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It’s Time to Fix What’s Broken with Hardware Design

What if I were to tell you that a core component of every electronic device you own is still built based on technology from the 1980s?

We all know that devices have been getting better, faster, stronger at an exponential rate. And likewise, the process for building them has been on a steady march toward automation and ultimate efficiency.

But when it comes to designing the circuit board, the humming engine of progress comes to a screeching halt. Electronic Design Automation (EDA) software has not delivered on the promise of making circuit board design simple or streamlined. And there may be real consequences to the industry and electronics design as a whole if we don’t change this.

Back up — What is EDA, and why does it exist?

Engineers have long had access to pre-manufactured circuit boards — these days you can order them for next-day delivery. But depending on the project, a custom circuit board might be necessary.

Credit: A Manual of Engineering Drawing for Students and Draftsmen, 9th Ed., by French & Vierck, 1960, p. 487

In the early days, people designed circuit boards by hand. But over time, circuits got too complex, and engineers needed a better way.

Enter EDA

EDA software, or more specifically Printed Circuit Board (PCB) design software, came along to make circuit board design easier. But it turned out “easier” was a relative term.

The truth is using PCB design software was anything but easy. As with most technologies built in the 1980s, it was elaborate, clunky, complex, and offered an extremely poor user experience. At the same time, it was extremely expensive and cumbersome — often taking weeks if not months to complete a project.

But that was how things were back then — technologies were new, and we were still figuring out how to make them user-friendly. Since then, the software used by architects, product designers, and photo and video editors has evolved from clunky and expensive to intuitive and affordable. We’ve seen the democratization of tools across virtually every design discipline.

Except, of course, PCB design. Strangely, PCB design software dug in its heels.

It has never evolved in a meaningful sense. Sure, the products distributed by EDA software companies have received functionality updates, but they kept the same mystifying user experience and burdensome price tag. Projects still take weeks to complete, costing the company both time and money. Worse still, many of them are released with bugs that require creative work arounds.

Credit: Advanced Micro Devices, Inc.

Many brilliant product designers are resorting to outsourcing PCB design simply because it’s less hassle to hire an agency than to use the software themselves.

I recently spoke with a designer who admitted he’d tried working with PCB design software before finally giving up, forfeiting on his original idea. We’ve spoken to universities, unable to teach their students PCB design software, struggling to find an alternative that fits their curriculum. Others have started hand-drawing their designs in Adobe Illustrator, harkening back to the print-and-etch method pioneered in the early 1900s.

We’ve also heard reports of entire engineering departments leaving a company in frustration, tired of trying to wrestle their software into submission in the hopes of eventually seeing their vision come to life. Imagine being a carpenter without a hammer — engineers need the right tools, and in the digital era, there’s no good reason these tools don’t exist.

Credit: Elon Musk

The Future of PCB Design

The problem is not that PCB design is a dying industry that will be lost to time. It can’t be — custom circuit boards are too critical for supporting the electronics that power our world. Without EDA, we wouldn’t have the next iPhone, the newest fitness tracker, TVs to watch, ovens to cook, or cars to drive.

Rather, it’s imperative that we make PCB design easier for engineers and product designers. And to truly bring PCB design into the 21st century, it should also be accessible to entrepreneurs, artists, and others who want to bring great ideas to life.

If we don’t fix what’s broken with EDA, it will continue to be a bottleneck for innovation, rather than the driving force it should be. 2018 is the year we fix what’s broken with PCB design. The year we finally unleash the creativity of makers, thinkers, and doers everywhere.

Eric Schneider  
is the founder and CEO of Patchr.io, a company that makes it ridiculously easy to design printed circuit boards.

Playing Like an Adult: Keeping Imagination Alive

It’s strange we think of creativity as a variable trait, rather than a part of every person’s DNA.

Most of us can point to a few people in our lives who we see as creative, typically because they have a hobby or line of work that’s based in arts or innovation. But watch any group of children engaged in a world of make believe, and there’s no doubt we all have the capacity to be creative.

