Dana on Data: The Critical Importance of the Fab Product Engineer

Billions of dollars are spent yearly on CAD and CAM software to produce complex PCB designs and fabricate PCBs. The final technical manufacturing decisions generally are made by one person for each design. This is the PCB fabricator product engineer (also called planner, pre-CAM engineer, MI engineer, etc.). But I don’t think most design, procurement, or NPI teams understand how critical this person is to the data transfer success and liability protection. One bad keystroke or misunderstanding can create a PCB that won’t meet customer expectations.

It is relatively straightforward to open the design data package, read all the non-intelligent data, run a design rule check on the provided digital data and create an error, sorry DFM, report to be negotiated with the designer. The complexity arises when the non-documented “rules” and history, when available, must be merged into the recommendation for DFM closure. And then just to help, the person only is scheduled to spend one hour getting to the final decision.

The initial DFM reviews’ intent is to balance the design technical requirements against the highest factory yield and lowest production and material costs in order to reduce manufacturing risks and maintain the highest yields. Projected yield may be lowered, and processing/inspection time increased to fit the design into the existing capability, but these can only be adjusted to a point where it won’t make business sense to try to build it. The PE will be in the middle of these negotiations.

PEs must ensure that every T is crossed, and I is dotted. This level of documentation is required for the day a customer calls and says, “The boards don’t work, it is all your fault, I’m sending them back and you’re paying for them all plus assembled parts.” One of first areas of investigation is the initial engineering change approvals that are documented during the DFM process. These show that the designer either proposed or at least approved of the change causing the issue. This can save the fabricator thousands of dollars.

Product engineers are the de facto technical owner for the design for the lifetime in the factory. All design modifications proposed during manufacturing and any single event adjustment that may be required must be approved by the PE prior to being implemented. They make the technical decision on whether the customer allows the modification without prior approval, or the line must be stopped to get approval. This is because there is significant soft knowledge that just can’t be documented or verified by the factory’s engineering or quality control departments.

What are some of these key soft knowledge and communication skill areas?

  • Does the customer want a lot of feedback, or is feedback discouraged? (Sometimes this is a very emotional topic.)
  • Do you know how to handle the response to “the last fabricator didn’t ask that question or have that problem” in a positive manner?
  • Is there a CEM involved in the decision, and do they have a good communication channel with the designer? The PE needs to believe that a “right” answer is being received.
  • What are the functional requirements of the PCB? Knowledge of the environmental, thermal, electrical, mechanical, flexibility, etc. requirements may influence material recommendations.
  • Does the design conform to their own company spec, for which the fabricator may be held financially liable for if they are not compliant?
  • Who has the final design control decision when the design is being ordered through a broker or CEM? Many responses may be received. But only the approved technical contact can make the final response.
  • The PE must have an excellent understanding of the manufacturing process and capability.
  • Which hard-and-fast fabricator process engineering rules can be broken and/or adjusted to get the design to fit?
  • When does the PE call an internal meeting to discuss a proposed process, which in effect stops the progress of the tooling process?
  • Have the knowledge to provide acceptable impedance controlled stackup modifications that only modify what the design team wants to be modified, though not specified.
  • Ability to write the CAM editing instructions for approved adjustments.
  • Create the special instruction notes for the production travelers.
  • Understand what I call the DFM transfer mood. An example of bad juju is a designer in North America grudgingly having to interact with a lower-cost Asian source selected by purchasing as a cost reduction, instead of the local NPI shop they have been working with for years and have a good understanding with one another.

The bond and trust between the PE and the designer are unique. Once these engineers form a high comfort working level, it is not uncommon for the designer to request that same PE for every design. It is common for a highly functioning front-end engineering (FEE) team to assign a customer’s jobs to the same PE as much as they can. Of course, for PCB fabricators with hundreds of customers this may not always be possible for every design.

One wrong keystroke, one misinterpretation, and the PCB will not perform as expected. Fortunately, this does not happen often. When you are on your next Zoom call or visit to the factory, reach your hand out and thank them for their help as part of your NPI team. They’ll appreciate it.

Dana Korf is the principal consultant at Korf Consultancy LLC. 

