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Nine Dot Connects has certainly blazed an interesting trail. The company started out as an Altium reseller, but in less than a decade, Nine Dot Connects has also become a design service bureau and a provider of PCB design instruction, training, and consulting services. A quick scan through their webpage reveals dozens of archived PCB design webinars, all neatly organized by category.
I recently had the chance to interview Paul Taubman, technical services director for Nine Dot Connects. We discussed the company’s expansion from VAR to service bureau and content provider, and the changing landscape of PCB design instruction.
ANDY SHAUGHNESSY: Paul, let’s start off with a little background about yourself and the company.
PAUL TAUBMAN: My electrical engineering career has been an eclectic one, spanning many different disciplines. I started 1993 where I worked as a co-op for Aerospace Corporation with a focus on FPGA design. I graduated in 1995 with a BSEE from the University of Southern California. I worked for Cadence Design Systems in both ASIC test and design when they were promoting their Spectrum Services and their Tality spinoff. That came to an end with the tech wreck of 2002. Interestingly enough, the very day that they handed me my walking papers, I had gotten an offer from TRW. A month later TRW was acquired by Northrop Grumman. I worked there from 2002 to 2007 on a number of projects as a test and integrations engineer.
In 2007, I joined Altium initially to support their FPGA offerings; however, the need was on supporting their PCB products, which I took an interest. I worked there from 2007 to 2011. My field of expertise became library methodology. A lot of the customers who were calling us were having issues with the libraries and that became my niche.
In 2011 a left Altium, I did some freelance work for about two years which included library configuration and some embedded coding. Then in 2013 I was contacted by Nine Dot Connect to assist with their Altium Designer sales. The owner Christopher Chae quickly realized that I was not timid in front of a camera or audience and recognized my technical writing skills.
SHAUGHNESSY: So, Nine Dot Connects started as a VAR?
TAUBMAN: Yes, we represented Altium as a VAR. That was the work we were doing—contacting customers, working with them and showing them the tool. We also learned a lot of lessons. We learned that you can sell a tool but you also have to sell your knowledge. Our VAR relationship ended in 2015 when Altium decided to go direct. After a brief stint as their official training partner thereafter, Altium cut us loose. We made a business of training with our own materials and have thrived on our services.
Recently we've partnered with SOLIDWORKS. We're honored to be the national VAR for their SOLIDWORKS PCB and Altium Designer Connector products. We do not represent SOLIDWORKS CAD or any of the other tools in their line. This was a thoughtful and well-planned decision so that we could partner with SOLIDWORKS CAD VARs.
SHAUGHNESSY: So, you're a VAR. You're a design bureau. And now you're a content provider with these webinars. I’ve looked at your webinars, and there's some tremendous content here.
TAUBMAN: The webinars are our differentiator. When we were selling Altium Designer, we were going up against other VARs and there was an overlap of territories.
We started the webinars in February 2014. We did our first webinar on using the design rule checker in Altium Designer. That first webinar was very successful. In addition to focusing on tool features, we realized that a lot of engineers and designers don't necessarily understand the whole PCB process, because it's not something that's taught in academia. Designers have questions such as, "How come our stuff is not going through manufacturing? How come our high-speed designs are not working? How can we set up a central library?" We began to identify these 'pain point' topics and address them. We've done a lot on high-speed design lately, because that's an area where there's a critical need for knowledge.
People ask, “Aren’t you afraid of giving away your content for free?” But the webinars have been our best marketing tool. As for knowledge, we have far more knowledge on a topic than what we can fit in an hour per month.
SHAUGHNESSY: Your webinars are really organized on your site. They’re all broken down by category, and then into sub-categories.
TAUBMAN: I appreciate that you recognize it, since we have put a lot of effort into the site. We really do want to make it easy to navigate. PCB-related content has traditionally been scattered about. You find an article on this, and an article on that. You find a lot of puzzle pieces throughout the Internet. But you don't really find that whole flow.
SHAUGHNESSY: Didn’t you also create a training manual on the PCB process?
TAUBMAN: We wrote the PCB Fundamentals training to capture all of the PCB processes in one book that anyone could understand, including technicians, program managers and even the purchasing folks.
We designed it from scratch because there was nothing out there that fit the bill. I've tried to read some of the existing books on PCB design. They're difficult because they just jump into all of the jargon. Some of the books will even throw equations at you as well, which is odd to me because most of the people I know have never used equations to design boards. They may have used a few calculations to do some type of circuit, maybe to figure out power. That's not what designers need to know when they are trying to get a grip on the process.
SHAUGHNESSY: We’ve heard a lot about how “brain drain” during the last downturn has left some companies short on design and engineering knowledge. Are you seeing the results of that right now?
TAUBMAN: Our industry is in the perfect storm, and it is only going to get worse. First and foremost, the PCB will continue to be more and more complex given the density of board real estate, the speeds in which we drive the board, and the tight integration of the board into the mechanical enclosures.
Second, the industry no longer sees layout as a job all its own. It is now a line item for an electrical engineering position. This is a huge disconnect. The engineer who has been taught nothing but theory and has only drawn schematic designs during their undergraduate studies are now being thrown into the layout side of the printed circuit board. So now they're trying to figure out how to use the tools and control the design process. This wheel is being reinvented daily.
Lastly, there is no mechanism in place to pass the knowledge from one generation to the next. Over 75% of dedicated layout artists are over the age of 45. Given the rampant age discrimination in the tech industry (let’s not kid ourselves for a moment; it is there) they hold their skillset close to their heart. There is no incentive for them to pass this knowledge along.
On the flip side, there is a tremendous opportunity for those who are willing to dig in and learn the art of PCB layout. With 50% of the layout designers planning on retiring in the next 10 years, companies will need this skillset.
SHAUGHNESSY: I see that you all held a roadshow with Dassault throughout September and early October.
TAUBMAN: We recently finished the 12-city roadshow with Dassault. We will be posting studio recordings from the shows on our website. The purpose was to announce that Nine Dot Connects is now the national VAR for SOLIDWORKS PCB and their Altium Designer Connector product. More importantly, the bigger message was the rise of mechatronics. Many people don't realize that the next generation of products will be of a mechatronic nature. Mechatronic design is the simultaneous blending of the electrical and mechanical design. The tools we represent can assist in this collaboration. More so, it’s a call to action for the electrical and mechanical designers to look beyond their own discipline. And more importantly, think outside the box.
SHAUGHNESSY: I think you all may be onto something.
TAUBMAN: For example, we electrically design in 2D. The only way we ever get to the z-axis electrically on our boards is through the via. So, we're challenging that method. Our position is, "Could there be another way to take advantage of this z-axis?” Mechatronic design is calling for routing in any direction regardless of axis. This will require a different way of designing and manufacturing. 3D design can help this along and 3D printing will more than likely be the way that this gets produced. I recommend that anyone who is in this industry keep an eye on the tool advancements and the 3D printers being developed, especially those that can do conductive ink.
SHAUGHNESSY: It sounds like you all have a pretty good plan moving forward. Thanks for speaking with me today, Paul.
TAUBMAN: Thank you, Andy.