Powerful Prototypes: The Work World in 2021

“When the going gets tough, the tough get going.” This often-used statement (or often-yelled statement by my junior high school football coach) has always struck me as being a bit odd. I’m sure my coach intended it to mean that when things are really difficult, tough people will try harder. However, due to the idiosyncrasies of the English language, it could equally mean that those with strong character will turn tail and get the heck out of Dodge.

I don’t really know which stands correct in this setting, but I’m stuck at home, so there is no Dodge to get out of. Without the ability to keep doing business as usual or head for the hills, I’m left in my little box to contemplate what life will be like once all of this is over.

I miss coming into the office, but I actually see some colleagues more often through video chat than I ever did in person. The biggest loss I feel is time out on the production floor. In normal times, whenever I’m feeling a little stressed or lost, I will spend some time looking at all of the PCBs being built. At any given moment, we may have 100 or more different board designs in the process of being built, and being surrounded by that much concentrated innovation is therapeutic (Figure 1).

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Figure 1: Panleized PCBs ready for solder paste.

I will be able to get back to the boards sometime, but many things, I suspect, will change for the better. With that in mind, here are five ways I see the working world being different in 2021.

1. Video Connection

The concept of video phone calls or conferences has been around for almost as long as the telephone and wireless voice transmission. The development of the technology required for video transmission started nearly 100 years ago. The first closed-circuit (a non-changeable connection between two specific locations) was put into use in the 1930s. AT&T (the monopoly telephone company in the USA for much of the 20th century) demonstrated a working two-way video phone at the 1964 World’s Fair; it is not a new idea.

Despite the passage of all of that time, the ability to make a video call from wherever you are to almost any location of your choice without the need for exotic hardware only goes back to about the turn of the 21st century. Even then, it was awkward, difficult for some, impossible for others, and never really fully out of the prototype stage.

That all changed mid-March 2020. Once remote work and social distancing became the order of the day, people had to make video calls work or lose out. Most of us found that video call tools were easier to use and more practical than thought. Video calling in March 2020 was far better than being cut off from all visual human contact or risking getting or giving a new and frightening virus.

Video conferencing will be far more common and will be almost as accepted as an in-person presence. The next step will be tablet stations, such as small, tabletop tripods for tablets that can be remotely turned to face someone. These will allow for better mixing of telepresence and live presence. Taller versions on wheels will become commonplace too.

2. Commuting vs. Remote Working

Remote working is not for everyone, but I think it’s safe to say that it works well for a lot of people. A week or two isn’t really enough to change behaviors or thought processes, but two or three months likely is.

Before my current job, I spent most of my career with anywhere from a 20-minute to a 90-minute commute. If that is all you know, you don’t have anything different to compare it to. If it is your only choice, you adapt and deal with it. In my current position, I live close enough to walk to work in all but the most inclement weather. It didn’t take long after starting that the thought of going back to a job with a long commute became almost unthinkable.

Some people don’t have a home situation that lends itself to easily being productive, but if you are one that can make it work, the thought of going back to that commute could be a rather hard pill to swallow.

3. Commercial Real Estate vs. Remote Working

Your reticence to go back to a life of commuting may very well be a good thing for your employer as well. The debate about the effectiveness of working at home has been around for many years and may very well be put to rest due to the experiences of these few months. Some companies refuse to believe that their employee can be trusted to be productive without a manager breathing over them.

Some companies trust their workers but believe that the benefits of a physical presence outweigh any advantage that remote working can give. Again, these few months will be a big slap in that face. After this is over, the ability to work at home or the need for a position to be in the office will be little more than a job attribute as is the need to lift heavy objects, and far more jobs then we could have ever imagined will fall into the “can work remotely” category.

Imagine the commercial real estate market in 2021. If a company needs more office space, working from home might be more often seen as an alternative to expensive office expansion. “If we did it in 2020, we can do it now.”

4. Cloud and Collaborative Computing

Cloud computing and remote collaboration were already in a stronger position than work from home before this happened, but it now has all the proof it needs to knock out the last of the naysayers. There are organizations that have, for a long time, primarily consisted of remote workers. We used to call those “virtual companies.” Now, we just call them “companies.”

