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Bob Martin is a self-proclaimed “Wizard of Make” and senior staff engineer with Microchip Technology. Next week, this leader of the maker community will be one of the keynote speakers at AltiumLive in San Diego, California. I caught up with Bob and asked him to give us a preview of his presentation.
Andy Shaughnessy: Tell us about your background and how you became into electronics and the maker community.
Bob Martin: I was exposed to a lot of the DIY culture while growing up in the Canadian prairies. My grandfather was a general contractor, and our whole family was filled with carpenters and mechanics. I discovered that I had a natural aptitude for electricity and, subsequently, electronics. Most of my Christmas gifts lasted about two weeks before I took them apart and modified them in some way by using parts from other toys. It’s a familiar story among makers; we had to be resourceful to fix a problem because the nearest hardware store was hours away.
Electrical engineering was an obvious choice for me, and I was instantly drawn to the embedded programming world, which combined both coding and building circuits. It all came to harmonic convergence after I attended my first Maker Faire in the Bay Area and was surrounded by thousands of my own people. It was an awe-inspiring experience. Given that the Arduino platforms at that time were based on products made by the company I was working for, I could chart my own path into the maker space to better understand where this space was going and what these makers really needed.
Shaughnessy: I do see a lot more designers using Arduino now, so I think you’ll have a receptive audience. Give us a preview of your AltiumLive keynote.
Martin: Many prototypes and proofs of concept begin with an Arduino platform because it hides a lot of the fiddly and painfully tedious aspects about embedded coding; moving that into a production-ready, cost-optimized solution sometimes involves deconstructing the prototype and starting up from the ground. But that’s not necessary anymore in either the hardware or software domain. I have addressed the software challenge over the past several years through many trainings, and I am excited to complete the story by covering the hardware side in my upcoming keynote. I’m going to talk about a few options that designers now have along with the key elements of a specific Arduino platform and how you preserve all of that magic that got you there so quickly, such that the software teams don’t need to start over. There will also be a surprise or two in my presentation.
Shaughnessy: It sounds like a fun keynote. What do you think are the biggest challenges facing today’s PCB designers and EEs, and what advice would you give them?
Martin: The amount of information being generated, and the availability of reference designs/open-source hardware, has created this tidal wave of bad (and good) design decisions that are being replicated at an ever-increasing pace. The availability of numerous offshore PCB fabrication houses makes it an almost “AmazonPrime” experience. You only need to wait a few days to discover your routing mistake, which is a mixed blessing. During my first job in Silicon Valley, we used the term “never enough time to do it correctly, but always time to do it over” a lot; that’s not supposed to be the goal.
That means hardware teams are expected to keep up with software teams that are using the Agile Method, but hardware design is purely the Waterfall Method in that you always need a pretty good idea of what you need to design before you start laying in schematics and routing traces. Also, don’t be afraid to look at popular design paradigms with a critical eye and work toward a pace that you are comfortable with for turning over designs. The software teams may change course anyway, so you might as well clean up some of that routing you’re not happy with. And don’t get too dependent on autorouting; it’s certainly nice with wide memory buses, but skills in finding routing lanes are gained by looking for them yourself.
Unless you’re in the medical, defense, or aeronautical fields, remember that the enemy of better is best. As one gains experience in PCB designs, the areas you need to pay more attention to and sections you can boilerplate from previous designs will become clearer. A design that doesn’t create Gerber files because of constant tweaking doesn’t mean anything. But even in the mission-critical stuff, there should be enough design practices in place to help you along the way to completion and essentially make that decision for you.
Shaughnessy: Do you think the maker movement is helping make electronics careers cool again? We’re finally seeing an increase in young people coming into PCB design now.
Martin: Absolutely. It’s fun seeing how Arduino, Sparkfun, Adafruit, and others have grown into global entities that make inexpensive electronics and Legos, which creates an ecosystem that I could have only dreamed about when I was younger. Combined with the selection of free or low-cost PCB design packages, and the one-click ordering with complimentary DFM checking for PCB boards, there are not very many barriers left; perhaps finding room on the kitchen table to solder all of these brilliant creations together, but that’s nothing that a few milk crates and a sheet of plywood won’t fix.
Shaughnessy: Do you have anything that you’d like to add?
Martin: Never be afraid to make mistakes; be afraid when you don’t learn from them and make the same ones over again. This was always my key message for young engineers joining my teams over the years. Mistakes don’t happen because you’re stupid (well, maybe sometimes) but because a fundamental concept was misunderstood. Find out what that was and remember it for next time.
Just as carpenters and mechanics create, repair, and improve physical instances of their creativity, PCB designers do the same thing. There’s something very cathartic for me in bringing a design from a sketch pad to a new PCB blinking with LEDs at all of the right times. Take time to step back and appreciate that.
Shaughnessy: Thanks for your time, Bob.
Martin: Thank you.