PCB design is a specialized career that involves the use of creativity, talent, electrical engineering knowledge and the right PCB design tools to create unique, groundbreaking PCB designs. PCB designers serve various purposes in the technological world.
But there is a special class of PCB designers. They do not design circuits and boards for use on earth. They design them to be used in space. These boards must be flexible and yet strong. They must be tough to withstand the conditions that they will face in space. During takeoff, they will be subjected to various dynamic forces. They must withstand these forces and bend instead of breaking.
PCBs that are used in space are usually lightweight with a very low mass and they take up less space than traditional PCBs. This make them more challenging to design. These boards use a thin film instead of the traditional thick, rigid substrate that is used for other boards. This can give a reduction in weight of about 75%. Weight reduction is very important for space travel. The heavier the payload, the more the rocket fuel that is needed.
Flexible PCBs used in space can be squeezed and folded into unusual angles and corners. They can be bent into unique shapes and be fitted into unused space. PCB designers for space are capable of having up to 60% space reduction with their special PCBs compared to traditional boards.
Some PCB designers for space work with NASA, which is a government agency. Today, we now have some private space agencies where PCB designers for space can put their skills to work. They include the Elon Musk founded SpaceX and a few others.
PCB designers for space must be skilled in performing component selection and placement, determination of layer stackup, feasibility studies on routing and signal routing of analog, digital, power conversion and RF PCBs. PCB designers for space are involved in library creation and maintenance, creation of PCB documentation, collaboration with several engineering teams, carrying out of maintenance and training of new team members. They are also required to be experienced with power supplies, various high-speed design techniques, understanding of specifications, standards, testing, design for manufacturability, assembly techniques etc.
Space agencies typically require years of experience from PCB designers before hiring them. Each space agency has a PCB design tool that they use, and you must be familiar with the tool. For example, in SpaceX, they use Mentor Xpedition and Altium Designer but Mentor Xpedition is preferred.
Apart from the knowledge and experience of using PCB design tools, you must also be proactive and be able to think outside the box. Your designs must be built for stability without room for errors as simple errors could affect large-scale projects and leads to losses worth millions, or even billions of dollars. The allowance margin for error is very low.
A good PCB designer for space must know how various tools function, how well they can be utilized for a solid design and how multiple software can be organized.
For advancements in space flights, PCB designs must be more robust, handle more functionalities and yet be smaller and more flexible. It is up to the capable PCB designers to champion advancements in testing, assembly and fabrication of PCB boards.
There must be meticulous selection of materials, construction and coating of boards. There must also be collaboration with several engineering companies for large, expensive projects. Communication is key here. It is not just about creating impressive designs. A good PCB designer for space must be able to communicate these designs and see that these designs can be merged with the designs of others for seamless integrations. Also, there must be room for modifications.
In the Space industry, it is not uncommon to see people work long, hard and extended hours. You may even be required to work on weekends. It is a tough job, but it is one that is rewarding mentally and financially.