TRAINING
PCB ENGINEER EDUCATION: And Then There Were 2
New (and different) industry programs fill (wide) gaps of academia. by Chelsey Drysdale

In the 2020s, receiving an undergraduate – or even a graduate – degree in one’s chosen area of expertise is no longer enough to start a career, let alone sustain one. We must all be lifelong learners to keep abreast of new information, technology, and processes to flourish. Continuing education is not an option; it is a must. The PCB design occupation is no exception. Cue scores of passionate subject matter experts, eager to impart decades of knowledge gleaned from on-the-job training, higher education, face-to-face interaction, and teaching in a time when the industry struggles to replace veterans who are retiring at a rapid pace.

In March, PCD&F reached out to the creators of emerging online programs available to those interested in perfecting design and layout of printed circuit boards. First, PCD&F spoke with Michael Creeden, CID+, and Rick Hartley, BSEE, CID, via Zoom about their new self-published manual, Printed Circuit Engineering Professional, and the instructor-led program that accompanies it: Printed Circuit Engineering Designer (PCED), available from a national training center.

Creeden and Hartley, who coauthored the 400+ page A-to-Z reference guide with Gary Ferrari, CID+, Susy Webb, CID, and Stephen Chavez, CID+, are directors of the nascent Printed Circuit Engineering Association. PCEA is offering those who complete the program a new certification, Certified Printed Circuit Designer (CPCD).

We also spoke with EPTAC, the training center that is promoting and offering the new program, to discuss its role in the PCED program.

Finally, we turned to IPC, which is updating its Certified Interconnect Designer (CID) program, moving it to an online course. (Disclosure: UP Media Group president Pete Waddell and editor-in-chief Mike Buetow helped develop the original CID program, and Buetow is a director of PCEA.)

PCD&F inquired about the origins and impetus for the program, goals and learning objectives, as well as how it compares to other educational training currently available. The transcript is edited for length:

PCD&F: What was the original rationale? Why did you want to create this program?

Creeden: That’s a wonderful question. Statistics and our personal experiences indicate there’s a critical shortage of trained professionals to accomplish this circuit layout, and industry really has failed at replacing designers. The BSEEs graduating from universities are being conscripted to accomplish their own layouts, and very few, if any, have formal education to be successful in laying out boards.

Hartley: That is the bottom line. We realized we had to come up with a way to train these people to do printed circuit design and engineering because they weren’t going to learn it in college.

PCD&F: What are your goals for the program?

Creeden: We had to figure out who the target audience was for this course, and the answer was actually broad and singular, meaning anyone involved in printed circuit engineering – from schematic to layout to fab or assembly – but specifically, anyone required to accomplish printed circuit engineering layout. That could include a college graduate, or a seasoned designer seeking to gain high-end signal integrity applications and solving some dense place and route of high-speed design or RF circuitry. At the same time, they want to understand some of the manufacturing relevance for both high yield and high reliability.

Figure 1. The new 400-page Printed Circuit Engineering Professional manual was released this spring.
FIGURE 1. The new 400-page Printed Circuit Engineering Professional manual was released this spring.

Hartley: Most of us [who developed the PCED] have decades of experience, and we wanted to impart that knowledge to the newcomers, so they would have the opportunity for success fairly early on in their careers and not have to wait three decades to figure out what they’re doing.

Creeden: The curriculum is called the Printed Circuit Engineering Professional. It’s meant to be much more encompassing than just how to do layout. A lot of other curricula exist, and often they are targeted. A lot of CAD software vendors put up content with the hopes to sell their software. CID and CID+ are wonderful programs, and I still teach those. What they did was they took an existing designer and taught them about manufacturing and standards, which is wonderful. Our course attempts to do all of that and so much more. It truly covers everything from manufacturing to schematic and circuit development, primarily focusing on the layout, making the actual tooling, putting that circuit into a tooling that can be built – and that it can be built for test compliance, usage … so many things. You have to teach both the standards and the manufacturing content.

PCD&F: What will the engineer learn?

