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Rapid prototyping bolsters efficiency

Posted: 21 Jan 2009 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:prototyping rapid? EDA? efficiency tools?

By Marcelle Douglas

R&D departments worldwide are reevaluating where their productivity can be increased and design costs reduced. Managers are turning towards new design strategies that can be incorporated to boost productivity and focus back on exploring and experimenting.

Electronics design is perhaps even more of a necessity in the current business climate of hiring freezes and reduced operating budgets. The various ways of performing rapid prototyping are suddenly getting a fresh look.

Can rapid prototyping be seriously considered for reducing development time and costs, and more importantly, expanding market position? It's a good time to take this idea on another road test.

The idea of prototyping has been in the industry a long time, and it hasn't exactly been a push-button process. First, the disconnected nature of most EDA tools in the industry has resulted in a myriad of differing types of design data that must be waded through, organized and managed.

Then there are the vast amounts of revision files from doing simple product variations. Complicated software configuration management systems are often needed just to manage it all. Creating a working prototype and the inevitable design respins usually results in a process that takes too long and is ineffective.

Instead, let's consider what can be done with a more unified design perspective and rapid prototyping. What can be done when engineers are allowed to explore innovation instead of just managing complexities, using a single design environment and data model, start to finish, for their product creations? Can it become a more automated process?

Results show
This search turned up some compelling results. Here's one example, a designer of high-end audio systems and multimedia products. When they adopted a design process based on a unified environment linked to a rapid prototyping development board, it resulted in layout times for PCBs that went from one month to days, and design throughput that doubled.

Investigating why rapid prototyping was so successful in this instance underscores the importance of considering fresh ways of thinking about what is required to get a design to manufacture sooner.

Faster design
Focusing on why engineers need rapid prototyping with the least amount of fuss sheds light on the importance of beginning with a unified approach. Normally, engineers start with one idea, and then change to another because there was something they hadn't thought of (an iterative, real-life process typical in the company quoted above).

Then they keep making changes until they get it right. "There are so many things that need to be considered when developing", commented one senior engineer, "it sounds simple enough but it's not."

Yet it's a situation that almost every engineer faces every day. Working within a unified environment affords the ability to work live with a design " meaning the ability to create, design, prototype and test on-the-fly and in real-time.

A fundamental premise of a unified approach is to provide a single application environment for capturing design data, verifying circuits and designing the PCB. Real-time design synchronization is possible because of the single system and design data model which streamlines the design process.

It effectively eliminates the chore of generating, collating and managing all the design data. And it significantly speeds up the prototyping process as a result.

Working then within a unified system, engineers can snap together reusable intellectual property (IP), and move quickly onto developing functional intelligence and a working mechanical prototype.

All of it is done in-house. Often the real test is to quickly find the appropriate architecture for the actual prototype so it's critical to allow concept exploration without the constraints of fixed hardware.

There will, of course, still be a need for a repository and versioning control for design revisions and variants. But having a design flow change from requiring an extensive software configuration management system to something more along the lines of an informal design release process is far more efficient.

Not to mention it's substantially easier to manage, more cost-effective and cheaper than traditional methods. And it doesn't stymie creativity.

More freedom
From an engineering perspective, using a live environment opens up the doors to experiment with concepts that previously would have taken a lot of time. Because changes made in one domain flow through to the prototyped model immediately, a team can explore with various materials and constraints in a way that is easier to visualize what the final model will look like.

Revisions made even during layout that would normally slow development down or cause severe time consequences are minimized. There is also the opportunity for increased interaction between engineers.

Engineers from the earlier example who typically worked in isolation designing the schematics found themselves working in closer collaboration with the mechanical team using real-time MCAD collaboration technology. The result was that their unique mechanical casings that previously posed a serious design challenge suddenly didn't.

Up-to-date and pre-approved components were easily placed straight onto the schematic and then a 3D visualization engine was used to make sure boards fit into their cases. It reduced the number of MCAD-ECAD revisions to a single clearance checking procedure that completed their designs more quickly and with confidence.

Using this improved team collaboration meant better coordination between design respins. Engineers who used rapid prototyping discovered that while they still may have the same number of design revisions depending on the complexity, revisions themselves were significantly faster.

So the ability to do concept exploration and rapid prototyping transformed an ordinary engineering team whose teams are normally used to working in isolation to each other into an "ideas factory" where new ideas for products become a real working prototype in-house. This should have engineering managers jumping up and down in excitement.

Real value for the long-term investment

Rapid prototyping as a strategy for putting innovation first in the design process while also achieving a real return on investment has become a growing priority with electronics companies for lots of reasons.

Rapid prototyping as part of a unified solution changes the dynamics of design flow within the development team to be more efficient from a management perspective. Working off a single data model and workflow start to finish makes for better team communication and improved visibility and knowledge of the needs of other groups. Quality can be better assured because there is wider detection of errors throughout development.

Engineers can explore devices from different vendors, use IP from any source, explore design concepts easily, and rapidly prototype and test them before committing to hardware.

This affords the potential of new technologies and design methods without the specialized expertise required by traditional design systems. The senior engineer earlier was able to use real-time manufacturing checking to design and test with real software and hardware components on the prototype.

Then, when components needed to be changed and redesigned, or mediums re-evaluated or trade-offs sought, it was easier. It made it possible to identify and report inconsistencies in drawings, and avoid potential problems that would normally happen at the end during full-scale production.

The final result was a smoother path from concept to manufacture without having to rely on extensive configuration management systems.

Switching to a unified approach from the corporate perspective means that a company's mainstream development can be boosted significantly by allowing all aspects of electronic product development to be designed and managed within a single system.

Rapid prototyping enables engineers to focus on the higher-end applications and see the product as they are building it, and speeding up the transition from design to production. Designs stay in-house so ownership of IP is more safeguarded.

At each point in the development process, the company retains ownership that translates into definable value and increased options. It may even open up additional business avenues later. That's welcome news in today's economic climate.

Putting focus back on innovation

Considering current market pressures, hardware-based design and conventional prototyping techniques are too constrained, slow and don't cut it. While it's possible to employ third party software configuration management systems to work around this or have someone out of house do the prototyping, this choice still leaves the design in the same outdated design paradigm.

Rapid prototyping, as part of a single, unified design solution, provides an accountable and flexible process for determining the viability of a final design prior to production.

As a closing comment, it's worth mentioning that development environments looking to exploit the potential offered by today's programmable devices as a rapid system design platform are probably positioned to benefit the most from this kind of paradigm shift.

- Marcelle Douglas is technical editor at Altium.

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