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2021

Dana on Data: The Critical Importance of the Fab Product Engineer

07-29-2021

Billions of dollars are spent yearly on CAD and CAM software to produce complex PCB designs and fabricate PCBs. The final technical manufacturing decisions generally are made by one person for each design. This is the PCB fabricator product engineer. But I don’t think most design, procurement, or NPI teams understand how critical this person is to the data transfer success and liability protection.

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Dana on Data: Effective Front-end Engineering External KPIs

05-13-2021

PCB fabricator front-end engineering departments are always under great pressure to be kept small, generate production tooling instantaneously from customer data and never, ever, make a mistake. Key performance indicators (KPI’s) emphasis internal process improvements and are generally simple in nature, such as jobs/person/day and scrap dollars/month.

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Dana on Data: Factory 4.0 NPI Compatible Industry Specification Format

03-11-2021

IPC APEX EXPO’s emphasis on the Connected Factory Initiative based on CFX and IPC-2581 is underway in a virtual mode this month. One area that has not been addressed is the automation of industry technical specifications from organizations like IPC, ASTM, UL, IEC, etc.

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Dana on Data: Factory 4.0 NPI Data Transfer Improvements

01-14-2021

The recently released IPC Connected Factory Initiative scope is similar to other Factory 4.0 models with the same glaring omission: They all seems to assume that the incoming design data can’t be used as-is and must be reviewed and potentially manually modified prior to manufacturing release.

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2020

Dana on Data: Reducing PCB Specification Interpretation Issues

11-12-2020

The PCB industry has accepted a low-quality level of provided documentation from its customers for the past several decades. In this column, Dana Korf reviews one common fabrication print note and asks, “How do you interpret this note?”

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Dana on Data: A Team Method to Reduce Fabricator Engineering Questions

09-03-2020

Hundreds of PCB designs are released to be quoted or fabricated every day around the world, and most will have engineering questions or technical queries generated once the data package has been received and analyzed. Dana Korf outlines seven fundamental steps based on Lean/Six Sigma concepts to reduce data transfer issues.

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Dana on Data: How Can the PCB Industry Improve From COVID-19 Responses?

07-16-2020

In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the world transformed a very slow medical approval process into the equivalent of a concurrent NPI process by challenging some of the golden rules. Dana Korf shares his thoughts on four areas the PCB industry can re-evaluate and improve.

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Dana on Data: The Importance of PCB Technology Roadmaps

05-14-2020

Peter Drucker once said, “Trying to predict the future is like trying to drive down a country road at night with no lights while looking out the back window.” Dana Korf explains how it is critical that PCB fabricator technology roadmaps and capacity planning align with their customers’ product development and volume requirements to ensure that optimum cost, reliability, and performance goals are achieved.

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Dana on Data: Automating DFX Transfer and Analysis Using IPC-2581C

03-19-2020

We are inching closer to a world where a complete intelligent PCB data transfer is realized. The IPC 2-16 Digital Product Model Exchange (DPMX) Subcommittee has just sent revision C out for IPC-2581 Consortium review with final industry approval targeted for this June. Dana Korf discusses the significant additions and their impact.

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Dana on Data: Creating IP-protected PCB Design Rules

01-09-2020

One of the primary reasons that data packages aren’t compatible is the fabricator/assembler does not provide a complete set of design rules out of concern of giving away their intellectual property (IP). Dana Korf explores the design rule development hierarchy as well as what should be included in an IP-protected design rule document.

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2019

Dana on Data: The DFM/Data Transfer Process Is Broken

11-14-2019

In a world that is showing great strides toward implementing a Factory 4.0 world, why can’t a design be passed from a designer to the fabricator without errors every time? Dana Korf emphasizes moving the responsibility up in the food chain, examines key design package error categories, and proposes creating a cultural change.

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New Column—Dana on Data: IPC-2581 Intelligent Bi-directional Data Flow

09-12-2019

The IPC Consortium is nearing completion of transferring notes on drawings and working with IPC on converting key IPC specifications into attributes that can be automatically loaded into CAD and CAM systems. This format is extendable to created automated company-specific acceptance files that can be automatically loaded into the CEM’s or fabricator’s engineering systems. IPC-2581 data format is being widely used globally and now needs to become the standard to reduce NPI cycle times by associating critical design information automatically to the physical features.

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