A Tribute to Alan Finch, the Father of Gridless Autorouting

by Darrell Webb on December 20, 2012

in Electronic

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Today I write with a sad heart about the passing of EDA giant, Alan Finch, a long-time colleague at Racal-Redac and then Zuken, a man who was highly thought of by so many. He was a routing guru who had legendary status, renowned for pioneering a concept that changed the way the EDA industry sees autorouting. He published a paper (with K.J. Mackenzie, G.J. Balsdon, and G. Symonds) entitled “The case for gridless automatic routers” and developed the algorithm that was at the heart of the first gridless router, launched in 1986.

Many people have shared their memories, here are just a few:

“Alan was a man who embraced challenge; engineers would send design data to him and challenge him to solve it. He thrived on finding a solution to routing designs that were deemed by many as too difficult to route.

“My biggest memory of Alan was attending PCB West benchmarks organized by Pete Waddell and his team, where the contenders were given a challenge to route a PCB design being graded as they performed the task and also on the quality and completeness of the finished design. One joke Pete would always make was, ‘If Alan and me put our heads together, we would make an arse of it’, both looking very similar in appearance with their bald heads,” explained Nik Kontic, a former colleague.

Cass Castello, another former colleague in the Bristol office, spoke of Alan’s array of strengths. “To the techies he was an expert techie, to the AEs an expert AE, to management a wise head, and to everyone he was great company and a warm, considerate person. He was a gentle man and a gentleman, sensitive to the signs of what his colleagues were feeling and keen to understand and to support those around him. He had no time for self-aggrandisement, seeming always to see himself as simply another member of a capable team.”

Alan is a great loss to the world not only because of his contribution to the advancement of technology, but also because of his generous, unassuming nature.

Ken Mackenzie, who worked with Alan on the gridless router back in the 80s, said, “As someone who was privileged to work directly with him, I will always remember Alan as a great friend and mentor. He was a very kind, self-effacing man with a huge enthusiasm and genius for his work on automatic routing tools.”

Anthony Cutler, Alan’s former manager added these words, “Alan exuded a quiet calm authority. He chose to avoid situations where he would be seen to be superior to others – he used to say there was no need to fuss, as he saw nothing exceptional in what he’d achieved. So Alan was often seen working quietly with the fuss going on around him.

“At the same time, he was very approachable, and would be pleased to help the experienced and the novice alike to better understand the intricacies of the router, or to help you understand how best to use it. He had almost infinite patience.

“It’s humbling to record that this quiet, industrious and unassuming individual was responsible for a major breakthrough in EDA, and like many, I hope the epithet ‘the father of gridless autorouting’ stays with him for all time.

“Alan’s kindness and humanity were clear to all and it was a joy to be one of his friends to the last.”

I had the pleasure of working alongside Alan for 15 years from before he retired and most of what I know about Zuken’s routing tools, he taught me. I remember in 1994 soon after Zuken bought Racal-Redac, I travelled to Japan with Alan to demonstrate our routing tools; we visited offices in Tokyo and Osaka. Alan wasn’t looking forward to the trip at all as he didn’t care for travelling, but when we arrived we were given first class treatment. Alan was treated with great respect by the Japanese technical press and revered as a routing guru. I also remember his picture was taken for a national Japanese newspaper, all of which he was really pleased about, he had a smile on his face all the way back to England. He was a great colleague and it was a pleasure to work with him and learn from him.

I will remember him as the father of gridless autorouting for his contributions to this company and the industry at large. But for those who knew him, Alan will be remembered fondly for so much more.

Feel free to share your recollections in the comments below.

Darrell Webb
View all posts by Darrell Webb

{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }

Peter Jenkins January 10, 2013 at 9:48 pm

This man was responsible for a revolutionary product. You can’t imagine the number of man-hours he has saved us with his brilliance.

I bought the add-on router to my lowly Maxipc s/w, back in the day and transformed it into an amazing tool that actually did what it was supposed to.

I never met you Alan, but I will always respect what you did for us designers.

Bill Jehan December 26, 2012 at 11:08 pm

Sad news. I first met Alan in 1975 – he was unfailingly helpful, patient, generous and considerate towards everyone he worked with and everyone he met, indeed an exceptional man.

Mike Farrington December 26, 2012 at 12:12 pm

I worked very closely with Alan not long after joining Redac. My first exposure to routing was delivering the PDP-15 ez-router to Siemens and R&S, which Alan had worked on in the States with Roger Leggate and Dave Ellis. My first overseas business trip, a few days before Christmas 1978! When Alan came back to the UK I worked with him on the PDP-11 version. Back then machine time was in short supply and we had to book slots on the small number of availablr machines and so Alan worked nights and for a few months I did too – often we would have all three available machines churning away! Those were the days when all was written in Assembler, we used the single user RT-11 operating system and all sorts of tricks had to be played to run within the limitations of a machine with 16 bit addressing! How times have changed.

Alan was truly a gentleman, I remember his patience when presented with a very young, wet behind the ears, recent graduate, and I learnt a huge amount from him. I don’t think I ever heard Alan raise his voice.

For me, Alan was one of the Giants on whose shoulders Redac stood.

He will be missed but not forgotten.

Mahesh Chandra December 25, 2012 at 12:27 pm

We have been associated with (then) Racal Redac since 1990 and met Alan in the Tewekesbury office in the early 90s. He spent some time with us explaining to us the power of gridless routing of the then flagship product Visula and it was real real impressive.
It is really saddening to hear of his untimely demise.

Mahesh Chandra
CMR Design Automation P Ltd

David Ramsay December 22, 2012 at 11:24 pm

Alan and I were on opposite sides of the fence (he dev, me test) so to speak, but way back when I was teaching myself a bit about microprocessors (1978 ish) he obliged me by writing an 8080 compiler running on the PDP 15/20 we had at REDAC at the time. He needn’t have done so but that was Alan.

Alans name will not be well known but Electronics Design would not be the same without him.

Finally I remember a ‘flaw’ in an algorithm he produced (at least I remember it being him, age fades the memory) which helped me produce a demo allowing me to place and route a design in 20 minutes.

Mark Williams December 21, 2012 at 12:50 pm

A fabulous chap who I worked with for many years in the routing team and from whom I learned an enormous amount. I will remember him most as a dear friend however, which I had the privilege of being up until the end.
He was a legend – and will never be forgotten

Rob Moore December 21, 2012 at 12:09 pm

Some really nice comments and although I did not know Alan well, he was very easy to speak to and from what I remember had a very infectious laugh as well!

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