With a career spanning work in China, Australia, and the US, Berggren has a broad perspective on the electronics industry.
AAC's Mark Hughes had a chance to talk with Berggren about how working in China changed his perspective on DFM (design for manufacturability), why young engineers need to learn more about manufacturing, and the lessons to learn from choosing a big problem and solving it (or not).
If you've ever been frustrated by the state of engineering education, especially when it comes to transitioning from circuit design to manufacturing, you may want to stick around for this one.
Mark Hughes (AAC): What is your background and how did you come to your position at Autodesk?
Matt Berggren (MB): My background originally is in physics and then I got into electronics design software at a pretty early age. I worked at ACCEL Technologies, which was a company that made P-CAD, one of the very early electronics design packages. And then eventually ACCEL Technologies was acquired by then-company Protel. And Protel eventually grew up to be Altium, later became Altium Designer.
I was there for the better part of about 14 or 15 years, and then eventually left with the CEO and started another company based in China. I lived and worked in China for about four years, building electronics hardware, building embedded software, building a whole host of different IoT applications in an economy which was going through the largest mass-urbanization in history.
IoT in China has a completely different implication than, say, a smart speaker does in your home, just simply because there's so much new construction, so many new things going on, so many new buildings being built. And the convergence of wireless connected hardware with all of this construction made that a really attractive proposition.
AAC: So your background is in physics rather than electrical engineering?
MB: I came into it with a background in physics focused around semiconductor physics, so it's right at that fringe of those two things, which was totally appropriate for the Bay Area.
I was looking at it from the perspective of telecommunications—it was kind of early dot-com—and a lot of what was going on in things like big multiplexers for DSL equipment and fiber switching and things like that. It was a really interesting signal path problem, and I guess the thing that constantly motivates me is solving really hard problems.
AAC: What's the thought process behind motivating yourself to "solve really hard problems"?
MB: I have a 19-year-old, soon to be 20, and [in a] conversation that I had with him going into university, I said, "Just pick a hard problem. And solve it."
"Just pick a hard problem. And solve it."
I say that because of everything that you learn through that process. First of all, you learn a sense of accomplishment because you solve the hard problem. And even if you can't solve the hard problem, you learn enough to understand that the problem can't be solved. And that is, in and of itself, really interesting and really enabling.
But then on the other side is everything you learn around that. That drives the awareness and the empathy and the capability that's going to carry you into different things and create different opportunities.
So even though I could have stayed in semiconductors and gone into probably any one of many different chip manufacturers and worked my way up in one of those organizations, for me it was very apparent that I had this very practical interest in how things are made.
Looking at my workshop at home, I've got chemistry sets, I've got laser cutting equipment, I've got CNC equipment, and a whole variety of different things. I just like to build stuff.
AAC: How did your experiences in China help you understand the industry when you came back to the US?
MB: What was really interesting to me [from] the experience in China is that when I came back to the US, I had what felt like very tangible, credible experience in the manufacturing side of this industry that I came at from completely the theoretical side—the day to day grinding through circuit analysis questions and figuring out those pieces.
Many electronics designers turn to factories in Shenzhen, China to fabricate their devices. Image used courtesy of Jun HuiL
Coming at it from the other end, what was really interesting and exciting was this convergence of design and manufacturing, because what I realized joining the company was that design is like 25% of the problem. The other 75% is, "How am I going to build more than one?"
"...I realized...design is like 25% of the probem. The other 75% is, 'How am I going to build more than one?'
Every test fixture we build, every programming jig that we build, every jig that we that we construct just to hold the header pins in place so I can set the board on it and solder them, anytime that you want to build more than one piece or two pieces or three pieces—these become these inevitable downstream processes that are totally underappreciated.
AAC: You spent time with Supplyframe. What can you tell us about the challenges of creating a searchable database of electronic products?
MB: I eventually ended up at Supplyframe, looking at vertical search, really targeting the slice of search that focuses on a particular domain. For example, in the electronics domain, findchips.com is actually powered by Supplyframe and Supplyframe owns that site. The search that's behind that has to reconcile the fact that there are a hundred and ten million electronic components in the world. And when you go there and plug something into the search bar, how do we triangulate what it is that you're doing?
