towards adopting the cloud as a result.
Over his career, Romine has spent 13 years at Altium, a time investment in a company he says he’s made because “It’s an interesting place... We've been in business 30 years, but in my 13 years here we have blown the thing up and started over numerous times, all while continuing to grow the business. We consistently innovate the product, release new product, blow the thing up, and completely re-hack it."
The newest big project engaging Romine's attention is the forthcoming cloud-based platform, Altium 365, which is being posed as a way to integrate collaboration into the design process—a key for future-proofing EEs against the changes coming their way.
1. Tightening Innovation Cycles
(AKA The Need for Speed)
The first trend is one that’s clear across the industry: Project development must come faster, requiring engineers to work more quickly.
As Romine puts it, “The design cycle several years ago may have been two years—now it’s closer to three to four months.”
This trend seems obvious to many. This is a fast-paced industry, after all. But Romine offers another perspective that comes with a bit of a history lesson.
Around 2008, he says, the financial crisis caused priorities to shift towards cost-saving measures such as design reuse. As the industry has recovered, however, there’s been a shift from fixation on the cost of a BOM back to gaining a competitive edge by focusing on speed.
2. Changing Engineer Responsibilities
(AKA Better Brush Up on Your PCB Layout)
This emphasis on speed, paired with the explosive growth of interest in the IoT, means that these faster design cycles are also more complicated than before.
“The PCB design and fabrication process, itself, has grown infinitely more complex than it was. Obviously, as things get smaller, they become more difficult to lay out. Couple that with data rate increases and it really has become an engineering exercise.”
The result is an evolving definition of what EEs are responsible for.
Romine believes that, for example, PCB layout will land squarely in the EE’s domain rather than being passed to a specialist. In an Altium survey, Romine says, nearly 100% of engineer respondents reported that they were responsible for PCB layout.
Image from Altium
Basically, engineers need more skills.
“At Altium Live, our summit that we do twice a year… we talk about layout, but that’s kind of secondary. It’s really more about the engineering aspects of the layout. We did a keynote about electromagnetic fields, as an example. That’s not something that was considered that much 15 or 20 years ago, whereas now you have to consider it. It’s very, very important. Which shielding approach are you taking? What’s the crosstalk situation? All of those things become far more of an engineering sort of discipline than a drafting discipline.”
3. The Growing Influence of Engineers
(AKA The New Decision Makers)
This shift towards more responsibility for EEs also brings more influence. According to a 2018 user survey of AAC readers, over 65% of respondents reported being involved in the purchasing of components for their projects, a slight increase over the data from 2017.
Romine suggests that the new emphasis on speed in design has resulted in a shift in decision-making from the C-suite to the engineers.
Many tools and systems take a cost-focused model of design, starting at the top (i.e., the C-suite). Altium claims they’re designing their tools with a “bottom-up” approach, which Romine says gives them an edge.
Of course, wielding this influence requires involvement with more stages of the design process, a difficult feat when there are sometimes oceans between coworkers.
4. “Dispersed Stakeholders”
(AKA Getting the Team Together)
EEs are expected to do more and take more responsibility across the entire design process. Romine refers to this as “cradle to grave of not just the logical design, but the physical design itself. And again, they're not going to school and learning about PCB design in almost every case.”
As such, the modern EE needs seamless communication with their team, including working more directly with mechanical engineers.
Image from Altium
This may look like more collaboration with an internal team that shares resources. It can also, however, look like what Romine calls the “21st-century approach to a CAD department,” where a company may choose to outsource design labor and use expertise from third parties.
5. Disconnects between Designers and Manufacturers
(AKA The Death of DFM)
Engineers largely expect to have issues with their design when they send it to the manufacturer, including going back to the drawing board before re-submitting their design. Now, the increased emphasis on speed is prompting EEs to look for ways to reduce that back and forth.
“I think it's always been a disconnect,” says Romine. “But I think that, as the design work on the PCB side has shifted to the electrical engineers, it's growing again… The gap has now widened between engineers and the manufacturing stakeholders, whereas the designers of yesteryear typically had quite a bit of understanding of the manufacturing capabilities and would design accordingly. That's known as design-for-manufacture [or DFM] today.”
The current solution for this issue is applications engineers.
“Manufacturers, for the most part, all employ applications engineers,” Romine says, “But those applications engineers are only really involved in the design process for their very best customers because of scaling issues, as you would imagine. For the sort of average Joe, what they get is a post-design review, and then that gets kicked back. [The manufacturer may say] ‘Well, you didn't do x, y, and z correctly.’ Or, ‘I can't build it because of 1, 2, and 3, you need to fix these things.’ That's obviously an engineering change. Time, money, effort, so on and so forth.”
A Royal Circuits employee performing a manual inspection of a PCB at their fabrication facility. Image courtesy of Mark Hughes.
As a great deal of manufacturing moves overseas to locations like Shenzhen, China, this distance between manufacturers and designers becomes physical as well as metaphorical.
In essence, as the design cycle tightens, the typical DFM mindset is starting to gum up the works.
Altium’s reply? Bring the manufacturer into the design space.
“We say ‘design with your manufacturer,’ not ‘design for your manufacturer’.”
6. Collaboration Is Key
(AKA Embrace the Cloud)
The trends so far paint a picture of a complicated future for EEs:
- Faster design cycles
- New demands in terms of EE skills
- Increased responsibilities and influence
- Complicated, often slow conversations with manufacturers
- Disconnects between designers and their support teams
But all of these trends have one thing in common: Collaboration is key.
Increased communication across portions of the design process is crucial for increasing efficiency. For some, this may look like restructuring the way their engineers interact with one another. For others, it could look like stronger relationships with manufacturers.
For Altium, collaboration looks like the cloud.
“Unified Design” and the Inevitability of the Cloud
Altium 365 espouses what Romine refers to as “unified design”—a concept built around the future of the design process. From the 1980s to now, Romine says that Altium has focused on distilling tools and processes into a “concept-to-manufacture” environment.
From Altium’s perspective, the move to the cloud is a natural next step. As Romine puts it:
“My summary on that is—you got a better idea? I mean, if it's not cloud, what is it? It has to be.”
Is cloud-based collaboration another instance of Altium being ahead of the curve—or a fad? Do you see these six trends coming your way?
Let us know how you think your job as an EE will change in the coming years.
Note: This article was updated on April 8th, 2019 to accurately reflect Lawrence Romine's current role at Altium.