Ben Jordan Discusses Altium Designer 20, IPC-2581 and AltiumLive
We met with Ben Jordan, Senior Manager Corporate Marketing at Altium, to talk about Altium Designer 20, IPC-2581 and AltiumLive.
Ben Jordan – The Interview
What is new with Altium?
So at Altium, we’re always trying to advance the state of the art for the designer, and to solve problems for designers and engineers trying to get a product to market, and so naturally that’s important for PCB fabrication and assembly. And so for the last few years, we’ve been investing as a company into technology, into hiring the right kinds of people who have some background and experience.
On the manufacturing and assembly side, we can work with these experts to find out how do we solve problems like supply chain bottlenecks, making sure that designers correctly specify what materials, or how to work with proper IPC standard documentation and output, so that manufacturers like Sierra can make the product really rapidly with minimal fuss between the designer and engineering team and the actual production side, because we still see that’s the point of frustration for many, many people be they manufacturers or designers is that design handoff. It still remains one of the greatest bottlenecks.
And I think most EDA tools have done what they can to alleviate that and improve the process, but still very few designers are taking the time to stop and learn how to leverage their tools to smooth out those bumps. One of the things I love about PCB West and our own user conference AltiumLive, which is coming up in early October, one of the reasons we do these things is so that people can come together and learn more about the cutting edge of PCB manufacturing and technology and what’s available to them from companies like Sierra, but also learn from each other what are some of the tips and tricks to really improve that design to manufacturing handoff and that’s very important.
Can you say a few words about Altium Designer 20?
So something else that’s new in terms of Altium is we’re every year releasing a new major revision of the software and this year coming up in November-ish timeframe, we’ll be coming out with Altium Designer 20. It’s in beta now and some of the things that are getting put into that are updates to the routing engine to make it a lot smoother and more efficient for PCB designers, especially dealing with HDI and multi-layer boards where you need to normally spend a lot of time routing out of BGA and fine pitch components.
And that’s traditionally been very difficult where we’re improving the software in that regard so that people can route at any angles with tangential arcs and speed up the routing and glossing. So Altium users will know what that means, but basically it’s going to make the job easier and faster and get better results for routing. In addition to that, there’s been some revision done to our circuit simulation side for the engineers using the tool and further improvements to the BOM scrubbing, supply chain side of things with active BOM, library management. So really a bit of everything but all focused on the PCB design at the core.
What kind of simulation support is available for the designer?
It’s a really good thing to ask about simulation in the ECAD software in Altium Designer where we’ve had signal integrity analysis and SPICE circuit simulation for quite some time. However, those engines have been around for a long time. Many users don’t even necessarily know that they’re there, but we did recognize we need to partner with the experts in the industry. So I can’t share a lot of details right now, but one thing I can share, which came out with Altium Designer 19 about this time last year, we did partner with Simberian, which is a fantastic field solver software. Simberian SIMBEOR is their full package, but they licensed to us the algorithm for impedance calculation in our new layer stack manager, which came with Altium Designer 19.
So people can generate an HDI stack-up with blind and buried vias, laser-drilled vias, they can use the Sierra HDI Stackup Planner online and then they can exactly replicate that in Altium Designer and get a visual identification or blueprint for making the exact thing so that they know it can be manufactured accurately. And it will also give them impedance profiles, which are very accurate. They come from the Simberian solver.
And so I would say keep your eye out for further enhancements and advancements in that direction, in layer stack planning and simulation of the actual electromagnetic fields in the impedance profiles within your design. So that’s on the signal integrity side. Of course, on power integrity there is still the PD&A option that many people are embracing, which does DC power integrity analysis. And even though it’s a DC solver, it’s also very powerful for showing where there are potential problems in ground planes, polygon pores. It can highlight areas which are isolated because those will be a problem at DC and AC and you can see those very, very easily visually. So that’s being maintained and developed as well.
And on the engineering side, the front end, we’ve actually announced, and this is coming in Altium Designer 20, we’ve completely updated our SPICE circuit simulation engine to use a much newer, more well-maintained engine based on Ngspice, which is an industry standard. It’s in a lot of other tools as well, but it’s highly optimized. So people are going to notice for circuit simulation on the engineering side, maybe it depends on the circuit but up to a six times speed improvement and new models from current semiconductor manufacturers will work that didn’t work in the old engine as well. So it’s getting a pretty good overhaul.
Will Altium introduce crosstalk estimations after the layout design is done?
