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Would you drink it? – The dilemma of design reuse

Rob Evans, technical editor, Altium Ltd

It's become a cliché in news or science reports. A water treatment plant manager, or perhaps politician, is enthusiastically promoting the quality of the water that comes out the back end (pun intended) of an elaborate purifying system.

The usual party trick, aimed to win over the masses, is where the spokesperson confidently consumes a glass of water that has its origins in the seething mass of sludge shown in the background. It's an act of faith based on the assumed quality of the resource, based in turn on the credentials of the plant's processing and storage system.

Whether you would happily drink it, or gag at the mere thought is governed by your faith in the integrity of the water. The merits of reusing the resource are indisputable, the science behind it is impressive, but the real show stopper would be insufficient confidence that the risks have been eliminated. This is indeed the case with reusing any kind of valuable asset, recycled or otherwise.

In electronics design the drive to reuse assets is equally compelling, and again, the main issue is one of confidence in the integrity of that recycled element, rather than the mechanisms that deliver it.

The potential efficiency advantages of reduced design time, lower costs and harnessing design elements of a known provenance are quickly lost if the integrity of the reused data is not assured. Because of that doubt, designers and organisations are understandably reluctant to take the risk of drinking from the design reuse glass.

For electronics design an ideal solution is to manage reusable design data separately from the fluid domain of the design system itself. This requires the introduction of a practical and effective way to securely store, share and manage locked revisions of reusable design content, then manage its lifecycle over time. The design content could be anything from components (and their requisite models) to sections of circuitry or even fully completed designs, ready for production.

By taking this approach, design data can be released from the design space itself into a secure storage 'vault' as a unique, traceable revision. Here, the lifecycle status (prototype or production, for example) of the released data can be managed, and if the design source documents are updated, a new revision can be released to the vault and its status set accordingly.

This also opens the possibility of permission based access for others in an organisation, such as procurement, library management, production and so on. The bottom line though, is the high degree of integrity a managed vault system can bring to reusable design data. You can be sure that an item is the latest revision, you know it has not changed since it was released into the vault, and you can see where it's used in other design resources.

By addressing the key issue of data integrity, the approach virtually eliminates the risks associated with reusing even high level, multilayered design sections. Reusing your established design data – the IP equivalent to that glass of water – is no longer an act of blind faith or risky bravado, because its purity is assured.

Rob Evans, technical editor, Altium Ltd

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