Tim's Takeaways: DDR Routing, and Other Big Fish in the Lake of Technology

If I can pull you away from your latest layout for just a moment, I would like to tell you a fish story. We have heard tales about the “big one that got away,” but here’s one about the “big one that got away that I never saw.” Does that sound intriguing? Well, here’s what happened:

Many years ago, a friend and I went out of our way to try the fishing at an obscure lake somewhere in southern Oregon. There weren’t many people there, locals mostly, and they were all fishing from a tall platform that extended into the lake. I don’t know what the platform was used for, but we joined them on it anyway. The folks there were pulling in fish after fish, but we weren’t having any luck at all. After a couple of hours, we finally decided to throw in the towel and call it a day. As I was pulling my line in, I was furthered annoyed to discover that it had snagged, so I started pulling harder to free it up. Imagine my surprise when the line started pulling back. I wasn’t snagged; instead, I had hooked into a really large fish.

Trying to be as gentle as possible, I started reeling in my line while slowly backing away from the railing. All this commotion caught the attention of the other people on the platform, and they quickly gathered around our spot for a better view. As the fish came within reach, my friend could see that the hook was precariously set, so he grabbed the line to swing it in over the rail. This proved to be too much stress on the line unfortunately, and the fish tore loose from the hook and plunged 25 feet back down toward the water. With my view completely blocked by all the people gathered around the railing, I didn’t get to see any of this—including seeing the fish. I did, however, hear their collective “gasp” when the fish tore loose, followed a moment later by what seemed like the loudest “kerplop” in recorded history as this Moby Dick-sized fish hit the water. This was a sad final salute from the biggest fish that I almost caught, but never saw.

The locals were very sympathetic for my loss, describing in agonizing detail how that fish had been one of the largest they had ever seen, while ripping my friend a new one for grabbing the line too aggressively. I have always felt bad for him because he really was trying to do his best to help—but that’s not going to stop me from sending him a link to this story. After all, a little fresh salt in the wound is good for the soul—said no one ever—but that is what friends are for. Right?

Anyway, there are two points to take away from this story, and the first one is to always bring a net with you when you go fishing. The second is more important—even though this particular fish got away, there’s plenty more to be caught. After all, there is always a bigger fish.

This theme of “there is always a bigger fish” is very common in our culture and literature, as both Jonah and Ahab can attest to. It also encompasses much more than just the realm of ichthyology, however, and can be applied to almost all areas of our lives. Take our industry of designing circuit boards, for example. No matter how much your latest design may have pushed the envelope of technology, there will always be another design that will present an even greater challenge waiting for you tomorrow. There’s always a bigger fish.

I’ve been in the PCB layout business for a long time now. When I first started, we were laying out very simple boards with through-hole parts using 12-mil traces and spaces. I still remember vividly the first board that came through our department that required specific routing topologies and trace lengths. None of us really understood any of this at the time, and the designers assigned to the job instead created a beautiful layout with the best-looking bus routing you have ever seen; it was something the rest of us marveled at. All this hard work, however, was promptly rejected by the customer because even though it looked great, it wasn’t going to come close to working the way it was intended to. We all went back to the drawing board and learned about measured lines, the proper positioning of terminating resistors, and how these trace topologies were really supposed to be connected. We were pretty proud of ourselves—until we got our first taste of DDR memory routing.

There’s always a bigger fish.

Soon we became experts in what was required to successfully complete a design with DDR memory routing. We had to restructure our designs for the correct stripline layer configurations, as well as to allow enough room for all the escape routing. Component placement became more important than ever as we designed the entire signal path instead of just looking for the shortest connections between pins. We also learned very quickly how to work with different routing patterns such as T-topologies and fly-by topologies, as well as how to best tune our traces to achieve the correct signal timing. You would think by this point we would have deserved some well-earned pats on the back, but it was not to be.

There’s always a bigger fish.