Creeden: They’re going to learn what we call an A to Z for the profession. Very few engineers graduate saying, “I want to be a designer.” But what they find is doing the layout is what is truly what they need to do. So, when they take this curriculum, they will be highly employable. If I’m at a Fortune 100 company, and I’m trying to hire two engineers, I’m going to hire the person who understands engineering circuitry but also can put that into a layout. This curriculum is what we call CAD tool neutral because CAD is always evolving, and the depth of functionality that CAD tools have is incredible, but there’s a whole learning to that, and what we found is learning a CAD tool is kind of equivalent to learning to use a socket set. It does not make you a mechanic. This is a science of the mechanics of printed circuit engineering.

Hartley: I was in one of Lee Ritchey’s classes probably 20 years ago, and someone asked, “Lee, what in your opinion is the best CAD tool?” He said, “My father was a master carpenter, and he used to make cabinetry and things that were just magnificent. When I tried to repeat what he had done, I made boxes that didn’t have good joints, that fell apart, and just had problems. When my dad bought power tools to make his job go faster, I used power tools and simply made junky stuff faster. That’s the way CAD tools are. Having a CAD tool doesn’t mean you can do the job. It means you can do it faster once you learn the tool.”

[Lee] said, “There is no one CAD tool, in my opinion, that’s better than the other. The one that feels best in your hands is the one you should use.”

You have to learn the art and the craft of printed circuit design. That’s the key.

Creeden: I get asked that question a lot. To me, the best CAD tool is the person sitting behind it. There really are no prerequisites to this course. It’s truly geared to support someone coming into the profession and also someone who has been in it for years.

PCD&F: How does this program improve on what’s already in the market? What differentiates it?

Creeden: It was our intention to make something very contemporary. This truly addresses changes occurring today and tomorrow in the industry. Several curricula were written decades ago, and therefore don’t reflect many current challenges with today’s circuitry and technologies. Many of them approach it from what I would call a “focused” perspective, whether it’s standards, manufacturing, CAD tool, or just solving layout – or maybe it’s just signal integrity or power delivery. We attempted to do it all, and we did it in a flow basis [reflecting how] you actually perform the task.

Many curricula give what I would call an exposure. Let me take you through one circuit, and I’m going to teach it to you on a CAD tool. If that’s not my CAD tool, then I’m a little disadvantaged taking your course. It just exposes you to one circuit. And one thing we’ve learned in printed circuit engineering is, for example, a 5Ω line to a high-speed digital engineer is so different than a 50Ω line to an RF engineer. So, what’s the difference? Read the book. You’re going to find out a lot. We call it the nuance of design engineering.

[Printed Circuit Engineering Professional] is a lifelong reference book. It includes some 400 pages, supplemented by 800 PowerPoint slides.

PCD&F: Who’s teaching the course?

Creeden: The course is licensed exclusively to EPTAC in North America. We have 10 seasoned instructors who are all members of the PCEA.

Building on Legacy Design Training

IPC launched the Certified Interconnect Designer program in 1995. At the time, it was met with some skepticism, as many veteran designers felt it took decades of trial by fire to perfect their craft.

Today, hundreds of designers have passed the CID exam, which now includes an advanced version, called CID+. PCD&F contacted IPC about its design training program, available at https://training.ipc.org/design-training-programs. Carlos Plaza, senior director of education, IPC responded to our questions via email.

PCD&F: Discuss the goals and rationale of the IPC PCB Design curriculum.

Plaza: The IPC PCB Design curriculum provides training for new and current PCB designers at any stage in their career. The programs cover the techniques, methodologies and standards necessary to be successful in the design and development of printed circuit boards and assemblies for product applications across different sectors of the industry.

These focused, hands-on courses are especially important today because many of the current experts in the field are retiring and thus unable to pass on their knowledge and skills. No less important, the courses also provide a practical understanding of how to apply IPC standards to meet customer design requirements. The live online format allows veteran IPC instructors with decades of experience in the field to explain the nuances and interconnections between the many different design, fabrication, and material standards.

PCD&F: What’s in it for the design engineer?

