Who Owns the PCB?

April 7, 2020 John Burkhert

Hint: It’s Not Your Board.

PCB Layout is like the hub of a big electronic wheel. A lot of spokes revolve around the hub in order to keep things moving. The central role of the Designer has a number of others counting on us and likewise, we count on them. Obviously, we have to bear the load of scrutiny and are responsible for the functionality of our end product.

While it is necessary to take ownership of the work you do, there is a time to let go. This is a lesson that I’m compelled to share because it took me quite a while to learn it. So, who owns the PCB during the layout process? Since I spent so much time on it and the title block shows my name first, it has to be me, right?

Nope!

Engineering - the Folks Who Do the Brain Work

We have to give credit to the cognizant Engineer who authored the schematic while choosing the specific components. It is their toil that makes it possible for the Designer to begin the job.

They are likely to be the one in charge of the bring-up and to debug any issues that may arise. The EE may spend weeks away from home if the bring-up happens offshore. That is not easy work. It takes a foundation of education and years of experience to figure out solutions, test them and then repeat the process to make sure the fix was not a one-off situation. But it is not their board.

work station

Image Credit: Author - My Desk But Not My Board

The EE never works in a vacuum. They’re going to rely on specialists from many fields. Audio and Graphics Engineers have input on sound and video. Signal Integrity and Power Integrity, shortened to SI/PI make sure we pass the FCC rules and earn the right to put the Underwriters Laboratory seal of approval on the product. Products that suddenly go into spontaneous combustion are not so good. Samsung knows this and they weren’t the first ones to find out the hard way. Regulatory Engineering and a host of other professionals lend their expertise to the product even though it’s not their product.

There are a handful of other players involved. Test Engineers and Technicians do a lot of the grunt work to establish a complete set of instructions for the assembly line. They would not have anything to work with were it not for the procurement team bringing all of the pieces together.

FPGA substrate

Image Credit: Author - FPGA substrate

The pressure is on to complete the assembly kit with the minimum of expedite fees. Failing to pay the express charges may end up with parts missing when it’s go-time. Paying too much for components and having them stuck in transit are just a couple of the pitfalls. The schedule depends on execution of the buyers and planners. They are vital to the plan but not the owner of the board or the plan.

Program Management - Making Things Go According To Plan

The plan comes from the Program Manager who pulls the strings, herding all of us cats in the right direction. Making sure the equipment is up to snuff, the documentation is strong, the stakeholders are informed and generally conducting the business plan takes someone who has skill and passion for the technical details. Their soft skills are central to the whole operation. This is often referred to as Management by walking around. They own the schedule but not the PCB.

PCB Fabrication and Assembly - Where it All Happens

The fabricator is surely a huge cog in the machine. The quality and delivery is on their shoulders. Their front-end team runs the fabrication data through a number of sanity checks and reports any missing or corrupted data back to the Engineering team. The board designer may be back in the loop to close on any issues that pop up. It will be the people in the trenches who are the first to ever see the actual product. It can only ever be as good as they can make it. With all of the jobs in the shop, the pressure is on. The vendor makes it but it’s not theirs.

PCB fabrication

Image Credit: Author - Factory floor

On to the assembly house where it all comes together. The programming of the robotic pick and place machine and the generation of the paste stencil falls into their hands. This is the value add part of the process where mistakes are costly in terms of both time and money. Packing and shipping the completed PCB without damaging it with electrostatic discharge or in transit puts plenty of risk in their hands. Once it’s out of their hands, it’s gone hopefully to never return.

Physical and Industrial Design - What Does it Look Like?

That completed PCBA is not a product unto itself. The Product Development team has spent many hours figuring out how the end product will look and how it will function. Industrial Design and Mechanical Engineering come together to flesh out the overall packaging for the product, whatever it may be. All kinds of things can and do go wrong whether starting with an existing design or a blank sheet of paper. The assiduous work of the Product Enablement goes a long way towards creating the next big thing.


Hardware is nothing without software. From the user interface to the inner workings of the machine, firmware and software gives life to the otherwise inanimate object. So many things can go wrong along the way that late nights are a fact of life. Good code takes time and effort. They have as much claim as any of the above mentioned groups but, nope, not their hardware either.

The Senior Management Team - The Movers and Shakers

So, maybe the company who pays everyone? After all the ownership also provides the capital and wherewithal to make everything go. In a public company, that becomes the shareholders. Increasing shareholder value is a mantra we hear all of the time. The angel investors and other money people are the lifeblood of any enterprise. The C-suite team manages risk and drives the market for products. If Marketing doesn’t create awareness, then the folks in Sales will find it much harder to get the design wins. They’re all paid well depending on performance. They may be on a board but they don’t own THE board.

I Bet You Knew This Was Coming

So, who owns the PCB? That’s easy. Donna from Denver owns it. Michael from Milwaukee is the owner. Ian from Edinburgh, Lance from Lithuania and George from Georgetown get a piece of the pie. The average Joe and Jane on the street can claim theirs when they walk in the door and buy something.

audience

Image Credit: Author - It’s the People!

In short, everything we do is for the end user. The person who ponied up for the product is the permanent purchaser and posesser for all time. Call it your board if you like but at best the Designer is a caretaker of the virtual version. It goes through many hands directly or indirectly until it becomes a desirable thing and finally reaches Peggy from Pittsburgh and all of her cohorts.

About the Author

John Burkhert

John Burkhert Jr is a career PCB Designer experienced in Military, Telecom, Consumer Hardware and lately, the Automotive industry. Originally, an RF specialist -- compelled to flip the bit now and then to fill the need for high-speed digital design. John enjoys playing bass and racing bikes when he's not writing about or performing PCB layout. You can find John on LinkedIn.

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