The difficulties presented by the standard PCB design workflow
The challenges that PCB design engineers face during circuit board development
How cloud PCB design software applications can help resolve these problems
Old circuit board design methods, like this tape-up board, are constantly being improved
Do you remember when you had to place a component decal onto a sheet of mylar at 4X size followed by sticky dots and colored crepe tape in order to layout a printed circuit board? Not many people do. Although I did hand-tape a couple of boards when I first started my career, it was so long ago that I wouldn’t trust myself not to slash a finger with an X-acto knife anymore. The point is, times change, and the technology we use to get our jobs done changes too. We don’t use Rubylith and light tables anymore because CAD tools are faster, easier, and more precise in laying out complex PCB designs. However, this design technology has also begun to stagnate.
The software that powers PCB design tools is complex and intense. CAD systems can track thousands upon thousands of net connections and individual design elements, all while governing them with an assortment of user-defined rules and constraints. The user will interact with the tools to build the design, and the system will process and display its data for the user with precision clarity. Design software of this caliber requires powerful hardware to run on that is configured correctly and constantly monitored to ensure the highest quality and integrity of the data.
Supporting CAD tools takes time and resources away from the engineering process of designing a circuit board. Wouldn’t it be better if you could bypass the hardware installation and setups and go directly to work on a ready-to-go design system? This article will look at how that need can be addressed with cloud PCB design software and how cloud applications like this will affect your design efforts in the future.
The PCB Design Flow
To start with, let’s take a look at the traditional PCB design and development workflow and some of the difficulties associated with it:
- Library development: Before a schematic can be captured or a circuit board can be laid out in the design software, a library of CAD symbols and PCB footprints needs to be developed. These parts can often be pulled in from third-party sources, but specialty parts are generated by the design team locally.
- Schematic capture: Using the CAD system, designers place the symbols and connect nets between the pins to represent the desired circuit. Changes could require going back to the library for new or enhanced parts, and circuit simulation software is used to validate the design.
- PCB layout: With the completed schematic, the layout of the physical board can begin. Library work can still be required at this phase to match PCB footprints to schematic symbols or to create alternate parts. The layout designer will place the components in the layout and draw traces based on the circuitry paths forwarded by the schematic. All of this is carefully governed by design rules and constraints to ensure electrical integrity and validated by additional analysis tools. Once completed, manufacturing files are generated to be shared with circuit board fabrication and assembly vendors.
- Design review: These checks take place at multiple points during the PCB design process for the engineering team to verify milestone completion. For instance, design reviews are used to verify the schematic, PCB component placement, critical trace routing, and the final layout.
While this process has served well for a long time, it is constrained by the nature of on-premise design management versus cloud project management. For example, designers are limited to their internal corporate libraries only, and new parts have to go through a manual process of incorporation to be available for use. This single-source model is very restrictive, as is the manual method of sharing manufacturing file data. Another bottleneck is adapting the traditional design review to the new era of virtual meetings. All of these problems can be mitigated with cloud PCB design software, which will also help resolve the additional challenges we’ll look at next.
Cloud engineering tools are opening up the potential for design
Challenges for PCB Design Engineers
From the problems posed by the traditional PCB design workflow, engineers also have the following challenges they are facing with today’s designs:
The Availability of Software
Advanced PCB design software is very complex. Not only are the executables extremely large, but they have many interconnecting pieces. Traditionally, these design tools are installed on local machines so the user doesn’t have to compete with other users for computing power and networking. However, these installations still have the following drawbacks:
- Long and involved software installation processes.
- Complex hardware and software configurations.
- The continual need to update these files with software corrections on a regular basis.
All of these issues are multiplied by each design tool used on an individual machine. A typical suite of design software can include tools for library development, circuit simulation, schematic capture, PCB layout, and design analysis. When you consider that many design groups have to use tool suites from multiple vendors, the amount of software management can become staggering—and there’s still the licensing to consider. Floating licenses can be very complex for network administrators to install, configure, and maintain in on-premise installations. This overhead can consume valuable IT resources that could be used more effectively elsewhere.
Running complex PCB design software requires more hardware power than what can be found in a garden-variety laptop. Engineering workstations are specifically designed to meet the processing, memory, and graphics requirements of CAD systems. And, while a design engineer may be able to run a simple schematic capture program on their generic laptop, the system resource requirements to view or analyze a PCB layout may very well paralyze it. The engineer is forced to transition to a different computer, causing delays and interruptions to the design cycle.
In the era of working remotely from home or other locations, access to expensive workstation computer equipment can also be a real liability to productivity. And, as designs become more and more complex, workstation hardware may require additional enhancements, upgrades, or even replacements to provide the level of service necessary.
Product Data Management
Another problem in the PCB design workflow is managing generated CAD data. Although workstations are usually networked together, traditional design data management is typically a manual process. Each user is responsible for saving and sharing the appropriate files to the correct locations. This can lead to the following problems:
- A total lack of data and information security.
- Incorrectly saved elements such as library parts that break designs.
- PCB design data that is inadvertently over-written and lost.
- Designers working from old or outdated CAD data due to poor archival methods.
Mismanagement of PCB project data can create disastrous results, especially in a team environment where more than one designer is working on a project. Often, one designer will not have any visibility into what the other team members are doing, resulting in a lack of coordination and the creation of chaos in the design department.
However, many of these challenges and difficulties can be resolved with the use of cloud PCB design software.
Cloud PCB design software is the next big step in revolutionizing electronics engineering
Next-Generation Solutions With Cloud PCB Design Software
Cloud PCB design software offers many solutions to the software and hardware challenges PCB designers face today. The capabilities offered by the cloud give design engineers universal access to the tools they need with the following benefits:
- Hardware independent: The heavy lifting of computer power is handled by the cloud, allowing designers to use the hardware of their choice. As long as the user has access to the cloud, they can use the tools.
- Ease of installation: With the CAD tools already installed within the cloud applications, individual users won’t have to spend time installing, configuring, or updating their software.
- Unified tool platform: Not only are these benefits available for design engineers, but managers, technicians, or any other part of the team will have the same access to the tools. This simplifies design reviews and allows users to easily switch between schematic, layout, or any other CAD application they need.
Cloud PCB design tools are also easily integrated into PDM workflows:
- Workflows are configured within the cloud application, removing the complexity of data management from the user.
- Cloud tools are already set up to work collaboratively together, eliminating the need for unique CAD system administrators.
- Work-in-progress and design review tools are a natural extension of cloud PCB design platforms, easing the department workflow across all users and improving data security.
To sum it all up, the next big step forward in the evolution of PCB design CAD tools is not a matter of reinventing the design process as a whole. The same rules of layout and best practices for design will still apply. Instead, the next leap in PCB design is to make it more efficient by using the technology of the cloud to better design the future.