Plaza: The IPC courses allow participants to tap into the valuable insights that our instructors have garnered over a career spanning several decades and different sectors of the electronics industry. IPC training and certification courses also carry the weight of an organization dedicated to the advancement of members of the electronics industry since the inception of the modern printed circuit board itself. Employers know and rely on the training and certification programs to help their staff acquire the knowledge and skills required to effectively produce quality products to industry and customer specifications.

PCD&F: How does it improve on what’s already in the market?

Plaza: Over the last three decades, IPC standards and certification programs such as CID and CID+ have played a critical role in protecting public safety and promoting excellence by ensuring the quality, reliability, and consistency of electronic products. However, the electronics industry recognizes they are only part of the solution. Surveys, interviews, and meetings with industry members revealed the need for the theoretical knowledge and practical skills required for both new and experienced designers to produce quality boards to customer specifications. In response, IPC worked with industry experts and instructional specialists to identify and impart the specific competencies that companies require of their designers to remain competitive.

These courses provide the practical knowledge and skills that designers need to do their jobs today.

The courses combine the experience of expert designers and instructors with job-specific exercises and projects to facilitate mastery of the key concepts required by circuit board designers. Weekly live online sessions allow participants to ask questions, clarify doubts, and address any issues that participants may have when they apply concepts to the actual design and layout of a board built to industry standards. This translates to applicability. Unlike other offerings on the market, past participants often echo one recent student when he observed that he “was able to directly apply lessons to things that I am currently working on at my job.”

PCD&F: Who is teaching it?

Plaza: Kristopher Moyer, C.I.D.+, an IPC-certified industry expert with 25+ years of industry experience in many areas of board design, including high-precision low-voltage, sensor and signal conditioning, industrial controls and automation, and military and commercial aerospace.

PCD&F: What background should someone have before sitting for the workshop?

Plaza: It depends on the course. For example, those taking PCB Design need only have a basic understanding of electrical engineering concepts, while those taking more advanced courses such as PCB Design for Rigid-Flex Boards should be familiar with concepts such as schematic generation and signal integrity. Visit the course product page on training.ipc.org for a complete description and suggested prerequisites for each PCB design course.

PCD&F: Does it require knowledge of any certain CAD program(s)?

Plaza: A working understanding of any CAD program used to design PCBs is helpful but not necessary for introductory courses.

PCD&F: Are any specific CAD tools used to teach the workshop?

Plaza: The course is taught using the Altium Designer platform, and IPC provides a license for all students to use it during the course. However, it is not necessary to use Altium for the course, and the students may use any CAD tool they prefer for the projects in the class.

PCD&F: What does this mean for the CID designation?

Plaza: These courses are excellent preparation for the CID/CID+ certification exams. After completing these courses, participants will have the skills necessary to feel confident taking the CID/CID+ certification exams.

PCD&F: Will those who pass the CID or CID+ exams have to periodically recertify?

Plaza: Right now there are no recertification requirements for CID and CID+. – CD

PCD&F: Are they offering it already?

Creeden: Yes, in the second quarter we’ll hold our first classes. You can go to eptac.com/etrainings/printed-circuit-engineering-designer-online-program. You’ll find the online courses there. It is also being made available to universities, not two-year colleges. This is for four-year colleges – essentially a matriculated student in a four-year degree program. The book is not available commercially. Our goal is to make better layout engineers. We feel [the book’s] effectivity is brought through this training program.

The curriculum is also supported with an optional, industry-recognized certification. You do not have to obtain the certification if you don’t want. Some just want the education. Some want the industry recognition. I would encourage you to do so because many employers really take note of this.

People pursue professional development because they want recognition, and they want education. How much value do you want to bring to your employer and to your own career?

Figure 2. Backed by the PCEA, the new PCED curriculum is CAD tool neutral and focuses on the science of printed circuit engineering.
FIGURE 2. Backed by the PCEA, the new PCED curriculum is CAD tool neutral and focuses on the science of printed circuit engineering.

PCD&F: What does this mean for the CID designation?

