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A Tribute to Alan Finch, the Father of Gridless Autorouting

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.

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