If you say, "I want a boost regulator, 3.3V to 5V," what do we present? How do we present it? If you say 85% efficiency, what does that mean, and what's the total range, and how do we maintain all of that meta information and then actually make it searchable and make it fast?
AAC: So how did you make the transition into CAD software?
MB: Having used EAGLE for a number of years, it was really interesting when Cadsoft, or really Premier Farnell, put EAGLE up for sale. And there were a few different angles that I was playing there to try to decide: Is this something that I'm interested in? Do I want to go back into electronics CAD?
But I'd had a few conversations with the folks at Autodesk and what was really interesting was just the sheer breadth of tools that they have. [In] my background at Altium, I never experienced more than really one product line. It was always electronics and CAD. So if the electronics industry took a downturn, our revenues were pretty much attached to that. Autodesk has a wide breadth of products—they own Maya, they own AutoCAD, and Revit, and then 360, and these things for construction.
AAC: What projects that you've worked on are you particularly proud of?
MB: Probably the most interesting project that I've been nursing for five or six years now is a patch clamp ring. Patch clamping is a process that's used in cellular biology to try to pipette a single cell. And then you can use really sensitive detector equipment to measure the potential across the cell channel. So sodium channels, potassium channels, calcium channels, that sort of thing.
And so much of what's going on in the form of drug discovery is actually a signal-to-noise problem. How do we identify what the behavior is in a particular cell when that cell is something that we believe is a catalyst for corrupting some otherwise normal system in the body?
A very simplified rendering of a patch clamp setup. Image used courtesy of PeaBrainC [CC BY-SA 4.0]
The motivation was actually that I knew an epidemiologist and he said, "One of the problems is that we just don't have enough really good microscopists, people who can actually do the microscopy and actually look at what's going on. And oftentimes that's driven by cost because the equipment cost is so high."
And that was the thing that really triggered it. I was like, "That's pretty interesting. What's the cost of a piece of equipment?"
[He said,] "Well, if I want a patch clamp system, it costs a hundred and fifty thousand dollars to do it DIY."
And I thought, "OK, that sounds like a challenge. Really hard problem. I want to solve it ".
So I've nursed that for a number of years and I've had more failure than I've had success at it. I think I'm probably a year away from something that I feel is workable from a solution standpoint. I don't know that it'll be something that I can commercialize, but that's actually the really interesting side of it for me, too. It isn't about me going out and selling the machine. What I would rather do is, if I can build a low-cost machine, let's just figure out how we get it out there if it means we can address some of these epidemics that we're dealing with.
AAC: Let's dig into that problem for just a minute. What challenges are you facing with your patch clamp ring?
MB: First of all, just to get the sensors, themselves, because you use these piezoelectric probes. They can be $1,500 apiece and you're going to need multiple. And they're moving on the order of a hundred nanometers at a time, so you're talking about these incredibly small probes that are moving an incredibly small distance, and just thinking about everything that can go wrong.
So you're contending with a clean room environment, these really high precision probes that cost a lot of money, and very little of this equipment is stuff that you can machine without something like what [is in an] advanced manufacturing facility. You don't make that in-house. You go and ask those guys to make it for you.
It's just a really common scenario that I find myself in where I make certain assumptions that some things could even be manufactured with the level of precision that I can bring to the table. In some respects, like the patch clamp ring, you just can't. There's no piece of home equipment, despite all of my best resources, that's going to make something that is designed to that level of precision.
It's like spinning up your own semiconductor in your garage. It'd be awesome if I could do it.
AAC: What advice do you have for new engineers coming out of school?
MB: I give the same advice that I gave to my son, which is: Pick a hard problem, and solve it. Or, find somebody that's solving a hard problem and be willing to expose just how little you know in hopes that they'll help you to get better.
I always joke that people get into electrical engineering for one of two reasons: electric guitar or ham radio. I grew up in a house with a dad who is an engineer and was very much into radio. So we were the ham radio house. That experience of growing up around him meant being exposed to technology that I didn't understand, that I couldn't wrap my head around. And, in some cases, I just had to be humble about it and say, "I can't possibly know this yet at this stage of my life." I really learned to be willing to reconcile that and then move ahead in a very humble way and not be unwilling to continue to learn.
