I’m sure many engineers would agree that the worst part of the whole design process is prototyping a new printed circuit board. It’s like trying to assemble a jigsaw puzzle in the midst of a scavenger hunt.
The problem with prototyping is that it’s more of an art than a science. Unfortunately engineers are, by their nature, scientific. Give them a set of equations to solve or a logical series of steps to execute and they’re in their element. Give them an art project and there’s no telling what could happen. Well, a man named Terry Heilman, who probably should have trademarked the word “maverick” before it found its way into our political lexicon, thinks he’s figured out a way to simplify things by turning the art of PCB prototyping into an exact science.
Heilman is the president and CEO of a company called Sunstone Circuits, based in Mulino, Oregon. He lives in Arizona. Maybe it’s something in the water there that’s causing this whole maverick thing. But I digress. Heilman built his company around one simple concept – producing a PCB prototype should not be a traumatic experience. It should be simple. The software you use should be powerful enough to get the job done, but simple to use. And if you’re lucky, free. You should be able to order your prototypes online because, well, we do everything online these days. It’s simple. And if you have a question, or a problem, or you just need to talk to somebody about your project because your date wasn’t the least bit impressed with your intimate knowledge of reflow soldering techniques, you should be able to reach a customer support rep 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year. Even Christmas Day if you like. And that customer support person should not be based in Mumbai, or some other place you couldn’t find with a GPS.
Anyway, that worked pretty well for a while. But then one day, probably while he was commuting to work from Arizona, Heilman started thinking. He’d simplified the basic board prototyping process, but what if he could eliminate some of the stumbling blocks that exist between designing a circuit board and then prototyping it, and heck, while he was at it, what if he could figure out a way to get rid of that whole scavenger hunt for components part of the process? Hey, it’s a really long commute from Arizona to Oregon and he had a lot of time to think.
When you’ve been around the industry as long as Heilman has, you tend to make friends. So he called a few of them at places like National Instruments (NI), NXP Semiconductors, and Digi-Key, told them about his idea, and to no one’s surprise – least of all his – they all jumped onboard. Now, designers working with NI’s Multisim capture and simulation tool and Ultiboard layout tool can easily access NXP’s and Digi-Key’s huge inventories of electronics components, integrate what they need into their designs, automatically generate bills of material, purchase the components, and order the prototypes, all with a few clicks of the mouse. It can’t get much simpler than that.
According to Heilman, that’s what the PCB prototyping business should be all about – making people’s lives simpler. Except, perhaps, his own. Let’s face it, there is no simple way to get from Arizona to Oregon.