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Prototyping: Virtual vs physical

Posted: 15 Dec 2011 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:simulating? physical prototyping? virtual?

In the Aberdeen Group survey report1, "Why PCB Design Matters to the Executive", best-in-class electronics companies referred to virtual prototyping as one of the best strategies to enhance their PCB design best practices and enable them to meet their aggressive business goals of getting more competitive products to market faster and at lower cost. These companies understand that simulating and analyzing the products in software during the design process has significant time-to-market and quality advantages over older practices of producing multiple physical prototypes and testing them in the lab.

Advantages of virtual
Let's be up front and acknowledge that virtual prototyping will usually lengthen the time it takes to get that first piece of hardware. It requires that the design team perform multiple tests in software prior to building the first hardware, and on the surface may seem like slower progress on the delivery schedule. It is human nature for designers to want to get that physical PCB in their hands so they can see the fruits of their design efforts. But bottom line: there are at least three advantages to virtual versus physical prototyping.

The first advantage is time to market. If a design team is relying on physical prototypes, they typically will manufacture a board and take it into the lab for testing. This testing will usually highlight several design errors that require a respin through the design process. This buildCtestCre-design process can take several weeks per iteration and if done entirely with physical boards, adds months to a development schedule.

The second advantage is design quality. Building and testing a prototype can miss some corner-case errors, errors not in the test portfolio, or long term reliability problems that may not materialize in test chambers or in the test board, as manufactured. The most expensive fix to make to a product is one that is discovered in the field and requires extensive warranty costs or recall.

The third advantage is a more competitive product. If a design team can quickly create a sandbox design and test it virtually, they have the opportunity to experiment with many "what-If" scenarios and develop a product that is functionally and performance rich. Limiting themselves to physical experimentation with ideas is time consuming and probably will reduce the number of passes they take. Another advantage to performing virtual prototyping is the ability to design just to spec and not take an overly conservative approach. Conservative design can add PCB layers, passive components, heat escape paths, etc. that all add to the cost of the product.

Figure 1: Virtual versus physical prototyping can help companies meet their competitive business goals.

Broad app, limited resources
The first application that most people think of for virtual prototyping is signal integrity. Circuit simulators have existed since the 60's (then analog) and have become a necessity as the frequencies and number of high speed nets on a PCB have increased. Today, many of the boards designed have 40-90% high speed interconnects. But virtual prototyping analysis examines many parameters. Among the analyses that can be executed are: power integrity, thermal management, vibration and shock, electromagnetic interference, and manufacturing for yields and reliability, to name a few. So during the design process, the pressure is on the design team to perform many types of analysis yet still meet their schedule.

Figure 2: Virtual prototyping should be used throughout the design process to reduce cycle time and cost, plus produce a reliable product.

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