Through this, I’ve been working with a team that is distributed across the world. Before the forced extended work at home, I would have said that I periodically meet with people from around the world. Today, I would say that I work with them and collaborate with them. There is no longer any advantage to being in the same physical office over being in a remote location.

While I may prefer to see folks in person, the “need” to be in the same room has turned from what I thought was a requirement for efficiency to being merely a personal preference. The next time I need to hire someone, I’m going to be hard-pressed not to have remote work as an option from the start.

Some of the tools do need a bit of work still, but more and more software systems are making remote collaboration a reality. I still haven’t found a good remote substitute for a big whiteboard, though. Would one of you engineers out there get to work on that?

5. We Were Close: Now We Are There

All of my points cover work practices or concepts that have been around for a while, and some for a very long while. The COVID-19 shut-down has just proved the viability. The working world has gone virtual, and there really is no going back.

Some jobs do require a physical presence, such as manufacturing. But that only applies to the people actually driving a soldering iron or moving the parts and boards around. For anyone in an office setting, location is now a preference and not a requirement.

Please keep yourself safe and spend some time contemplating what you want your work setting to be once we are through all of this.

Duane Benson is marketing manager and CTO at Screaming Circuits.

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2020

Powerful Prototypes: The Work World in 2021

05-27-2020

While being at home, Duane Benson has been completing what life will be like once all of this is over. While he's excited to get back to the boards sometime, many things will change for the better. Duane shares five ways he sees the working world being different in 2021.

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Powerful Prototypes: Why Datasheets Matter

04-22-2020

Some parts just look cooler than others. One of Duane Benson's favorites is the edge mount high-speed RF connector. Unfortunately, "I like the look" doesn't necessarily translate to "it is easy to build." The edge mount connector requires a proper footprint and a match with the PCB thickness, and this is where the datasheet comes in.

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Powerful Prototypes: Manufacturing in an Uncertain World

03-25-2020

In the best of times, electronics manufacturing is an exercise in taking chaos (in the form of data and information of multiple non-aligned forms and formats) and creating order (in the form of a working PCB). As I write this, the coronavirus has been declared a global pandemic, and the primary theme of the day is uncertainty. Duane Benson shares four things you can do to better ensure that your projects can be built and improve your habits.

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Powerful Prototypes: An Open-source Adventure

02-26-2020

Duane Benson describes the latest board design project he has been working on in his off-hours—a motion-sensitive lapel pin—including compromises, mistakes, and lessons learned

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Powerful Prototypes: Five Technological Shifts in the New Decade

01-08-2020

Depending on your perspective, we are either starting the last year of the old decade or starting the first year of the new decade. But regardless of what you call the decade, a lot of change is in store. Duane Benson shares five of the more significant technological shifts directly ahead of us and how to respond.

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2019

Powerful Prototypes: Cost Reduction in Design

12-11-2019

Getting custom electronics manufactured is not cheap, fast, or easy. Fortunately, there are ways to keep costs down and yields up without adding cost. Duane Benson shares six ways to keep costs down and yields up that you can do without a lot of effort.

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Powerful Prototypes: New PCB Fab Technology—What You Need to Know

11-20-2019

Exotic materials have been around for a while, but being “exotic,” most of us could safely ignore them. However, as clock speeds increase, and board sizes decrease, some of those exotic materials are getting close to mainstream. Duane Benson shares some of the newest terminology you might see in your daily electronics adventures and will need to be familiar with when venturing beyond a standard, rigid FR-4 PCB.

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Powerful Prototypes: Panelization—What Is It and Why Would You Want It?

10-30-2019

We see orders for a single board, and we see orders for thousands. “A few thousand” falls way outside the realm of “prototype,” but in the startup and open-source worlds, the lines are blurred. Once you order more than about 50 boards, a few things change; for example, you should consider ordering your boards in a panel, also called arrays or a palette, of multiple boards.