Whether it’s hybrid designs, flex circuits, or something else equally intriguing, there will always be newer and more challenging circuit board technologies that designers will have to learn and become fluent in. You may even find yourself having to refresh your knowledge of past design technologies that you haven’t worked with for a while in order to satisfy the requirements of a new project. The key to all of this isn’t so much in what you already know, but in your ability to quickly adapt, learn, and be ready for the next new design that will be coming your way. There’s always a bigger fish, especially in our industry, so let’s come up with some ideas on how to be ready to land the big one safely—without it getting away. Here are a few thoughts to use as a starting point:

Be Ready for Change
I realize that this sounds like a cheesy motivational phrase, but I know of several people who have missed out on some great opportunities because they weren’t mentally prepared for it. Whether it’s emerging design technologies or next-generation systems and tools, it’s going to be different, and we’ve got to be ready. Sadly, many will avoid changes in what they are doing to stay with what they know and are comfortable with. Inflexibility can be a career-killer, though, and it’s one sure way of letting the big one get away.

Rise Above the Fear
The thought of learning and doing something new can also bring with it a lot of fear. It is not at all unusual for this apprehension to build in our minds and make the task seem much more difficult than it really is. Yes, it may take some time, a lot of extra effort, and perhaps even banging your head against the wall a few times in frustration. With perseverance, though, you will be rewarded with another technological capability that you can add to your tackle box of design skills. Too often we spend time trying to convince ourselves that something can’t be done, instead of just sitting down and doing it.

Keep Your Finger on the Pulse
To explore new ideas, you need to know what ideas are out there to explore. We are fortunate in our industry that there are many different resources that can help with this. Design007 Magazine, for example, explores a different industry topic each month, along with many other design-related subjects covered in its different articles and columns—and that is only one of the many resources available out there. With newsletters, white papers, seminars, classes, and conferences, there is no shortage of information on the newest design technology pools that you can fish from.

Expand Your Network
I would never have had the story about “the big one that got away that I never saw” to tell you if my friend hadn’t suggested that we try fishing at that obscure little lake that I had never heard of before. Having people in your network that can expose you to new ideas and help you when you are stuck is essential to staying on top of your game. And I’m not just talking about other designers either; connect with anyone who can shine new light on a previously darkened area: customers, managers, competitors, friends, and experts from other industries as well. Just as iron sharpens iron, connecting with others in our network can help us learn and improve as we, in turn, help them.

How about you? What do you do to keep yourself ready for the changes in technology that come your way? If nothing immediately comes to mind, then give it some thought. It’s always good to be prepared for the next bigger fish before we find it pulling on our line. And with that, I think it’s time for me to prepare something for dinner: chicken, burgers, pizza—anything but fish! Keep on designing everyone, and I’ll see you next time.

This column originally appeared in the May 2021 issue of Design007 Magazine

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2021

Tim's Takeaways: DDR Routing, and Other Big Fish in the Lake of Technology

05-21-2021

Tim's fishing story relates well to designing circuit boards. Intrigued? Read on, he explains how "there's always a bigger fish."

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Tim’s Takeaways: Conquering Layers of Challenges in PCB Stackups

01-25-2021

When he first started laying out printed circuit boards many years ago, Tim was working for a computer systems manufacturer whose PCB designs were all multilayer boards. While there were a great many things that I learned during my time working there, it also fostered one bad habit; He became accustomed to relying on being able to use multiple layers for routing instead of planning a more efficient layout. Here, he breaks it all down.

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2020

Tim’s Takeaways: PCB Vias, ‘You Have a Go’

11-13-2020

Do you remember the old TV show “Stargate SG-1?” With the exhortation of “SG-1, you have a go” from their commanding officer, the stargate would instantaneously transport an intrepid band of heroes to new and exciting locations each week. Tim Haag details his realization that the stargate is nothing more than a giant via in space!

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Tim’s Takeaways: Thermal Management for PCB Designers—Staying Out of the Fire

09-09-2020

If there’s one thing in life that really feels the pressure of being in the hot seat, it’s the PCBs that we design. But PCB designers often feel a lot of pressure while doing their work, which puts them squarely in the hot seat. Tim Haag shares four techniques in thermal management for PCB designers.

