Introduction
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Look into my crystal ball
How much would you pay to see into the future? It has been the topic of many fantasy novels. People want to know what the future holds, because it would give them an advantage as they make decisions. It would allow them to make plans that would greatly benefit them.
Have you ever considered that when you are making a printed circuit board and you view it in 3D mode you are looking into the future? A 3D model looks so much like the real thing, that it is a bit of a surreal experience when the board is finally made and you hold it in your hands, because you have seen it before, and a part of your brain accepted that rendering as real.

Figure 1 3D image of a PCB

A 3D model does many things: 1) It allows the designer to see the layout as it will be and to plan and arrange the board better than a 2D model could do; 2) It allows a collaboration between departments, for example with the mechanical group; 3) It allows managers and salesmen the ability to understand and “see” the product that will not exist until a later date.
Working together
One of the really powerful things a model does for a PCB designer is it allows that person to interact with the mechanical group in a way that just was not possible before. In the above model, it allowed the PCB designer to interact with the mechanical group to develop a custom enclosure for the PCB that included a complex interaction of nobs, buttons, input and output connectors and the display (a 1-inch high, 8-segment, 3-character display on the bottom of the board).
I once worked on a project that involved two boards, where the tops of the boards faced each other and the tall parts interlaced with parts on the other board. The combined board arrangement fit neatly inside a thin tube. That project could not have been accomplished without the use of 3D modeling (it would have been too expensive, and taken too long, to do otherwise).

Figure 2 3D image of colored Test Points

When talking to a customer, remember your customer can be external to your company, but they can also be internal (I would suggest that if you are an engineer working in a company your most important customers are internal), I have found that having a good rendering of the PCB is essential. Little things like having color coded test points may seem a bit silly to you as an engineer, because you know that the three gray test points are actually 3 different colors, but an accurate model really helps your customer understand and visualize what you intend to do.
We are visual creatures
Many years ago, I worked for a company that was dominated by mechanical engineers. I remember being frustrated when the ME would bring these beautiful color pictures of what he intended to build and got lots of attention; people thought about what he was going to do and it allowed them to talk about it. When it was my turn I talked about the Quadrature Amplitude Modulation scheme I was developing for the project. This was a key element to the success of the project, it was much more technical than the enclosure, I spent a great deal of time working out the details and wanted to discuss the tradeoffs I had made in designing the circuit. I got blank stares. Someone actually asked me if I really needed all those parts, “Couldn’t you just use a resistor and a capacitor?” The comment was tongue in cheek, but I got it. We are visual creatures, especially when we are talking about an area that is out of our comfort zone. Presenting a picture that shows a clear representation of what we are talking about really helps convey our ideas to others.
Carpe Diem
With such a wonderful tool at our disposal, I find it amazing that so many designers ignore this tool. My guess is that they plan to show it to others after it is made. That is too late. We often live in our little bubble of ideas and do not try and understand how what we are doing affects others. You have all heard the adage, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”
I have found I can develop a much better product if I can show other my ideas early on. Who are these others? The people who will make it and use it. We get in the habit of showing our ideas to management, you know, people up the food chain. The idea that an engineer would sit with someone on the line and discuss their latest idea is almost heresy. I have seen too much bravado in engineering and I think it demonstrates a lack of focus. The goal is to make the best product possible, make it fast, make it cheap and make it reliable. If I can spend some time with the person who will make my product and they point out a way that will make it easier for them to build, I have just made a better product. The line worker will not be giving me my next raise, but the time I spent with them made me a better engineer and helped me build a better product which might actually affect my paycheck in the end.
Sharing is caring
I have constantly been amazed at how clear a concept can be in my mind, but others cannot understand it. The failing is not with them, but with me. When we do not take the time to explain and convey our ideas in a way that is easily understood by others we have failed to do our jobs. Make it easy for others to see into your bubble and they will reward you with understanding.
Final thoughts
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