A new design flow

4 mins read

CELUS is among a small number of companies looking to revolutionise circuit and PCB design. CEO Tobias Pohl talks to Neil Tyler about its new design flow.

Established in 2018 CELUS was set up, in the words of CEO and founder Tobias Pohl, to “revolutionise the electronics industry with a new design flow for circuit design and PCB development.”

According to Pohl, “Having started my career in software development, as well as mechanical engineering, I was always fascinated with the speed of development and the ability to make changes quickly. I soon realised that wasn’t the case with electronic component design which had remained extremely basic in terms of development processes, with no decision-making support. It simply didn’t exist.”

Consequently, Pohl, along with co-founders, Alexander Pohl and Andre Alcalde sought to develop a platform capable of speeding up and simplifying the development of complex circuit boards.

“We knew that we could develop something that would certainly be better than what was currently available to engineers,” said Pohl, “and we looked at how we could automate the entire process of design and sourcing components.”

For what was essentially a spin-out of Munich University the journey began by obtaining funding from the Federal German government through a series of grants.

“Most people talk of the funding challenge when it comes to setting up a new business. We were very fortunate. We got good support both from the university via its incubation centre and from the government in terms of funding. I think we were pleasantly surprised by the funding that we received which enabled us to move forward relatively quickly.”

The biggest challenge, however, proved to come from the electronics industry itself.

“This might be a highly innovative industry, but electronics is also extremely conservative. And it was certainly a challenge to get people to ‘buy-in’ to what we were looking to achieve. All of which was made harder by not having a product to show. No one thought it would work. Many thought it was a ‘cool’ idea, but few thought it would actually work,” explained Pohl.

“What we were trying to do was create real change in an industry and that isn’t an easy process. Many processes had remained the same over many years, so convincing people that you have a new process that will change how they go about design which is worth embracing is tough.

“It required a real educational effort to bring people online, and we’ve spent the past five years not only developing the platform but educating companies and engineers.”

Some sub-segments within electronics have certainly proved more receptive, according to Pohl, who points to developers in the field of the Internet of Things (IoT) but for other sectors, bringing a product to market quickly is not a priority. Pohl points to aerospace and medical sectors, for example, where security, certification and safety are more important.

“Our design methodology is one that’s based on functions, rather than components,” said Pohl. “Our Supernova tool is a GUI-based product that uses abstract engineering data to identify the various circuits and components that are needed to complete a design. We automate the process from conceptual drawing to PCB floorplan with outputs to native EDA formats.”

The use of automation means removing the traditional and time-consuming steps that constituted the traditional design process, making it far simpler. According to Pohl the aim is to reduce development times by as much as up to 90%.

When it comes to the traditional design process, companies tend to have all of their internal engineering product information in digital formats but then present it to engineers in datasheets.

“Users then take those datasheets and convert them into a digital format which seemed to us, to be an additional burden and a waste of time,” said Pohl.

Design information

CELUS is creating a whole series of what it calls Cubos, which contain detailed electronic design information and includes ECAD details, port and connection information, usage specifications and a bill of materials (BOM).

“These are essentially building blocks,” said Pohl.

They are used by the Supernova platform to create designs, while the company’s other tool – Orbit - provides the library and know-how management for components, footprints, and the Cubos themselves.

“We’re building up a portfolio of Cubos and each is relevant to a functional specification. They can be simple – defining a temperature or voltage circuit, for example – or extremely complex, say if you are looking for an FPGA. The user simply enters search parameters and the specific Cubos will be identified. Your search will be determined by what you want to achieve. Each Cubos can be connected to others and so you’re able to address further requirements or include any peripherals that might be needed as the design develops,” explained Pohl.

CELUS uses machine learning, supervised learning and reinforcement learning as well as huge data models to better understand the needs of engineers and to develop each specific Cubos.

CELUS has also been building partnerships with different companies including the likes of Avnet, Kyocera AVX, Molex, and Wurth to create and extend its library of Cubos.

“We don’t want to create a new ecosystem but rather plug-in to the existing one,” said Pohl.

“Our aim is to grow the library and to improve the platform’s overall performance,” said Pohl. “This means handling more users, running iteration loops faster, supporting new design structures, and consolidating our growing list of Cubos. Critically we want to make the process as simple and as straightforward as possible.”

The platform has grown much faster that Pohl expected, especially after the ‘push-back’ they received when they first started to talk about it to prospective customers.

“It was certainly much slower at the beginning than I had expected,” Pohl conceded, “but in the past twelve months it really has picked up. Our relationship with Avnet – a major distributor – has really helped. They have a miniature version of our tool live on their website. But while this is certainly a tremendous achievement for the company - it has brought much greater visibility - it’s also brought more complexity and has tested the capabilities of the business.

“I think for many smaller businesses the big fear is saying no to opportunities. We’ve become better at selecting projects, focusing more on what matters and learning to just say no when we need to. The list of potential business opportunities is enormous, but you need to be able to prioritise.”

The company is taking on a lot of new staff and the CELUS team currently stands at 78 people.

“We’re doubling our staff numbers year-on-year,” said Pohl. “We’ve expanded our Munich office, and this year opened an office in Porto, in Portugal. Our aim is to expand our presence across Europe, but we’ll also look to grow the business in the US, where we intend to open a new office. Recruitment is a challenge but even from the beginning we invested in a strong in-house HR capability to better identify and retain the talent we needed.”

While Pohl’s vision is to transform the electronics design industry, he remains surprised at how limited the competition is.

“We thought that there would be hundreds of companies in this space by now, but that simply isn’t the case.  When you think of what’s happening in the electronics industry, the rate of innovation, and simply its size you are left wondering why more companies aren’t looking to address the problems we identified back in 2018.”