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Tim's Takeaways: Navigating Industry Expectations

05-29-2020

While some expectations are normal—and, well, expected—in the workplace, there are also those that do more harm than good. Tim Haag unpacks negative expectations and shares suggestions for improving communication in the workplace, as well as positive expectations that you can set for yourself.

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Tim’s Takeaways: Working From Home—5 Tips for Newbies

03-24-2020

Due to the COVID-19 outbreak, many people who have worked in an office environment for their entire career have suddenly found themselves shifted to working remotely. At first, this may seem like it isn’t that big of a change, but it may be a bigger deal than you realize. Tim Haag, who has worked from home for over 17 years, shares five tips for making the most of this situation and working successfully from home.

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Tim’s Takeaways: Clearing Up the Buzz

02-14-2020

My first “real” job in the world of electronics was working at a Radio Shack store back in the late ‘70s. It was a step up from flipping burgers, but it didn’t last long. However, there was one notable aspect of that job; I was there during the time that Radio Shack introduced its first personal computer—the TRS-80. Although it is practically unimaginable now, in those days, there wasn’t much in the way of personal computing available for the general consumer.

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2019

Tim's Takeaways: Realizing a Higher Standard for PCB Design

10-09-2019

To the untrained eye, one circuit board may look pretty much like any other, but as we know, there are major differences between them. Not only are they different in purpose and design but also in how they are manufactured for specific industries. If you are designing medical equipment, for instance, you will have to meet many different regulatory requirements from organizations, such as the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), World Health Organization (WHO), and International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC), among others.

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Tim's Takeaways: Clear Communication Takes the Cake

07-10-2019

Whether baking a cake or building a circuit board, it’s all about clear communication. If the person writing the recipe had not made the choice to clearly communicate what their intentions were for baking that cake, I would have been lost. A missing ingredient here or an incorrect oven temperature there and my birthday surprise would have ended up in the garbage in the same way a successfully built circuit board starts with clear communication from the designer. Circuit board manufacturers want to create a perfect PCB for you, but they can only do so to the extent of the instructions that you give them.

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Tim's Takeaways: Rules Keep You from Crossing the Line

06-20-2019

Driving rules are designed to keep drivers between the lines of traffic instead of crossing over those lines into dangerous situations. Similarly, design rules are also intended to keep PCB trace routing between the lines instead of crossing over them as well. But you might be surprised how many people refuse to use the full potential of their DRCs to protect themselves, and in some cases, refuse to use them at all.

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Tim's Takeaways: I Think I’ll Go for a Walk

04-08-2019

Many years ago, my boss at a PCB design service bureau had his own unique way of encouraging us to take a break. He would come through the design bay and call out in his deep baritone voice, “DARTS!” and we would all follow him into the break area for a quick game. In addition to the benefits of taking a break, forcing our eyes to focus in and out as we threw a dart was a great way to relieve us all from the eye strain of older CRT monitors.

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Tim's Takeaways: A Job Worth Doing

02-28-2019

I get it. We PCB designers are made of the kind of tough stuff where we will work ourselves to death if given the chance. But in our all of our efforts, are we really doing it right, or could we somehow be doing it better? Let’s take a moment to consider some other ways that we might help ourselves to improve.

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2018

Tim's Takeaways: Contract Positions—Go the Extra Mile

10-10-2018

For newbies just entering the industry or experienced designers who have always worked for a corporation, the transition to contractor can be a real culture shock. The allure of working from home and setting your own hours can quickly be replaced by the realities of chasing jobs and wondering where your next payday will come from. However, there are some wonderful aspects of working as a contractor that can make it very worthwhile.

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Tim's Takeaways: Where Have All the Designers Gone (and Who Will be Taking Their Place)?

08-17-2018

We have a lot to pass on to the new designers. We must stress the importance of understanding of the roots of our industry and why this design knowledge is important. I have worked with many designers who don’t understand anything about the output of their design files. They go through a procedure, hit a series of commands, and presto: The design files are all wrapped up in a neat little zip file ready to go out to the manufacturer. That’s all well and good, until something breaks or a manufacturer has a specific question. It would be a great thing to make sure that the designers of tomorrow understand what a Gerber file and an aperture list really is.