"I always joke that people get into electrical engineering for one of two reasons: electric guitar or ham radio."
I mean when kids graduate there's this assumption that you're going to earn a pile of money and you're just gonna be successful overnight. You see this also in the software industry, especially now with things like boot camps where people are coming up to speed on software very quickly but don't necessarily have the depth and experience. I think that's what's missing in many cases is a level of humility.
"I think that's what's missing in many cases [with young engineers] is a level of humility."
There's a reason why somebody survives 25 years in an industry. And it's probably not because they stayed at the same level either intellectually, emotionally, socially, or just in terms of their ability to deliver. There has to be an ongoing willingness to grow, to understand more. And I think the way that you achieve that is by partnering up with the right people and having people that you can really treat as mentors.
My career would not be possible had I not worked very closely with the original founder and CEO at Altium. And he and I went off started another company together and I would count him as my number one mentor, the guy that I really owe much of my success to. And it was because I was willing to just be humble and willing to listen to him. And he constantly challenged me. Constantly pushed back. "You don't get it. You're not seeing it. It's not the right way to think about it. It's an invalid concept. You can't go down that route."
"There has to be an ongoing willingness to grow, to understand more. And I think the way that you achieve that is by partnering up with the right people and having people that you can really treat as mentors."
And even today that tape plays back through my head. But every time that I see him it's a special moment where I'm just absolutely thankful for the advice and the guidance and the challenging and the pushback and the arguments and every moment where I felt like, "Man, I've got to get out of this company and go do this other thing. I can't see myself being berated or belittled [any longer]."
Every time that pride started to get in the way, I really had to understand that I was learning something.
AAC: Is there anything about the industry now that you wish was different?
MB: I think the primary concern that I have is that we educate kids on design, but we do a very poor job of educating them on manufacturing. And I think that does a disservice. The whole maker/hacker movement really helped to reinvigorate what education needed to do. It was just happening outside of the schools. And now that it's sort of formalized in the school curriculum, I think it's moving in that path but it's still got a long way to go.
"I think the primary concern that I have is that we educate kids on design, but we do a very poor job of educating them on manufacturing. ...the whole maker/hacker movement really helped to reinvigorate what education needed to do. It was just happening outside of the schools."
And that's really the fact that we have to enable more people to understand what the manufacturing process is really like and how to design for manufacturability because you can build a whiz-bang circuit, you can build all of the greatest things in the world, but how are you going to program it? How are you going to test it?
We could teach that level of awareness much earlier. But for whatever reason, we relegated that to, "Oh, you'll figure that out in industry," when the reality is, right now most of the problems are manufacturing problems.
And then the downstream is really about the manufacturing process and how you handle it. Even if you're talking about signal paths, you're talking about manufacturing; you're just talking about the convergence of engineering and the manufacturing process. When you care about what substrates you're using, you care about what material or what sort of resistor, and all of the other characteristics of those things.
"We could teach that level of awareness [about DFM] much earlier. But for whatever reason, we relegated that to, "Oh, you'll figure that out in industry," when the reality is, right now most of the problems are manufacturing problems."
I just had an argument last week about parasitic capacitance. I said, "Look, you know parasitic capacitance is only parasitic if you don't actually understand the reactants that are going on on the board."
This is why you took all those years of calculus. If you're willing to do the hard work, you can find a way around the problem, and some of that is a manufacturing approach and some of that is an engineering approach and there is a hybrid of those two things which is becoming increasingly necessary.
The overwhelming majority of the problem now is a manufacturing problem, not a design problem. And we do a bad job communicating that or helping people to understand that. So we hand off a bill of materials that looks like a comma-separated list that's missing two-thirds of the information, and we still think that somebody can buy everything that's on there.
And then we complain that the assembly shop needed to talk to us three or four or five times to get everything right on the board. There needs to be that awareness.
Featured image used courtesy of Miguel Á. Padriñán.