07 June 2010
Coordinating collaboration: Board level technology
PCB designers are leading the way towards better cross discipline design and collaboration.
A decade ago, ic design was the glamorous task in the product development process. Today, pcb design is seen as pivotal to the product design process: coordinating cross discipline development in the mechanical and software design domains, as well as design for manufacture and product data management.
Keith Felton, group director of product marketing for Cadence, said pcb design has become the lynch pin for 'predictable profit'. "Companies need to control design costs and there is a difference between what you can make and what you can make money on," he said.
"The influence of pcb engineers is growing, particularly in the area of collaboration with the mechanical cad team," said Dionne Hayman of Zuken. "It can make a big difference to the bottom line." Hayman has seen customers who go back and forth between electronic and mechanical cad packages 100 times before the product is finalised. "More firms are admitting this is a real issue. They are finally realising that up front collaboration between these teams, with interoperable pcb and mechanical design packages, can solve these problems."
Zuken has long focused on this area and its latest tool release uses the STEP format. "IDF is woefully short of meeting these needs and you'd be surprised at the number of companies which still use paper," Hayman claimed.
Altium's Rob Irwin concurred. "Interfacing electronic and mechanical design in real time is the next trend. We don't see pcb designers doing mechanical design, but the ability to bring the physical enclosure design into the electronic design package, shuffling physical features for a better fit, is going to save time." He agrees STEP will be key to allowing models to be imported back and forth, with automatic updates on each side.
John Isaac of Mentor Graphics noted that mcad and ecad interaction is not just for portable products, but also for racks and systems. He cited a telecoms mainframe system with 30 power distribution networks. "Blade computers can dissipate 400W," he pointed out. "With links between mcad and ecad, thermal analysis will swiftly show the effects of moving components away from hot spots."
Design for manufacture
More work at the pcb design level in signal integrity, power distribution and thermal analysis, as well as regulatory compliance, is reducing the time available to move a design to production.
"Companies used to allow 20weeks from the end of design to the first production run, but time to market and increased competitiveness has reduced this to about two weeks in some cases," Felton claimed. "There's no time to create multiple prototypes any more, especially in the consumer market."
"Time between versions is shrinking and there are more versions," added Irwin. "All this needs careful tracking as there are lots of dependencies. Companies need to be more rigorous, particularly small companies not used to it." He believes small firms don't need big PLM systems, but do need to track revisions, releases and obsolescence.
Isaac agrees design for manufacture is a new emphasis for many customers. "They need to optimise a design and move it into production quickly and at the lowest cost." This is typically an iterative – and still largely manual – process, he added. "Engineers need a system that captures this knowledge for future use, to document the 'rules of thumb' that experienced engineers know work and those to avoid."
Product data management
The key to a smooth design flow is smooth and consistent data flow throughout the product design cycle. Interactive and interoperable tools are a long time ambition of the vendors and the latest trend is the 'unified database'. While design data management tools are available, uptake is mostly limited to larger companies.
Hayman commented: "If you ask pcb design customers whether they need good data management tools, big companies will say 'yes'. Medium and small companies will probably scratch their heads and say 'I think so'. But product data management tools in the mechanical domain don't always work in the pcb world.
Another part of the pcb engineer's expanding role is to ensure regulatory compliance. Irwin noted: "Managing a design through its lifecycle is becoming important, even for smaller companies." He cites the globalisation of component manufacturing as a factor. "To be competitive in production, it's important to get the right tolerance, value, cost and lead time. Today, sourcing globally can give an edge."
The technology in the tools developed for companies with larger design teams are trickling down to small firms. Large design teams may be split across facilities, even in different time zones, and may be split by discipline, but they work concurrently to meet tight time to market goals.
"Our R&D investment focus is not just on the productivity and advanced technology capabilities in the core pcb design flow, but also in creating concurrency and collaboration capabilities," Isaac said. Critical features include: a single database; the ability for all team members to view each others' edits in real time; and the ability to update the design when the change is acceptable.
Cross discipline concurrent design is considered important for large and small design teams alike. Isaac said: "Everyone has high speed, high density, signal/emc, thermal and power issues to solve. Solving one problem often creates another." Concurrent design can reduce design time, even for the 'do it all' multidisciplined engineer. Hayman noted: "Each specialist has their priorities and these can be conflicting; optimising for signal integrity and thermal efficiency is the classic case."
Although Isaac sees increasing demand for multidisciplined engineers, he also sees a continuing need for specialists. "The expert needs to tackle the tricky problems that need interaction and analysis."
"But, although pcb designers are not necessarily specialists," Hayman added," they have to get the experts together and somehow make sense of it."
The vendors agreed that tools must be easy to learn and to use. "Engineers need to be able to pick up and use whatever tool they need, which may only be once per project," Isaac summarised.
Although the principal vendors now offer integrated fpga and pcb design tools, analysis tools, data management systems and links to manufacturing, Altium believes it has grabbed the lead when it comes to software development. Integrating fpga and board design tools with the classical software development environment, under a unified database with single data model, provides a number of advantages, according to Irwin. "If something gets changed in the hardware, it automatically gets changed in the software," he explained.
"And there's a definite trend towards embedded instrumentation," he continued, "allowing the engineer to check what's going on inside the product without having to bring all the signals out to the boards."
But, as Hayman concluded: "PCB designers are clearly on the critical path."
Cadence Design Systems (UK)Ltd
Mentor Graphics (UK) Ltd
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