It’s just that navigating the creative process as an adult can be an ego-blasting, mind-numbing, soul-searching experience that may be unendingly rewarding for those who make it through, but all too easy to walk away from.

The Dragons that Threaten Creativity

Anyone who’s embarked on a creative journey quickly finds out the landscape feels more like a battlefield than a soccer field.

When you played as a child, it was unbounded, unsupervised, impulsive, un-self-conscious, and more or less motiveless. It didn’t feel like work. It felt natural and fun.

Still, there may have been moments when someone or something ruined the game.

Maybe your younger sibling came in and changed the dynamic of your group. Maybe a cool, older kid made you feel self-conscious about playing make believe, or the members of your group disagreed on how to progress your story’s “plot.”

As an adult, you’re constantly under attack from these same kinds of disruptive factors – but the consequences aren’t always imaginary:

Self-Doubt

We all meet this dragon relatively early in life. It makes you question the very foundation of your creative process – your own capabilities. Do you have the right skills, or are you intelligent enough to make your idea come to life? Are you persuasive enough to build a team? Why would this be different than the time you failed before? We can all find reasons to doubt ourselves, and these questions can paralyze us.

Fear

This dragon also goes by the name “What If.” It makes you play out all the worst-case scenarios that can come from pursuing your idea, like financial ruin, failure, or – the most crippling for many people – becoming a laughing stock.

Criticism

Children are different than adults in the way they respond to other people’s ideas. Sure, personality conflicts arise while playing, but generally kids roll with each other’s ideas like expert improv comics, building on them and keeping the game going without question.

Adults, on the other hand, like to play devil’s advocate. This can be really helpful in honing your idea, but it can also take the wind out of your sails if it’s not constructive.

Reliance on Extrinsic Motivation

xxYou didn’t have a goal for every game of cops and robbers you played, beyond having fun with your friends. As an adult, you might undertake the creative process with the end goal of making money or achieving notoriety. That’s not an inherent problem, but if you focus too heavily on financial goals, fame, or success in the early stages of the creative process, you may find yourself coming up with ideas that are marketable but uninspired, rather than truly breaking new ground.x

Not Having the Tools or Skills You Need

When it’s time for the rubber to meet the road in the creative process, your imaginary dragons start becoming real. Here’s where you have to discover what it will take to bring your project to life. And harder still, decide whether it’s worth the sacrifices of time, money, and energy you’ll have to make.

Slaying the Dragons and Completing the Quest

The creative process may be fraught with pitfalls, but consider this before you call the whole game stupid and storm off.

When kids play, what do they usually pretend to be? Adults.

There’s a simple reason – kids, in many ways, are limited in what they can do, but we’re not.

We have the ability to make our imaginations reality. Our ideas don’t have to just be ideas. They can become the inventions, philosophies, and infrastructure that power society.

We have everything we wanted as children – the power to make our own decisions and do amazing things. How disappointing, then, to let the dragons win.

Instead, we should unleash the strength, problem-solving skills, and perspective we have gained as adults to nurture and bring to life the imagination we developed as children.

Seek out supportive groups of like-minded people to nurture your creative process. Develop the skills you need to bring your ideas to life. Find the tools that help you design, test, and iterate on your ideas so your process doesn’t end in the ideation phase. If those tools don’t exist, build them.

That’s why we started Patchr. We spent too many years seeing good hardware ideas falter because they were difficult to bring to life. We knew we could make printed circuit board (PCB) design easier so kids at heart (and actual kids) would have the power to take their ideas from concept to reality without investing thousands of dollars and days in PCB software.

We all played the same games as kids, and we face many of the same dragons as adults. The good news is, the more we band together to share imaginative solutions, the easier it becomes for us all to bring our ideas to life.

Eric Schneider  
is the founder and CEO of Patchr.io, a company that makes it ridiculously easy to design printed circuit boards.
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