Electronics at your fingertips

Written by: Tim Fryer | Published:

Engineering design increasingly involves more than one discipline and even the worlds of mechanical and electronic design increasingly have to be tackled by a single engineer. Tim Fryer investigates a new product that is bringing electronics onto a mechanical design platform.

Whether going under the name of Internet of Things or maybe Cyber Physical Systems or Industry 4.0, the fact is you don't need a label to know that everything is getting 'smarter'. The MCAD market is shifting toward serving end applications that are adding more intelligence to products with power, sensors, computing intelligence, and connectivity via protocols like Wi-Fi and Bluetooth. by Lawrence Romine, Director New Business Development, Altium, commented: "Incorporating a PCB that makes these products 'smart' is becoming increasingly important. Overall, mechanical design and PCB design are irreversibly on a collision course."

How and where they collide is less clear. While it varies from application to application the traditional way to transfer files between mechanical and electronic design environments is to use file Export, such as .STEP, .DXF and .IDF. But that is not without its problems, As Romine explained: "The major issue is that using a file export approach simply creates a static representation of the design from either side, which is out of date the moment it is emailed or placed into the network drive for sharing. Unless, of course, one or the other engineers stop designing while they wait for the other party to determine the upstream or downstream effects of the changes and implement their own. Of course, engineers never stop designing or improving their designs as this is in their nature. So, having a design flow that is predominately a start-stop-wait arrangement is at odds with this."

The consequences of this are manifold but include a longer, less efficient design cycle. It can suppress creativity, not just because of this stop-start nature of operation but also because the design teams are not working closely together. And even the performance of the end product can suffer as it has not been optimised as part of the design process.

Altium, although best known for its PCB design software Altium Designer, is looking to address the issues above with a product that can bridge the design environments. That product is PCBWorks, about to be released through the SolidWorks reseller channel, and is designed to be agnostic as to the genesis of the design, be it mechanical or electronics. "We can support either and/or a combination of the two as our collaboration is bidirectional and done in real-time," claimed Romine. "More importantly, the success or failure of the created products is more and more being judged by an overall product experience vs. the mechanical design or the electronics features on their own. So, what we are really enabling is to allow designers to balance both worlds and make tradeoffs that don't penalise them with higher design and development costs or time to market delays. They can make, propagate, and document design changes to create the perfect product experience without the fear of overrunning cost targets or release dates."

Altium has developed this product in conjunction with SolidWorks and this was not a difficult decision to make according to Romine: "Firstly, their story mirrors our's quite closely in that they entered a market that was dominated by workstations and very expensive 2D applications; and offered a shrink wrapped solution to run on a PC at a very affordable price point while also offering a significant technology improvement by offering 3D capabilities. This is exactly what Altium did in the early days in the PCB design space.

"Moreover, there is already a tremendous overlap in our customer bases given their ubiquitous presence in the mainstream of the market. Finally, SolidWorks is very focused on enabling the already underway explosion of the IoT.

PCBWorks is very much built on Altium's DNA and includes product features like the unified design environment, robust design management abilities and shrink-wrapped capability. However it is also very much a new product and the user interface and user experience (UI and UX) will feel more familiar to users of SolidWorks. Romine said: "I like to say that we are bringing PCB design to the world of SolidWorks. It's a bit like 'speaking' PCB design with a SolidWorks accent."

Functionality wise, PCBWorks, despite remaining a sub-set of Altium Designer (with the exception of the SolidWorks compatibility), is a fully functional PCB design environment in its own right. It does retain interoperability with Altium Designer in case the engineer has some higher-end design needs, such as high speed requirements.

Romine believes it is the right time for this sort of design tool to emerge. He said: "Much like we've seen electrical engineers crossing over into software engineering. The multidiscipline segment accounted for a 56% share of the Global MCAD Software market in 2013. This share is expected to increase to 64% in 2018. As the industries gear up to ship nearly 25 billion connected devices by 2020, there's no doubt that innovations in electronic design and manufacturing will be required to fuel the next wave of innovation."

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