Mike Buetow

As it turns out, software developers and journalists have a lot in common.

(Brief pause while I let my friends from Shanghai to Wilsonville collect themselves.)

It’s no secret that the publishing field has been in a state of upheaval. Whether you blame Craigslist, which eviscerated the lucrative classified ads sections in dailies; Google, which allowed rapid (and sometimes accurate) search, undermining the value of industry-specific sites and publications; globalization, which spread customers (and marketing dollars) over a much wider geographical spectrum; or any of a host of other reasons, what’s most relevant is that the model for a stable and profitable enterprise remains in flux.

Publishers often think in terms of how they think the world should behave, as opposed to how it wants to – and does – behave. In real terms, the mindset is, why would a potential advertiser use Google instead of my site to reach customers, when my site is so much more efficient and targeted?

But it (sadly) happens.

I would argue a similar conundrum is around the virtual corner for EDA companies. The commonality is that customers just don’t act the way PCB software developers think they should.

Consider autorouting. I’ve heard for years about how designers would save time, money and headaches if they’d just turn on their autorouters. Likewise, vendors universally bemoan that designers don’t run simulation.

Those aren’t fair claims, designers assert. “There’s no point in simulating the board if it’s missing the models,” one told me. Others note that their autorouters too often lock up or fail to finish the job, leaving them to sort out the mess.

As our annual salary survey revealed last month, PCB designers are an aging bunch. But despite the lightning speed of change at the end-product level, we know boards will still need to be designed for decades or more. If I were to guess, the next generation will be considerably younger, and perhaps less interested in the mechanical details behind why a board is routed and placed. However, they will be apps savvy, and will be most comfortable with the plug-and-play aspect. Oh, and if something breaks, they will want to junk it and move to the next one.

It’s not just the cost, of course. Parts libraries are ubiquitous, and often free, but users generally see the risk as greater than the reward.

That’s the revolution I see coming, and it will be driven less by future technology changes than the simple ability to enable what the users’ preference has been all along: simplicity and ease of use.

Time-to-market constraints and IP concerns will drive OEMs to embedded platforms, and design reuse will be the norm. We are already seeing this, and besides facilitating turn times, the margins are very attractive, too. It’s inevitable. It’s time, then, that CAD companies start writing programs that are built on new platforms and code, rather than adding to the gazillions of lines of code in the existing ones. Make them more price-sensitive, app friendly, and above all, “keep it simple, stupid.” The goal should be to enable as many possible users, whether they are power users or DIYers.

All of this will take a shift not only in process but mindset. But consider: The best online game programmers are first and foremost players. As one designer told me this year, CAD vendors “once did have PCB designers help design product,” and maybe it’s time they revisited that approach.

Futurists predict that the time will come when anyone with an idea will be able to design and manufacture it themselves. I’m not thinking that far out, but we are fewer than 20 years away from a fundamental shift in who will be doing the design, and with the enormous investment in new Silicon Valley R&D facilities, CAD companies can’t – and shouldn’t – count on all that shift occurring in China. We need to stop arguing about how customers should respond, and start planning for and reacting to how they do respond.

It’s a subject worth exploring by all sides. PCB West, the Silicon Valley’s largest technical conference and exhibition for printed circuit board design, fabrication and assembly, is an ideal place to start. With some 80 exhibitors and more than 55 technical presentations (including one day of free talks), it’s also a great value that should appeal to any designer or engineer. Visit for details. See you this month in Santa Clara.

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