Creeden: I think both are of value. This course is more contemporary. It is geared more toward empowering someone to perform engineering layout and all the associated relevance: standards, manufacturing, signal integrity applications. It’s truly to perform the profession of engineering layout. I think CID, in its intentions, was to empower an existing designer to comprehend standards and manufacturing. CID and CID+ were written to take an existing designer and empower them with understanding standards of how their boards are built.

PCD&F: What background should someone have before taking this workshop?

Creeden: There are no prerequisites. It’s appropriate to a beginner entering the profession. It is appropriate for a college graduate (a BSEE), and it is equally appropriate to a seasoned veteran who wants to understand many advanced packaging skills and high-end signal integrity applications and power delivery.

Rick has written a bonus seventh chapter to our book, and it is part of Rick Hartley’s magic. It is essentially a very good overview of a lot of signal integrity, both theory and application. This is equivalent, in my perspective, to a master’s program body of knowledge. I would call the rest of the curriculum approximately a fourth year of college. Most of the universities we’ve talked to are going to target this to a fourth year in a BSEE program.

PCD&F: Are any specific CAD tools used while teaching the workshop?

Creeden: No. We’ve created lab sections, whereby you can take the labs and apply them on your CAD tool. The reason is CAD vendors update their software as often as quarterly. So, we want to leave it to [students] to go to [software companies] for CAD software usage. They’re the best ones to get that from.

However, we do teach in the book many ancillary things. It’s not just about circuit design. We teach about program management. We teach about industry conventions. We teach about CAD tool utilization and proficiency. So, we talk about how to master your CAD tool, but we do it in a broad sense, so you can apply it to your specific tool. We talk quite a bit about tool efficiency, understanding conventions, and how to make procedures.

PCD&F: You mentioned the PCEA as the certifying body. Could you elaborate?

Alden Lewis and Mark Pilkington, EPTAC: EPTAC was approached by the PCEA informing us they had created a new printed circuit design program titled Printed Circuit Engineering Designer (PCED). This professional development program teaches the profession of layout engineering from A to Z and is written completely from a designer’s perspective, encompassing the disciplines of PCB fabrication, assembly, testing and repair. It includes the latest technologies, materials, components, manufacturing equipment, and testing equipment and procedures.

Creeden: There are three entities: PCE-EDU is a curriculum development company. We have licensed this training program to EPTAC. Therefore, EPTAC is the one that’s presenting this curriculum to the industry. PCEA is the certifying body.

When we created this curriculum, we approached many people in the industry. We approached other trade associations: IPC, SMTA. We approached the CAD companies, and eventually we settled on the PCEA. They were the last ones we asked because this has been a couple years in development, and they’re new as of 2020.

You sign up at EPTAC. You will be sent the book, and then you have one to two months to read it, and then we will gather for a lectured review. The lectured review is live regionally when we come out of the Covid era, but the course is also available online, and it will be taught with a one-week commitment – a 40-hour lectured review. It’s also available through evening classes – 40 hours (13 classes) over the course of a month.

Figure 3. The PCED program is ECAD tool agnostic.
FIGURE 3. The PCED program is ECAD tool agnostic.

PCD&F: Will EPTAC continue to offer the CID and CID+ programs?

Lewis and Pilkington: EPTAC will continue to offer both the CID Designer and CID+ Advanced Designer programs, as there are organizations and individuals who want the IPC certification and to be taught a design course from the perspective of the fabricators, with an emphasis on the IPC standards associated with circuit design.

PCD&F: Will EPTAC offer the new IPC PCB design certification of completion programs as well?

Lewis and Pilkington: IPC’s PCB Design series of courses are only offered directly through IPC and are part of IPC’s Education series.

PCD&F: How is the new PCED program priced?

Lewis and Pilkington: Priced competitively, the PCED program is a 40-hour program that includes the PCED training manual, which is designed to be kept and utilized as a permanent reference resource for the design of electronic circuits. EPTAC offers both individual enrollment pricing, as well as pricing for dedicated group classes.

Chelsey Drysdale is senior editor at PCD&F/CIRCUITS ASSEMBLY; cdrysdale@upmediagroup.com.