Mike BuetowThe exploding maker market has brought thousands of new designers to the field.

Many are learning printed circuit techniques on their own, through videos or books or other tutorials, rather than via the traditional mentor/trainer relationships. When you are a one-person operation, trial-and-error can be a painful process. Months of work can go down the drain in one fell swoop.

Amid all the maker noise, an entirely new generation of designers is being overlooked. These are the folks at colleges and universities who, like hobbyists, are learning board design as a means to develop new products and realize their ideas. But the scale can be several times greater; whereas a maker might design and re-spin a board a half-dozen times in a year, student teams might be producing three times that rate.

While their work may be under the radar, it can be highly significant. At the University of Sherbrooke in Quebec, for instance, graduate students in the Medical Equipment Research Group (GRAMS) are designing boards for imaging animal and human brains. Working with some of the top medical programs in the world, including Massachusetts General Hospital, engineers like Jonathan Bouchard are developing state-of-the-art brain scanners with exquisite spatial resolution.

Bouchard is a doctoral student in electrical engineering. He has been designing boards for nearly a decade, having previously teamed up with other undergraduates to design unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). Necessity being the mother of invention, Bouchard recalls the lack of off-the-shelf parts for building drones led the team to use custom PCBs. “I first learned with teachers, then by myself. I worked a lot on this. I started to get interested in PCB and system design.”

The team entered drone competitions, and board failures occasionally meant aircraft crashes. For Bouchard, it was part of the learning process. “You get experience from every single one you do,” he notes. The board costs of failures can be self-limiting for many. Fortunately for Bouchard, he had a sponsor who was a fabricator in Montreal. “I designed 20 to 40 boards in a year, and they were producing them for free. Not everyone has the same chance to get experience in the field.”

As part of his development as a designer, he reached out to a professor at Sherbrooke. He later joined that professor’s group in graduate school. There, he is part of a team that uses professional CAD like Mentor Pads or Altium Designer.  That team has two permanent technicians who do a lot of designs for a variety of projects, plus two interns and three others who work on PCB designs. Bouchard estimates there are maybe 300 to 400 workers at the research institute in Quebec, and many are designing electronics from chip-scale to PCB scale and building robots with them. Internally, they also design ASICs and make all the test boards themselves. The most complex board he produced was 16 layers, with microvias, buried vias and HDI. The group did a 32-layer-board. The lab goes far beyond the stereotypical mad scientist in the garage.

Like professional design groups, GRAMS has put in processes to reduce failures. “We have seen a lot of things that could have potentially failed,” explains Bouchard, “but we can’t afford to make more revisions, so we really have to be careful. We have a team that reviews all our designs and footprints.”

With all the talk of the graying of the PCB design industry, especially in North America, I was interested in getting Bouchard’s take. “Do your colleagues ever discuss the relative age of PCB designers today?” I asked him. The response: “I wasn’t really aware of that, but I kind of get (why), because it requires some experience. You have to start at the bottom and learn it.”

I was surprised to hear graduate-level engineers were so entrenched in board design. But don’t expect them to start seeking jobs with Intel and Apple. Bouchard says that when he completes his dissertation, he wants to stay on the academic side. “I like playing inside the research field. I really find it stimulating to build things that don’t exist yet. Brand new competences give you opportunities to go further.”

Just when you think you know the industry, you find new pockets doing great work, (mostly} sight unseen.

Mike Buetow

P.S. Those interested in the future of the PCB profession, and the recruiting and management techniques needed to attract and keep millennials, are encouraged to attend Phil Marcoux’s panel on The Future of PCB Engineers at PCB West in September. (

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