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Blurred lines: The crossover between ECAD and MCAD

At an industry event late in 2013, the speaker asked all mechanical engineers in the room to raise their hands. A sea of arms shot skyward. Next, he asked those who were solely mechanical engineers to keep their hands up. Barely any did.

The point is that there are few design engineers whose work does not take in other disciplines. And chief among these disciplines in this increasingly mechatronic world is electronics.

Given that CAD software is a core tool of the design engineer, it is no surprise that mechanical (MCAD) and electronic (ECAD) software have been getting ever closer over the years. This process has accelerated of late, with mechanical and electronic players announcing joint ventures and collaborations.

One of the more recent of these came from RS Components, whose product DesignSpark Mechanical (DSM, see NE 24 Sept 2013) added MCAD software, in the form of direct modelling package SpaceClaim, to DesignSpark PCB. It says engineers at all levels now have access to 3D design, without the need to rely on traditional expensive 3D software or the skill of CAD specialists.

DSM allows IDF files to be imported into mechanical designs from PCB design tools such as Altium and PADS. At its launch, it was abundantly clear that DSM has been designed to address the increasing overlap between electronic and mechanical design. Quotes from electronic designers included 'the mechanical design stage is increasingly coupled with PCB design' and 'there's a real need for some common ground between us and the mechanical engineers'.

This trend has been echoed in other areas, with many PCB design tools having integrated 3D viewers and offering IDF outputs for use in MCAD tools. More recently, however, things have gone further. Altium, for example, announced the availability of the SolidWorks modeller for Altium Designer in 2013. The app, developed by ECAD/MCAD collaboration expert Desktop EDA, is the result of Altium's first add-on app development partnership.

Desktop EDA has more than 16 years experience in developing 3D MCAD integration tools for electronics design systems such as Altium Designer, Protel and Mentor Graphics PADS. Released at the end of 2013, Desktop EDA's offering includes apps that extend Altium Designer's native 3D PCB design features by facilitating advanced collaboration between MCAD and ECAD designers.

Altium is currently working with other developers to bring more apps to electronic designers and is targeting a wider release of the distribution and licensing system.

This model of apps for ECAD design appearing on MCAD platforms is by no means new, but is set to grow, according to John Isaacs of Mentor Graphics. "One of our strategies has long been that we take one of our softwares – like FlowEFD – and embed it in those mechanical systems. For instance, SolidWorks' flow simulation product is, in fact, a rebranded FlowEFD. It's also embedded in Creo, in Siemens NX and CATIA. What we mean by embedded is that it's just another button on the menu; the user can push that button and they're immediately into FlowEFD. We basically use the same model – there's no interface."

Mentor released FlowTHERM XT following its acquisition of Flowmatics, whose expertise resided largely in the mechanical sphere. Isaac said: "FloTherm XT was a significant step in blurring the line between MCAD and ECAD. It basically supports thermal management from design all the way to verification.

"So a mechanical designer may start by designing an enclosure and maybe a PCB guy will start with a conceptual version of the PCB, placing the basic representations of the thermal components on the board to allow analysis to begin with Flowtherm XT really early in the design process. As the design process continues, the interface between the mechanical and PCB sides of things is enabled seamlessly. So now, if a PCB is being designed in detail, they can easily determine if they have a good heat management system in place."

Interfaces go seamlessly into FlowThermXT from both the mechanical and ECAD side. Those interfaces have filters that remove the non-thermal information, which prevents the analysis being slowed down by extraneous data.

According to Isaac, while collaboration between ECAD and MCAD is nothing new, the moves towards integration are increasingly a necessity. "Integration is more a question of interdependency than anything else. Electronic products are using chips that are getting hotter and hotter and closer and closer together on the product, thanks to advances in PCB technology. The heat density of these products is increasing and is past the point where you can afford not to use good thermal analysis ... we see that blurring the line between MCAD and ECAD is increasingly important."

Steve Chidester, head of international marketing for Zuken, agrees about the increased levels of crossover, but makes clear the limits of this phenomenon. "There is a blurring of the two worlds, but it's from an analysis point of view – not from a design point of view. You'll always design a PCB on a dedicated PCB design platform and you're still going to design an enclosure in a mechanical CAD package."

That said, Chidester has seen a lot of change in the degree to which MCAD and ECAD users are having to collaborate. "I started out as a PCB designer many years ago and I'd very rarely talk to the MCAD guys. I'd maybe get a print out of an enclosure to make sure my board would fit with it, but more usually, I'd just be told what my restrictions were and if I followed the rules, things were going to fit. The only time the discussion would take place was if I couldn't follow the rules for some reason."

Today, as the number of components and computing power has to increase within a given space envelope, it has become impossible for the two disciplines not to work together.

Chidester added: "When I've engaged with mobile phone companies, they tell me they have had to go back and forth between PCB design and MCAD more than 100 times. And that was because the form factor of the phone was set – a phone can only be a certain size. Now the electronics that go into a phone have to all sit in a PCB – all the components, everything. In order to make that happen, a huge amount of collaboration has to take place between ECAD and MCAD."

This collaboration, he believes, is only set to grow. "Communicating with the MCAD players is essential for us because our customers are their customers to some extent and vice versa. Not only do they have to know each other's work, they have to have to be able to share data and they have to be able to talk to each other. You can't just throw it over the wall anymore, which is what they did when I was a PCB designer.

"Today, they've got to talk to each other otherwise you end up going back and forth between the two departments. It's a lot of time and it's a lot of data that has to be translated. As CAD vendors, we are there to act as translators."

Paul Fanning is editor of Eureka magazine (www.eurekamagazine.co.uk).

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Paul Fanning

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