Communication, Part 3: Why Do Board Shops Ask So Many Questions?

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Editor’s note: Read Part 1 and Part 2, and stay tuned for Parts 4–6 of this series.

In Part 3, Bob Chandler from CA Design and Mark Thompson from Prototron Circuits speak with Steve Williams about the importance of preparing, sending, and receiving comprehensive (and ideally, perfectly complete) design data packages. If you’ve ever wondered why the CAM department asks you so many questions, read on.

Steve Williams: The topic we’re going to cover today is why board shops ask so many questions of the customer, whether they’re a contract manufacturer, an OEM, or a design service. Mark, can you start?

Mark Thompson: Ultimately, it’s to clarify the engineer’s intentions and ensure that they’re building to the engineer’s wishes. An example of that is editing drawing notes. If you have 15 notes that aren’t relevant to the board design, don’t call them out; get rid of them. That way, they don’t create questions or lead to phone calls from the fabricator. Sometimes, the drawing notes are completely wrong. I had an occasion this morning, where I had a wrong callout for impedances. The drawing called out layers one, three, four, and eight, and while looking at the data, I saw that they were actually on layers one, three, five, and eight. Miscommunication like that could create havoc.

Williams: I know that CA Design is very good with its documentation packages. Why do you think this is so difficult for some companies?

Bob Chandler: Everybody likes the idea of standard notes because they never have to touch them. The problem arises when the standard notes are there as a starting point, not an ending point. Many engineers rely on the standard notes as being the ending point and think that they don’t even have to look at them.

Williams: With the influx of new engineers entering the business that don’t have as much experience, do you think that plays into this problem?

Thompson: Without a doubt. You’re going to get phone calls, saying, “Is that a note I even need?” I’d say, “Yes, but it depends on what your intentions are. What’s your job or board application?

BobChandler300.jpgChandler: Many of them are engineers, and the EEs are doing their own layout for board a year. Meanwhile, a PCB designer may do one board a week and know to change the notes, but an engineer might not.

Williams: Mark, how do you find a balance between where you need information versus bothering the customer by asking too many questions?

Thompson: If I run into something that I know the answer to already, I ask it in such a way that it’s a foregone conclusion. With netlist anomalies, for instance, a good designer always builds in an A-ground to B-ground short. But instead of calling and saying, “I’m stopping the job because you have an A-ground short,” I’ll say, “you’ve defined it as net zero or net one, which looks very much intentional. Can we safely proceed?”

Another example would be castellated holes or edge-plated holes. It screens who this is going to be making a connection to a post at a later point. I’ll come up with exactly 16 broken nets, but I’ll count around the periphery of the board and see that there are exactly 16 castellated holes again. If I can make it a foregone conclusion, it comes off a little bit better and takes the pressure off of them from saying, “That’s a silly question.”

Williams: Bob, at CA design, do you have design ownership on anything you’re doing, or does that go back to the customer?

Chandler: That goes back to the customer; our clients always own the data.

Williams: So, you have another layer of communication to manage where you might have to go to your customer and all the way back through that supply chain.

Chandler: That’s right.

Williams: Again, one thing that can bother a customer is asking lots of questions, so how do you avoid that?

Thompson: I gather all of the questions at the first possible chance. I can’t tell you how many times a CAM operator will say they have a problem and ask me one question. I’ll respond, “Have you ran a full analysis yet?” We’re not going to ask the customer one question at a time and take the risk of making them angry; ultimately, I aim to ask all questions at once.

Williams: Excellent. Any parting words of wisdom on this topic, Bob?

Chandler: Designers need not to take it personally when a question comes up.

Thompson: I agree.

Williams: That’s a great point because a lot of times, they do take it personally, and then they don’t want to go back to the customer for some reason.

Thompson: Correct. They might think it reflects badly on them but doesn’t. You have to answer these questions. Sometimes, I’ll get situations where if I’m going through a middle party, they won’t understand what the intention of the question is; they’ll say, “Can you call the end-user?” And because we have over 5,000 customers, I frequently call the end-use customer directly, but only with the authorization of that middle person.

Williams: This is an important topic. Thanks for bringing some light to it.

Steve Williams is the president of The Right Approach Consulting and an I-Connect007 columnist.

Bob Chandler is CTO of CA Design ( and a senior Allegro/OrCAD trainer and consultant.

Mark Thompson, CID+, is in engineering support at Prototron Circuits and an I-Connect007 columnist. Thompson is also the author of The Printed Circuit Designer's Guide to… Producing the Perfect Data Package. Visit to download this book and other free, educational titles.


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