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. Follow him on twitter.