Editor's Letter Insights

Highlighter Markers and X-Acto Knives

Written by Jeff Child

When I think about electronics technology, and its evolution through the decades, I can’t help feel that there’s something pretty neat about being in the Gen X generation—or just barely a Gen X in my case. Us early Gen-Xers have had a vivid perspective on just how dramatically technology has changed over our lifetimes. We lived through the start of computers becoming something a household could own and use. Because I was born in the mid-60s, I remember watching black and white TV as a kid, but also helping my dad choose which Intel 286 computer with monochrome monitor to buy when I was a teenager. Two years later, I successfully sold him on the idea of upgrading to a 386 PC with color EGA monitor.

 This straddling between two eras of technology happened in my professional career as well. I went to Northeastern University as an EE major, and that school has a fantastic co-op program—both my father and my father-in-law did the co-op program there as well. The co-op system is where you alternate between semesters of school and a co-op job. The co-op job is an actual paid job at a company in your field of study. Graduating with real job experience was a real leg up.

 During most of my years at Northeastern, my co-op job was at the same small company, a specialist in data acquisition boards. My entry level role was unofficially called “drafting dog” and it involved all sorts of mundane tasks such as making blueprint copies (remember blueprints?) of assembly drawings, updating parts lists databases and documenting ECOs (engineering change orders). The job evolved to include drawing schematics, mechanical assembly drawings and other duties.

 I was thinking about those days just recently while talking to PCB design tool vendors for this month’s Special Feature. I remembered just how primitive PCB design was back in the mid-1980s. When I first started that co-op job, the company was only just starting to use PC-based PCB software to design and layout PCBs. Mind you, this was a small company and not able to invest in the state-of-the-art PCB CAD tools as early as larger firms. Before switching completely over to CAD tools, I remember we used X-Acto knives and red Rubylith tape to physically implement a PCB board layout that could then be used as photo master for a PCB production plate.

 Another memory I have of that time is the manual way we would do PCB “verification”—verify that the PCB layout traces properly matched what was in the schematic drawing’s circuit diagrams. How did we do it? Well, my boss Elaine would sit at her drafting table with the schematic blueprint. And I’d sit at my adjacent drafting table with the PCB layout blueprint. With our respective highlighter markers in hand, we’d then begin.

 Elaine would call out “PIC16-2 Pin 1 to 74LS157/4 Pin 5″—or something like that—and I’d use my highlighter to color the PCB trace that went from PIC16/2 Pin 1 to 74LS157-4 Pin 5 and say “check.” Elaine would then mark those off on her schematic, and then call out the next one. Then, rinse and repeat for perhaps hundreds of PCB traces, and the process could easily take an hour to complete for “complex” boards. And we’re talking just 1- or 2-layer boards at most back then. There was something about this kind of repetitive exercise that made one’s brain a little giddy and loopy by about 20 minutes in. Elaine and I called the phenomenon the “Checking Disease” because it often resulted in silliness, requiring a break to get back in gear.

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 Fast forward to today, and doing PCB verification may not be as “fun,” but the tools continue to get more and more powerful. Certainly, PCB functions like intelligent auto-tracing and sophisticated PCB verification are old hat, and have been so for decades. But, with today’s PCB design tool technology, engineers can collaborate on PCB designs together over the Internet in real-time, design complete multi-board assemblies as complete units and even run simulations while you design. Today, for my part, I’m only experiencing these wonders as a technology journalist and not a user. Even so, once again it’s pretty cool being Gen-Xer because I’ve had the privilege to witness technology evolve in such fascinating ways.

PUBLISHED IN CIRCUIT CELLAR MAGAZINE• JULY 2020 #360- Get a PDF of the issue


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Jeff Child has more than 28 years of experience in the technology magazine business—including editing and writing technical content, and engaging in all aspects of magazine leadership and production. He joined the Circuit Cellar after serving as Editor-in-Chief of COTS Journal for over 10 years. Over his career Jeff held senior editorial positions at several of leading electronic engineering publications, including EE Times and Electronic Design and RTC Magazine. Before entering the world of technology journalism, Jeff worked as a design engineer in the data acquisition market.