Distributors respond to demand for free and affordable board level design tools

4 min read

The concept of PCB design software being either available freely or at low cost via a distribution website is only a recent development. Perhaps the first instance came in 2009, when Premier Farnell acquired German software company CadSoft in order to offer the Eagle PCB design package at low cost on the element14 website.

Shortly afterwards, RS Components unveiled a freely downloadable PCB design tool as part of its DesignSpark initiative. According to RS, such tools had been limited when it came to board size, the number of pins and the number of layers. DesignSpark PCB, said to remove many of these limitations, added a component library and supported the generation of Bills of Materials (BoM). Since then, Digi-Key and Mouser have come to market with offerings that take the user beyond basic board level design. Meanwhile, RS and element14 continue to improve their products – the former adding a mechanical design element. Mouser has been working with National Instruments for the last year to develop MultiSIM Blue. The software is based on MultiSIM, a schematic capture and simulation package developed originally by Electronics Workbench, which NI acquired in 2005. A sister product to MultiSIM is the UltiBoard PCB layout package. Raymond Yin, Mouser's director of technical content, noted: "MultiSIM is a circuit design software package aimed at design engineers. Previously, it offered schematic capture and PCB layout, but we have added two things – simulation and BoM functionality." Yin said NI's software allows Mouser to bring functionality to the market that isn't available in the free tools sector. "The software has been around for more than 10 years and has a strong user base – more than 10,000 customers and more than 100,000 engineering design students." Described by Mouser as an 'all in one circuit design tool, including schematic capture, simulation, PCB layout and BoM', MultiSIM Blue uses the Berkeley SPICE engine and comes with a preloaded component library of more than 100,000 components. These have been selected from the most popular devices based on Mouser's sales and on new products being added to its portfolio. Linking to the Mouser database allows MultiSIM Blue to offer real time BoM price quotes, whilst the component database updates are said to enhance design engineering efficiency. But MultiSIM Blue has its limits: whilst it can support designs with 64 layers, there is a limit of 50 components per design. However, Yin believes this will not be a major factor. "It will accommodate many designs," he contended. However, there is no restriction on the size or shape of the design, which Mouser believes will encourage 'innovative, forward looking design'. Amongst its features are prelayout design convergence analysis and mixed signal simulation. Complex components, including BGAs with more than 1000 pins – can be handled, as can devices with pin pitches as as small as 0.8mm. MultiSIM Blue also provides 3D visualisation. Meanwhile, Mouser is working on an update to Blue that will provide more of the functionality available in MicroSIM Base. "This will encompass symbols, schematics and footprints," Yin noted. Digi-Key's president Mark Larson told New Electronics in July 2014: "We are continuing to develop our strength on the web and this includes work to bring some sophisticated design tools to engineers." This programme – a collaboration with Mentor Graphics – has yielded Designer Schematic and Designer Layout; tools described by Digi-Key as 'innovative and affordable'. Randall Restle, Digi-Key's director of applications engineering, said: "Growing companies have to spend a lot of money for design tools. By working with Mentor, we can offer a professional toolset at an attractive price. It's a market segment which we believe hasn't been addressed in the past." Jim Martens, product marketing manager with Mentor, added: "There are tens of thousands of individuals and small companies that need to create electronics. It's a win-win for both of us." Designer Schematic and Designer Layout – based on Mentor's PADS software – come with free access to Mentor's PartQuest website, which converts Digi-Key part numbers into symbols and footprints. However, users will face some constraints. For example, there will be a limit of 1500 connections per design for both tools, although a premium product that removes this restriction will be available. Boards can be up to six layers thick and up to 50sq in in area. Martens explained how it will work. "There will be a part number, allowing users to go online a buy a seat. Whatever they find in Partquest can be parked in Dropbox and imported into the tools. Access to the Digi-Key site will enable parametric search." CadSoft launched version 7 of its Eagle PCB software in July. New features include an enhanced autorouter with fewer transition points, resulting in more efficiently routed PCBs. The autorouter is also said to enhance productivity by running variants of the layout simultaneously on multicore processors. CadSoft says this will allow users to select the best solution from multiple configurations of the same routed board. Eagle v7 supports larger design teams and more complex designs by enabling the design to be split into small functional blocks, which can then be reintegrated. This approach is said to give a global view of the project and to make it easier to locate and change aspects of the schematic or layout. "Eagle v7 offers greater flexibility than before, with new capabilities that extend the software to more complex design within larger organisations," said CadSoft's managing director Thomas Liratsch. "This means we can support more customers through each step of the design process, whether they are starting out or are experienced board makers." RS upgraded DesignSpark PCB to version 6 at the beginning of 2014. The upgrade, driven mainly by user feedback, makes it easier to export between files to and from DesignSpark Mechanical, whilst cross probe functionality speeds the design process by allowing instant referencing between the schematic and the PCB design views. "RS continues to remove the barriers of cost and complexity in electronics design and the release of version 6.0 is a further confirmation of our commitment to support the growth of the DesignSpark PCB user base," said Mark Cundle, RS' head of technical marketing. RS has recently added the DesignShare area to its DesignSpark initiative. It includes two areas – ideas and projects. Ideas enables DesignSpark members to post project ideas, generate discussion and invite comment. Meanwhile, the Projects area includes a range of projects tagged with relevant keywords, along with assets such as PCB schematics and layout files for DesignSpark PCB. Restle concluded: "As Digi-Key has grown, so too have the needs of its customers. While we continue to serve the maker segment, users are looking for professional tools, but there are all kinds of software out there. By working with Mentor, we can offer them professional tools at an attractive price."