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Achieving effective design collaboration

Posted: 11 Aug 2014 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:design collaboration tools? visibility? CAD tools? PCB? ECAD/MCAD?

Imagine this scenario: the schematic design is complete and now it's time to layout the PCB. Story over, right? Of course not. It's nearly guaranteed that something will need to be revised or changed in the schematic later on, and with enough bad luck, this will happen after a significant portion of the layout work is already complete. A simple system for collaboration between different people in different phases of the same design flow can make a huge difference in productivity. Struggling to communicate design intent is no way to go about designing a product.

Collaboration between multiple environments
Designers must interact with several different parties in order to fully realise a complete product, and although it may not seem like it at first, this is also a form of collaboration. Imagine cutting down the back and forth time, even a little bit, between a designer and a manufacturing facility. Or the time between a designer and a part supplier. Or the time between the electrical guy and the mechanical guy. Better conveying of the design intent and reducing extraneous time in any of these scenarios makes a product cycle that much faster, that much more cost-efficient, and that much less likely to fail. Tools need to fully support collaboration between different domains.

Supply chain
There's nothing quite as frustrating as completing a design only to find out later that some of the parts are either not available or are prohibitively expensive. Inefficient design flow due to lack of communication across the supply chain is a big deal, and is almost entirely preventable with the right set of tools. Real-time collaboration between suppliers and designers can easily be achieved by maintaining an active link to common supplier websites' databases, ensuring that pricing and availability information will always be accurate and up-to-date. Quality design tools can do this behind the scenes, without imposing on the designer in any way.

Increasing component density and decreasing board size means that more than ever, designers need to take mechanical constraints into account. Mechanical housing requirements, clearances, features for thermoregulation, and complex mounting structures are all critical elements of electronic design, but their integration into the product flow often requires the expertise of mechanical designers. It's essential to have a good system in place for collaboration between electrical and mechanical domains.

The two most prominent, standardised methods for this type of collaboration are vendor-neutral file formats for bi-directional design transfer:

STEP (Standard for The Exchange of Product model data): STEP offers true 3D representation, meaning it's possible to transfer more complex design features such as Rigid-Flex board areas. On the other hand, including supplementary features (copper traces, silkscreen, etc.) in STEP files can lead to enormous file sizes, so these features are often left out to improve design performance. Unfortunately, this means there is more ambiguity for designers in dealing with potential issues during mechanical assembly, and additional functions such as finite-element analysis are not available straight out of the box using STEP.

IDF (Intermediate Data Format): IDF extrapolates a 3D model using 2D board information and model heights to create a "2.5D" representation of design data. While this works well for most PCB design, accurate mechanical clearance checks might need more robust components models, and therefore might need replacement by a mechanical designer. Although the IDF 4.0 standard has been available for several years, it has failed to catch on with most EDA vendors, who have chosen instead to remain with the older IDF 3.0 format and explore alternative methods for ECAD/MCAD collaboration.

The best design collaboration tools are those that best follow these guidelines, essentially making the collaborative process as easy as possible for everyone involved. Nowadays, it's commonplace for several people to have their hands on a single project, and bringing an electronic product to market is a task often divided across the country, if not the globe.

About the author
Max Clemons is an Application Engineer at Altium focused on developing electronic design content. He is an IPC Certified Interconnect Designer, with experience researching electronic materials and green energy devices. He received his BSEE from the University of California, San Diego.

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