In the roadmap for development, we recognize the need to solve a lot of these signal integrity related problems. Crosstalk is definitely one of those issues and in addition to crosstalk is that many designers in complex multi-layer boards may not realize that until the board comes back and doesn’t pass EMI testing that they’ve routed across a plane split for example. So that’s another thing that’s coming in AD 20 is design rule checks for not routing across plane splits. Any signal integrity analysis capability that’s in there already does analyze for crosstalk and ringing as well, and that’s going to be improved and made more accurate for higher speed designs down the road.
Can you discuss the supply chain side?
Getting parts has always been a major headache, and again with many designs, by the time you finished the schematics, between the time you finished drawing the schematics and engineering the actual circuit and finishing your first PCB design to fabricate the first item prototype, we often notice in just that time period alone to route the board, many of the parts may become unavailable or there are supply chain problems.
And so in Altium Designer’s bill of materials editor called ActiveBOM management is, permeating through all of that is this supplier search capability. And many people know some years ago now we acquired a company called Octopart based in New York and they had developed a really powerful component search engine and database that accurately keeps track of all of the official, or let’s say tier one to tier four suppliers and their catalogs.
And so that is fully integrated at the backend with Altium Designer. So any user can do your schematics and start laying out the board and at any time throughout that process go into your parts list, and it will tell you this part has been given an end of life notice and it’ll put a warning mark next to it so you can go find a suitable drop-in replacement or redesign some of the board accordingly.
And so all the way through the process, you can make sure everything’s going to be available. There’s a list of about 30 different bill of materials, rule checks just for the bill of materials alone that allows you to find multiple drop-in replacements for a given component and rank them. You can rank them based on price, you can rank them based on availability, preferred vendor. And in the end, it means you can generate a very clean bill of materials the moment you’re ready to go to production.
And that’s just on the components side, and we can add any custom line item as well. So if I know I’m working with Sierra circuits and I know Sierra has certain materials in stock for the kind of design I’m doing, whether it be high-speed microwave or just regular consumer electronic device, I can add those into my bill of materials and make it an official part of the spec for the design, and I know that they’re going to be in stock at the time I go to production.
Do you have any plan for an interface with a list of PCB materials, cores and prepregs, for stack-up design?
So one of the other things that we introduced when we did our updated layer stack planning tool in Altium Designer 19, in addition to the Simberian field solver that was added to that, we realized there had to be a better way of managing materials specifications for the layer stack. So fabricators could more easily generate the right production files and drawings and specification. Along with that, we introduced an XML-based materials library, and at the moment there are just generic materials in there from the IPC-4101 slash sheets, basically. They’re all generic, but any user can add any custom material they like, and it takes all of the parameters needed for correct electrical design and for correct specification for fabrication.
And so what I’d really like to do, and it’s just an XML text file, so we can easily add to it, I’d really love to partner with Sierra and any of the materials manufacturers like Rogers Corporation, Isola, any of these guys, I’d be very willing for them to work with me to get that XML file completely filled out with all the materials available today.
How do you generate output files for PCB manufacturing?
So like any mature CAD tool, you would expect to be able to generate industry standard outputs. And of course, Altium Designer, any of Altium’s CAD tools, even the free circuit maker can generate standard Gerbers, RS-274X can generate ODB++, Altium Designer also outputs IPC-2581 and a host of other obscure formats, if you really want them, you can actually output them. But one of the things that typically cause problems and catches designers is that you’ll generate an output and then make some change, and then generate outputs and make changes, and then generate outputs as the design is reviewed and you discover flaws or things that you want to adjust. Or as a designer, I may talk to a CAM engineer at the fabricator, Sierra, and they’ll say, “Well if you could just move this part slightly this way, it will improve production yields,” because of etching and drilling, whatever the reason may be.
So I will make changes to my design and pretty soon, it’s very easy to completely lose track of which version output production files, drawings, for which revision of the actual source design document. And then someone else may come along and start editing or take over the project and make changes or add further features or capabilities. And before long, we have a mess. And we may need to do another production run of the product, and so somebody else has come along later and sends what they think is the right version of the Gerber files, and it probably isn’t. And there’s no good way, and despite everybody’s best intentions, it’s too easy to make a mistake.
To some extent, turning to an intelligent data like IPC-2581 or ODB++ can help in some regards, but what people really need is a formal design release process where it guarantees that the outputs you’ve generated are one to one matched with a very specific revision of the actual design and those are linked.
