Zachariah Peterson, Founder of Northwest Engineering Solutions

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Zachariah Peterson is the Founder of Northwest Engineering Solutions, a PCB design consultancy that also produces excellent content on electronics engineering. Their library includes comprehensive guides on PCB design, high-speed design, and design tools.

Background & Experience

Academic

I began my career in academia, focusing on metal oxide semiconductor devices, specifically zinc oxide thin film devices, sensors, and lasers. My PhD research at Portland State University primarily centered on random lasers, which are thin-film nanoparticle lasers that generate random bundles of laser pulses. It's a very interesting and mathematically rich subject.

Career & Starting a Consultancy Firm

After leaving academia, I had a tough time transitioning to industry—I really didn't know how to talk about myself to prospective employers. I began freelancing, and over time, my projects grew in size and scope. I started Northwest Engineering Solutions as a consultancy, but not specifically focused on PCB design or electronics engineering. However, I try not to be egotistical, and when electronics projects and PCB design came knocking I realized I needed to go all in on this area. The company rebranded to focus specifically on PCB design, and we've never looked back.

Around 2018, an agency asked me to help develop technical content using Altium, and about a year later Altium hired us directly! The relationship has continued to grow and I'm very happy to provide strategic guidance for the company in addition to creating technical content. I still continue to provide strategic input for Altium's marketing initiatives and technical guidance for their product development and marketing teams.

Difference between stripline (inner layer traces) vs. microstrip (outer layer traces) on PCBs.

Experience at Northwest Engineering

What does Northwest Engineering Do?

Northwest Engineering is a PCB design firm that also develops content about electronics engineering and PCB design. I think we are the only company that enjoys this kind of crossover, and have been successful at providing both services. In the realm of PCB design, we do a lot in high-speed digital and RF design, and one of our major market segments is in military & aerospace. The biggest area we have seen growth in the past two years has been in sensor fusion systems, which involves a mix of low frequency analog, mid-range RF, a lot of digital interfaces, and/or large radars.

Day-to-Day Running a Business

It's very interesting and I don't believe it's for everyone. When I first started I spent so much time trying to find the right niche, I did not start this thing solely focusing on electronics design. now that this is what I do, I spend a lot of time managing other designers, running QA on projects, and answering tons of emails. As time has progressed, I've become much more comfortable with running my own business, it does not feel like a constant emergency situation to find customers and complete projects.

Unexpected Customer Outcomes and Current Challenges

One of our biggest challenges is explaining the manufacturing process and NPI to clients. Many of them are smaller companies or start-ups unfamiliar with scaling a new product. They often come with incorrect preconceived notions, making our support more challenging.

We're seeing many start-up founders from the software world with great hardware ideas. They struggle the most with shifting their mindset toward hardware development and manufacturing. It's usually something they've never had to learn. If they can grasp how to manage production risk and reduce prototype spins, their chances of success increase significantly.

Thoughts on Electronic Design Automation Software

Incumbent Market

The EDA software market is strange because it is totally unlike all other areas of software. The biggest vendors are selling into a declining total addressable market (TAM), and the blitzscaling model, where speed is prioritized over efficiency, that works so well for other areas of software inevitably fails with EDA software.

It's ironic because the products we create enable all other areas of software, without the products created in EDA tools, none of that other software would be able to exist. I guess it shows that picks and shovels are not always the best investment.
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EDA software like Altium are tools for engineers that facilitates the entire PCB design process: schematic capture, advanced PCB layout, component management, simulation, and verification.

Start-Ups & New Entrants

The opportunities for new entrants and incumbents are at the system level. These could be management tools, they could be classic design tools, they could be integration systems, I'm not sure the type of platform matters. What I do think is important is that they avoid reinventing the wheel when building their product. If you invent another PCB layout tool, it had better provide some new value for the users of the Big Four EDA software platforms, otherwise you will be relegated to hobbyist usage. I continue to be surprised by the level of VC interest in EDA platforms that don't provide value to the portion of the user base that's actually willing to spend money for good software.

Big Four EDA Platforms:

1) Altium
2) Cadence
3) Synopsys
4) Siemens EDA (formerly Mentor Graphics)

New entrants also need to think about their exit strategy very carefully. I don't think we will ever have another IPO exit for an EDA company—the companies that could go public have already gone public.

If you're a new entrant and will take money from investors, then you need to realize that your exit will probably be via a sale to one of the legacy EDA companies. This will greatly influence the product you want to build and how it will be marketed.

Altium/Renesas Acquisition

In the short term, Altium users might feel uneasy, but long-term, there's a huge opportunity for Altium to reach a new customer base. The future product developments are uncertain, but this is a prime chance to expand Altium 365's reach, especially with Altium's new focus on CAD-agnostic design and management tools. Altium's recent growth can be attributed to its willingness to be CAD-agnostic and integrate with other top solutions providers, rather than acquiring and rebranding new capabilities.

Another significant opportunity for Altium is in packaging and substrate design tools. Since Renesas is a semiconductor company, enhancing the Altium Designer product in this area makes sense. We might even see an Altium Designer Substrates extension in the coming years!

Altium was acquired by Renesas for $5.9 billion dollars in February 2024

Ideal Software & Hardware Stack for Hardware Engineers (EE)

You need a few things (at minimum) for the team to be successful and highly productive.

  • Two or three EDA platforms where you have expertise
  • Centralized communication, such as Slack
  • A repository for projects that is searchable in some way; most people will use Github or a locally deployed SVN

Because we do work in military & aerospace, we need to use services deployed to a local server that we control, and our IT infrastructure is located in the US in accordance with ITAR/EAR requirements*. That requires a different approach than you might expect for companies who only work on commercial projects.

*ITAR/EAR regulations control the export and import of defense-related articles and services to ensure national security and protect U.S. foreign policy interests.

Q&A

Favorite Achievement

One of the most important and impactful technical projects over the past hundred years has been the satellite programs and the space shuttle program at NASA. The impact of the technology those engineering groups developed is still being felt and it is fueling a budding commercial space industry today.

Favorite Interview Question

  1. What is your background and how did you start working in electronics?

In OnTrack podcast interviews, I find that guests often have diverse backgrounds and unique reasons for entering the electronics industry. I like to hear the interesting experiences for how people got interested in electronics!

To stay in touch with Zachariah, find him on LinkedIn or through Northwest's company page.

About the author
Benjamin Chia

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