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Tim's Takeaways: Hiring the Right PCB Designer

06-04-2018

Like the rest of you, I’ve had times of unemployment, when your daily job is looking for work. You find yourself writing and then rewriting your resume, searching online forums and job search sites, and applying to every job that you can find. I’ve also hired people, and I know what hiring managers face. But hiring managers may be hurting their companies by drawing up a list of expectations so tight that highly qualified people may be slipping between the cracks.

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Will Cool Technology Attract the Next Generation of PCB Designers?

04-17-2018

If I had the opportunity to design some boards that went into medical detection equipment like my new blood pressure cuff, I would be extremely motivated to do that. Maybe what we should be focusing on is not just playing with the new toys, but showing the younger generation different ways to think about how they can improve upon these new toys.

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Customer Support: What do PCB Designers Really Want?

03-19-2018

First, let’s throw a leash around the elephant in the room. That’s my way of saying, “Here are some things that designers want, but we in the support business just can’t give it to them.” The first one that comes to mind: Customers have asked, manipulated, and even tricked me in their attempts to get free software.

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Tim's Takeaways: Good Support Isn’t Just for Customers

03-06-2018

I have been working in PCB CAD tools customer support for years and years, and it isn’t that often that the tables are turned and I have someone who is supporting me. I’ve got to say, it was a pleasure being the recipient of some quality support.

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2017

True Design Efficiency: Think Before You Click

10-09-2017

At the captive shops that I’ve worked with, where the designers were more involved in the entire design cycle and had better access to the corporate libraries, staff engineers, etc., the story was often the same. Some designers would jump into the deep end of the pool of design without any thought to drowning while others would be so busy lacing up their life preservers of preparation that they would take too long getting out of the shallows and into the depth of their design. So, what’s the best approach here?

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Tim's Takeaways: It Really Wasn’t My Fault

09-07-2017

I once received verbal instructions from an engineer who directed me to make a certain change. I didn’t think anything of it. Many months later, this same engineer told me that there were troubles with the board and all its successive versions because of the change that I had made. He ended up making it right in the end. But in hindsight, what could I have done to save myself a couple of months of suspense and worry?

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Tim's Takeaways: Stepping into the Great Unknown

08-16-2017

Many years ago, I was given the opportunity to switch my career path from senior circuit board designer to CAD systems administrator. I wasn’t certain that I wanted to give up the comfort of being a designer; after all, I had been one for a long time. But I knew that this transition would help my overall knowledge base of everything CAD-related, as well as better position me in my quest for a management position. So, I pulled the trigger and accepted the new job even though the idea of stepping into the great unknown like that was very intimidating.

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Tim's Takeaways: Design Tools of Tomorrow--A Real 'Marvel'

04-05-2017

Imagine if you could interact with your design as a hologram floating in front of you the way Tony Stark did in the movie "Iron Man." Wouldn’t it be amazing if you could pick a section on your holographic design with your hands and expand it to the point where you could peer into it, spin it around, and manipulate it as you desired? Want to push a trace down to a different layer? Just give it a nudge in the right direction and the holographic display changes it to the next layer. Don’t like the way a certain area fill looks? Then just grab it with your fingers and pull it out and throw it into the virtual garbage can.

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Tim's Takeaways: 'Sparks' to the Rescue in RF Design

01-03-2017

Just like the early days of radio where Sparks the radio specialist was in demand to get the job done, we now need RF specialists to work together with electrical engineers to create the intricate designs required for RF circuits. You are now Sparks, the go-to specialist who will take care of RF design business.

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2016

The Basics of Hybrid Design, Part 3

06-16-2016

The world of hybrid design is growing, and we have lots of hybrid-specific functionality built into our software that helps designers meet and conquer the unique hybrid design requirements that they are faced with. And yet many designers out there (and I used to be one of them) have no idea what is meant when people start talking about hybrid design.

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The Basics of Hybrid Design, Part 2

05-16-2016

In the first part of this series, we discussed the basics of hybrid design from the PCB designer’s perspective, and here we will continue that discussion.