And so in the Altium world, we’ve developed what we call the project releaser and that it does this, and whether you’re using a formal data management system or just using Altium Designer standalone, you can use the project releaser to guarantee every file for production, the drills, the drawings, the Gerber files, if you’re using Gerber or Gerber X2 we support, or the ODB++ dataset, whatever you choose to use as your output, it matches one to one with the design at that point in time and bundles it all together to give you a single dataset so you can guarantee, you can go back to that. And if that’s what you’ve gone to production with, you know it’s the correct thing. And it’s timestamped and the whole nine yards.
So we feel that that goes a long way to preventing some of those question marks and those problems. However, like with any CAD tool, there are many features and many users are so busy they don’t take the time to look up and stop and learn some of these new things. So we encourage people to come to these events so that they can get the most out of the tool.
What do you feel is the state of IPC-2581 from Altium Designer and in general as a standard?
IPC-2581 is a really good idea. It’s a great idea, and I’m all for it. I actually think the industry does need such a thing for solving the problems it’s attempting to solve. The only trouble is, Gerber works well enough and has been so optimized to where people feel that it’s the devil they know, so why change it? And so it’s difficult to motivate designers to use anything else. And I know any fabricator around the globe will take Gerber files, not all of them will take 2581. I feel that if the manufacturers all loud and clear, announced that they would take 2581 data, it would make it easier for designers to adopt it.
In terms of standard, I feel like it’s quite mature now. We just don’t see the adoption, and if we could encourage designers to use it and encourage fabricators to accept it and assembly houses to accept it, I think it could really smooth things out a lot. It’s just hard. From my point of view, it’s very hard to see that really happening just yet. Maybe it’ll take a few more years and a bit more lobbying. As a standard though, it’s come a long way from a few years ago to where I know I could trust it to convey design intent to manufacturing pretty accurately.
How can you ensure that the bill of materials is consistent for PCB manufacturing and assembly?
The only way to absolutely guarantee that the bill of materials that goes with the design to the manufacturer is to give the manufacturer your entire design in its native format. But that’s not suitable most of the time for many reasons. Obviously there are intellectual property concerns, we get that. And not every manufacturer is going to be using every CAD tool, some of them have the CAD tools at their disposal, so it’s possible. I know I could do that with Sierra. I could send you Altium files and there are engineers at Sierra who would be able to open them and generate the outputs and set up the factory very nicely, and that’s helpful, but not everyone has that luxury.
If I were a military contractor, I can’t be sharing that kind of intellectual property depth. And this is also the trouble even with ODB++ and IPC-2581 which is, it’s the next best thing. To guarantee a one-to-one match between the bill of materials and that revision of the design, use an intelligent file format. Use ODB++ or IPC-2581. So the only way other than handing over the entire design file set to guarantee that one-to-one relationship between design, revision and bill of materials is to use an intelligent file format. You have to use ODB++ or IPC-2581. To an extent, Gerber X2 has it, but Gerber X2 does not yet contain component information. So you still have to have a separate bill of materials, but they have to be generated together at the same time.
And if you have a tool, which we do, if you have a tool that with the click of one button, will do all of that and put it in a single file to send, that’s great. Everybody has a better time when there’s a more intelligent file format used for data handoff.
Can you say a few words about AltiumLive?
I would encourage any designer, any PCB designer or electrical engineer who has anything to do with board design and manufacturing, definitely get yourself to one of these shows, to PCB West and if you can make it, AltiumLive, it’s in San Diego in the first week of October.
The amount you learn from other users and experts in the industry and people from the manufacturing side, we have people from the design side, we have electrical engineers and we have seasoned PCB layout specialists all sharing their wisdom from the ages and it can save people a lot of heartaches to learn from these people, not just the engineering side, what’s the best way to design a PCB transmission line, that’s important, but you’ll also need to know some of the practical aspects of getting to fabrication and production and what are the areas where people get tripped up?
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The best way to learn those things so that you don’t have a trouble is to learn them from people who’ve done it before, who have the experience and the knowledge and have worked in different segments of the industry, the fabrication side, the design side.
Have you thought of grading attendees?
What I would really like to do is develop a certification program. So if somebody has shown that they’re capable of using the software and know how to generate good data and good designs, that they could become certified and then it’s good for their careers, they could find jobs or contracts more easily because they have a qualification, and it would be good for employers because, you know if someone has this qualification, they’ve shown that they’re competent and we can hire them and know they’ll be able to do the job. So I think we haven’t done anything official like that yet, but I’m hoping that we do.