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Powerful Prototypes: Never Assume—A DFM Story

09-19-2019

I write a lot of words about DFM and best practices for PCB layout. Working for a manufacturer, I regularly see the results of not taking DFM seriously. DFM is something never to be taken for granted at any point in the design cycle, and I mean at any point in the process.

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Powerful Prototypes: 5 Common Myths About Solder Mask

08-14-2019

Before parts are added, a typical PCB has four ingredients: substrate, metal, solder mask, and silkscreen. Solder mask, in particular, seems to be looked at as a great place to cut when costs are tight, but Duane Benson disagrees. Read on as he dispels five common myths about solder mask.

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Powerful Prototypes: The Ideal Bill of Materials

07-10-2019

A good portion of a quality electronics build is simply the result of clear information. Not long ago, I wrote about the set of files containing the information required by your manufacturing partner to ensure a quality build.

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Powerful Prototypes: Moisture Sensitivity—What’s the Risk, and What Can You Do About It?

04-18-2019

I recently traveled to New Orleans, Louisiana, for a week of beignets, fried food, and urban exploration. It’s a good thing that parts of the exploration came in the form of walking as some level of exercise was needed to compensate for the lack of greens and heavy emphasis on the word “fried” that went along with most of the food.

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Proper PCB Storage: Top Three Hazards

03-28-2019

Overall, our modern world could not exist without PCBs; they are everywhere, but they aren’t items to be taken for granted. Like most technology, PCBs need proper handling and storage. PCBs don’t last forever and are even more vulnerable before the parts are soldered on. The solderable metal surface is very thin and subject to a number of potential problems, especially if not stored properly.

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Seven PCB Cost-reduction Design Tips

02-11-2019

Like everything else in the modern world, design decisions can have a pretty big impact on your manufacturing cost. Here's a list of seven design decisions that can make your manufacturing more affordable.

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Eight PCB Assembly Tips for 2019

01-17-2019

It's now 2019, and all I'll say on the coming year is that we are in for a wild ride. The last few years have been pretty crazy, and 2019 looks to continue that trend but amped up. While predictions might be fun to muse upon, they really won't help you get your job done. So, here's my top eight pieces of PCB assembly advice for the coming year to make up for that.

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2018

What Is Your Supply Chain Telling You About Components?

12-24-2018

Right now, many, many parts are in short supply, or unavailable with extraordinarily long lead times. Allocation is the word of the day and substitutions are your friend. Sure, electronics components shortage happens every now and then in this industry. It's a periodic nuisance, but what should you do for the long term? Read on.

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Electronic Manufacturing Files: What We Need for PCB Assembly

12-07-2018

As PCB assemblers, manufacturing is all about taking data and delivering good working circuit boards. It can be just data, as in full turn-key, data plus some parts, or a partial turn-key or a kitted job. Regardless of whether you're sending parts and boards or having us buy everything, PCB assemblers need good data, and a lot of it.

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The Future of PCB Designs

11-28-2018

Duane Benson designed his first PCB using tape and etch-resist pens from RadioShack. He penciled the schematic on graph paper, drew the layout directly onto the single-sided copper-plated board, and then etched it. At the time, commercial PCB design wasn’t too different. In his column, he talks about the advancements in PCB design and the key considerations when designing boards.

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Top 5 Things to Know When Moving from Hand Assembly to Robotic Assembly

11-14-2018

A lot of factors go into the decision to hand-build or outsource circuit boards. When the decision is to outsource, there are a few important things to consider. Some things that work fine when hand soldering may stand in the way of quality, repeatability, and reliability when machine assembling. Here are some of the most important considerations when changing from hand-build to outsourced.

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Top 5 Ways to Mitigate PCB Component Availability Problems

11-07-2018

The electronics design world is by now aware that we're in a very serious period of components shortages. Allocation and shortages hit every few years, but this one seems to be the worst in recent memory. It could be a problem until 2020 and the supply chain and world of components manufactures will likely be a different animal coming out of it. Here are five things you can do to minimize the effects.

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