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The Principles of Hybrid Design, Part 1

04-25-2016

What exactly is a hybrid design? We are seeing more and more of our customers exploring the world of hybrid design, and we are getting new customers for whom hybrid design is their sole focus. The world of hybrid design is growing and we have lots of hybrid-specific functionality built into our software that helps designers conquer the unique hybrid design requirements.

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2015

Tim's Takeaways: The Utility Belt

05-12-2015

The utility belt is a great thing to have. Batman would be long dead without his, and Tim “The Tool Man” Taylor would be useless without his. But for a circuit board designer, a utility belt is equally important. All of us at one time or another will have questions about the CAD system we use, and one essential tool to have in your utility belt is a list of people you can go to for help. At the top of this list should be your CAD system’s friendly customer support staff (like me).

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DFM: The PCB Designer as Arbitrator

04-08-2015

Design engineering is usually a combination of electrical and mechanical engineers. Although these two groups can have their own dramatic conflicts between each other, they will usually end up working together because they ultimately serve each other’s needs. But the manufacturing engineering requirements usually come from a completely different department or from an outside manufacturing vendor.

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2014

Like it or Not, You're a Role Model

12-24-2014

"During the years that I built my skills as a circuit board designer, many people helped shape my character. Some were impulsively brilliant at laying out a board, while others were steady and consistent in their approach to work, dotting every 'i' and crossing every 't.' But they were all patient with me, answering my questions, showing me the ropes, and setting good examples for me to follow," says Columnist Tim Haag.

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Blink and You Will Miss It

11-05-2014

Tim Haag writes, "Friedrich Nietzsche said, 'That which does not kill us makes us stronger.' Well, that adage certainly proved to be true in my situation. If I hadn't been ripped from my secure position and forced to contract for a short season, who knows how my future would have eventually unfolded. And if it hadn't been for that brief season of hardship, would I have had the strength and flexibility to succeed later on?"

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Tim's Takeaways: Blink and You Will Miss It

11-05-2014

Tim Haag writes, "Friedrich Nietzsche said, 'That which does not kill us makes us stronger.' Well, that adage certainly proved to be true in my situation. If I hadn't been ripped from my secure position and forced to contract for a short season, who knows how my future would have eventually unfolded. And if it hadn't been for that brief season of hardship, would I have had the strength and flexibility to succeed later on?"

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There Are No Stupid Questions

09-10-2014

Many of us who have been designing boards for years have had to deal with annoying questions from "the kids." You know who I mean: The rookies, newbies, greenhorns, or puppies just starting out in their design careers. We've all had to answer questions like, "Why is library development so important?" or "Why is solder mask green?"

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Tim's Takeaways: There Are No Stupid Questions

09-10-2014

Many of us who have been designing boards for years have had to deal with annoying questions from "the kids." You know who I mean: The rookies, newbies, greenhorns, or puppies just starting out in their design careers. We've all had to answer questions like, "Why is library development so important?" or "Why is solder mask green?"

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Design Rule Checks - For Your Protection

07-09-2014

Columnist Tim Haag writes, "I have designed multitudes of PCBs over the years, but I have a confession to make: It can be hard for me to run that final design rule check. I know that it is important, but at the end of a long design cycle, I just want to be done. I don't want to redo anything, and I sure don't want to look at my own errors. Do any of you feel that way?"

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Tim's Takeaways: Design Rule Checks - For Your Protection

07-09-2014

Columnist Tim Haag writes, "I have designed multitudes of PCBs over the years, but I have a confession to make: It can be hard for me to run that final design rule check. I know that it is important, but at the end of a long design cycle, I just want to be done. I don't want to redo anything, and I sure don't want to look at my own errors. Do any of you feel that way?"

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Customer Support: Not Just for Customers Anymore

06-04-2014

Columnist Tim Haag writes, "In my role as the customer support manager, I have seen plenty of examples of customer support. But my point here is not to focus on customer support as a function of a support technician. Instead, I want to explore the concept of how we should all strive to provide the best level of customer support in our jobs, no matter what we do."

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