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Mike BuetowIf your designer certification were suddenly rendered invalid, would you feel any less professional? Would you feel any less knowledgeable about your craft?

Those questions are at the root of an ongoing debate between IPC and the Designer’s Council Executive Board. The two parties have been at odds over the past several months due to a difference in opinion over the nature of the certification program.

Designer certification as a formality dates back to 1994. A group of industry professionals, along with the late Dieter Bergman, then IPC technical director, devised the original template. (Disclosure: I was the IPC staff liaison for design and was present at all the meetings where the program was drafted.) A consulting firm we’d hired advised us to use a consensus body of knowledge such as a standard as the foundation for the exam, as it would leave us less exposed to litigation from someone who might have failed the test. Thus, we wrote hundreds of questions for a test based on IPC-D-275, the prevailing design standard of the time, but steeped in good design practice. And we developed a multi-day workshop to prepare designers for it.

And they showed up in droves! Literally hundreds of designers attended the workshops. But, to our chagrin, few went online afterward to take the exam. So, John Riley, then IPC’s director of training and education, brainstormed: make the exam part of the workshop. The CID (for certified interconnect designer) quickly took off after that.

Over time, the exam has seen at least annual updates. IPC-D-275 was replaced by the IPC-222X series, and lead-free became prominent. The inherent issue with using a specification is it leaves little room for imagination or creativity. The program of today encompasses what are considered good design practices. It takes into consideration the many tradeoffs inherent in designing PCBs.

This evolution was by Designer’s Council under the auspices of IPC. But today the respective organizations find themselves diametrically opposed when it comes to the ongoing validity of a program. In short, the debate boils down to how often someone should be tested.

For their part, most designers feel knowledge is an accumulative process, one that combines on-the-job experience and training and inevitably increases over time.

Most other IPC certifications require regular retesting, however. Take, for instance, the certifications for soldering (based on J-STD-001) and assembly qualification (IPC-A-610). Those operator certification programs are based on a demonstration of direct knowledge of those documents and techniques in front of specially trained instructors. Recertification is due every couple years and is tied to changes in the respective standards.

While CID still has ties to IPC-222X, the CID+, the advanced version of the exam, is not tethered to a standard, and as such the principles it covers do not in theory need to be updated so regularly – if at all. Indeed, I am told the study guide for the exam is not updated even annually.

There’s a financial angle to be considered as well. Quality assurance workers are most often direct employees, and the certification is paid for by their employers. The certificates are used as evidence of a company’s adherence to ISO standards.

Many designers, on the other hand, are contract employees or are not required by their companies to be certified. They often pay for the cost of that training – which is significant – from their own pockets. And the certification program does not consider their skill in operating a CAD tool, although CAD proficiency is an important part of an experienced designer’s résumé. Design certification is inherently different than the other programs. Given the number of available CAD tools, it is impractical to try to verify a designer's “ability.” To be required to undergo recertification every few years would likely be seen by the industry as a tax on working. It might even undermine the program itself.

How to resolve this?

I propose the IPC Technical Executive Activities Committee, in conjunction with the Designer’s Council, appoint a dedicated task group to oversee the CID program, much like has been done for related programs for bare board and assembly training. The committee should be charged with periodic reviews of the certification program and granted authority to decide whether the field has changed to the point where designers need to be recertified.

As I learned from Dieter Bergman, the best way to gain a supporter is to put them in charge.

P.S. Check the PCB West website (pcbwest.com) for updates on this year’s technical conference. And tune in to the PCB Chat podcast (pcbchat.com) each week for interviews with leading industry engineers and executives.

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