Tips from a PCB Designer - Breakout Boards, Raspberry Pi and Much More!
Meet Dan Elliott,
Dan owns and manages Electro Design & Engineering and also works as a contractor. The company offers solutions for your process and automation needs, covering electrical schematic creation, electronic schematics, PCB design and 3D CAD modelling. His services also include design, 2D & 3D drafting, schematics, PCB protoyping and custom breakout PCBs.
Here, Dan gives us some advice on how to avoid any pitfalls or problems that can occur in the process of design to final product.
Ensure that you understand what your customer wants.
What a customer has in their mind may not be perceived in the same way by the design engineer. Dan likes to do a URS (User Requirement Specification), but these can be misinterpreted sometimes. To avoid this, he writes down what exactly the customer should expect from the information he has received. He believes that communication and crosschecking is important; asking the customer, is this what you expect to happen? He likes to document this process as much as possible.
He talked about visualising the final product and circuit in his mind; drawing it in block diagram, work through the stages, what’s going to link up with what, how they will interact, etc.
“The experience I have, through different jobs I have had, means that I can try to foresee all the problems a customer’s design may incur.”
Talk to the Mechanical Design Team.
Sometimes, there isn’t as much communication as there should be, which can potentially lead to issues like brackets and sensor placement being an afterthought. Dan likes to try to keep on top of it but admits that even he occasionally comes across a bit of an ooops, like “where are we going to put our cables?!”
Know exactly what you want.
Specifying the correct equipment; the right tools for the job; light guards, barriers, anything related to safety is very important.
Make changes AFTER drawings are finalised and frozen!
Changes to the design after the drawings have been done which reallocate I/O up to the PLC can create a headache, especially reorganising everything and re-labelling the drawings.
Because a lot of designs Dan works with have a lot of safety cells, for example automated robots, the safety circuits become pretty complicated. If they are very complicated he uses a safety PLC to program. And if he has worked out how it’s going to function and then the customer says they need another gate access or something changes, he has give it a review again.
Running His Own Business
Dan has been running his private company for just under a year now; it is slowly taking off and he is looking to expand things in the coming year. We picked Dan’s brains about what it is like to start your own company and asked him to pass on any knowledge from his experience.
So what is special about your company?
"I am a small business working for other small businesses, my overheads are low and I can offer a more personal approach to developing protoypes and designs."
The Breakout Board Idea
He tells us that there are already breakout boards on the market, usually standard ICs, SOIC-14s or SOIC-18s, but he noticed that more people are starting to experiment now. There are a lot more startups around and they can’t always get the breakout boards for ICs they want.
“My idea was to do a range with different off-the-shelf packages that are harder to get hold of and have all the pin headers to connect up to. Adafruit and SparkFun do them but there are a lot of different packages and you can’t always get what you want. I may do custom design ones as well.”
Is it an alternative idea to breadboards PCBs or the next step in the design process?
“It is to work in conjunction with breadboards. Breakout boards would either fit directly onto a breadboard or you could junket the pins over.”
Raspberry Pi and Open Source Hardware
“A lot of the prototypes I'm developing are to be used in conjunction with the Raspberry Pi. These devices have really helped to make experimental hardware and coding more popular. It's fantastic that this is happening and with all the open sourcing now available we can take ideas and modify them to suit our individual requirements. I have a number of projects in the pipeline and hope to make these available for open source and to purchase.”
“I aim to develop a range of audio effects and synthesizer related devices. Music is a big part of my life and this is how I first got interested in electronics. It is something I've always wanted to do.”
What do you think your customers value most in your service?
- Attention to detail is important to Dan.
- He likes to do a lot of research on the subject matter, like the HDMI switch boards that he’s just done; he didn’t know a great deal about the requirments before he started and spent a lot of time studying the prerequisites for the design.
- Value for money; he believes that he’s not too expensive.
- Communication; he details everything in emails for keeping track of the design stages to ensure everyone is on the same page.
- He has a broad knowledge of electronics and component selection.
What do you find hardest about running a design company?
“Time! Finding the time to do everything is the hardest; hours fly by. I work 50-70 hours a week, something is always going on. It can get hard to be in front of the computer for hours on end. “
How do you advertise your services?
Dan has relied on word of mouth and advertised his services on Adafruit, which is how he found a particular customer from America that he has done quite a bit of work with. Other than that, he hasn’t advertised a great deal but he plans to do more next year. He wants to cut down on electrical and concentrate on electronics, which he feels is a bit more fun.
Are there any shows you can recommend to the industry?
- PPMA – this show focuses on packaging and manufacturing. It took place in the NEC Birmingham. There were a lot of people there from all different industries including pneumatics and electrical.
- Guassfest – this show focuses on high voltage equipment such as the Teslascoil.
- EGX – this was the UK’s biggest ever games event.
- National Electronics Week - this is being held in the NEC Birmingham next year and Dan plans to attend.
- Engineering Design Show – an electronics design show held in the Ricoh arena, Coventry
Do you use social media?
He uses Twitter and Instagram to follow people in the industry to see new ideas and new products.
Our thanks to Dan’s willingness to share his experiences and give us some insight into making new product design and production an easier journey. Regarding getting the most from a PCB designer, he has supplied us with some great takeaway points:
- Communication is key – both between the designer and the customer, and between the designer and the mechanical team.
- Information & experience – he uses Twitter and attending shows to keep up to speed with developments, and he has a broad electronics experience from previous jobs.
Do you think it is important to know what is happening in the electronics design industry? Why not follow these accounts on Twitter?
You can contact Dan via his website at electrodesignandengineering.com
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CommentsAdd a comment
November 22, 2016 13:23
Hi all, I like the principles that this article discusses. I have started a magazine for the PCB design and manufacturing industry in the UK. I publish this quarterly, there are articles and reviews on different facets of PCB engineering much of which is based on my own experiences over my years in electronics.
Have a look and let me know what you think:
I'm looking to increase my reader base and I'm also looking for companies that wish to partner and jointly advertise and share news.
November 21, 2016 10:30
Phil, I have made those grammar and spelling changes now. Thank you for taking the time to point them out. I will certainly do a much more thorough review before publishing an article in the future.
Russ, thank you for your support and I'm glad you felt motivated by the interview!
November 18, 2016 11:23
It looks like you are as anal as I used to be. You are right, i found many errors too. But, really, his message was more inspirational than faulty. I am now more motivated to excel in this field than I was before reading Dan's article. Dan deserves support, not hurdles. "Cheers" to you Dan! Keep up the good work!
November 18, 2016 11:18
Could be a useful article - but would it be too much to ask that someone checks these things for spelling/grammar before they are published?
"...a more personel approach...", "...harder to get hold off...", "What do you think your customer's value...", "...hours flies by", etc.
I don't want to nitpick, but after all, "Attention to detail is important to Dan." :-)