Making PCB design easier - Embedded.com

Making PCB design easier

I was chatting with some old mates at Mentor Graphics just the other day. Perhaps not surprisingly (on the basis that this group of guys and gals are in the PADS marketing group), our conversation turned to trends in printed circuit board (PCB) design in general and the recent release of their PADS2004 offering in particular.

As they were quick to point out, with regards to business trends, current economic conditions dictate reduced budgets, smaller design teams, more limited training time, narrow market windows, and short prototype cycles. (Hmmm, I'm sure I've heard this before somewhere. Deja vu perhaps?).

In the case of design trends, they say that it's not uncommon to be looking at 500+ components on a board the size of a business card, that 30% of R&D time is spent searching for parts information, that you can have 2,000+ pins on a high-end BGA device, that 90% of boards designed involve significant amounts of design reuse, that 90%+ of nets can have high-speed constraints, and that a typical circuit board may contain three or more FPGAs. (Wow, I'm glad I'm not a PCB layout designer).

Of course the old “market breakdown pyramid” is still with us. Power users are sitting on the top of the cost/complexity pile with around 10% of seats, mainstream users hang around trying to look like “Joe Cool” in the center with approximately 15% of seats, and “Ready to Use” users make up the bulk of the party with the remaining 75% of seats. (Apparently, extensive market analysis has revealed that folks no longer like to be classed as “Late Adopters,” but everyone seems happy with the “Ready to Use” appellation.)

Who are all of the players

With regards to EDA tools for PCBs in the Ready to Use arena, there is a superfluity of products, with the primary contenders being names from the past that resonate with my consciousness: OrCAD (now owned by Cadence, but managed/sold by EMA), Protel (created by the folks at Protel who now call themselves Altium), P-CAD (was owned by ACCEL, now part of Altium), CADSTAR (was Racal-Redac, then Zuken-Redac, now just Zuken), Allegro Studio (was Valid, then Cadence, now managed/sold by EMA), and of course PADS (originally owned by PADS Software, then Innoveda, and then Mentor Graphics who gobbled Innoveda up not-so-long ago).

And what make PADS so special?

When I asked the folks at Mentor, “What are the things about PADS that make you squeal with delight when you wake up in the morning,” they just about fell over themselves regaling me with all sorts of facts and figures. They commenced by pointing out that the majority of the tools noted above grew up in the Ready to Use arena from the “bottom up”. That is, these tools typically began life brimming over with “easy to use” features, but they were somewhat limited in terms of functionality and complexity.

By comparison, I'm informed that, technology-wise, PADS has the functionality required to address the requirements of mainstream users (things like support for micro-via technology, advanced routing capabilities such as the ability to intelligently handle differential pairs, local rule areas on a chip-specific basis, and so forth). What was left unsaid was that previous PADS offerings may have fallen a tad short when it came to ease of use.

Apparently, the big push for PADS2004 has been to drive it into the Ready to Use market. However, you can't achieve this by simply slapping a lower price tag on an application and dropping it into a package with “Ready to Use” printed on the wrapping in big, bold letters. So one big aspect of PADS2004 is the fact that is has been radically overhauled and enhanced with a positive plethora of ease-of use modifications (for example, “strokes” in which a simple motion of the mouse results in some intuitive response like zooming in or out of the design).

In keeping with the cost-consciousness of the Ready to Use market, PADS also comes equipped with free online training (when users purchase their licenses they are presented with the “secret squirrel” code words required to access the online courses).

Another big point that the folks at Mentor are pushing is that they aren't trying to drive you into a corner with a “one size fits all” product. Instead, they start the ball rolling with three configurations: The PADS PE suite includes design definition, layout and auto-routing capabilities; the PADS XE suite adds analog simulation and signal integrity analysis functionality; while the PADS SE suite also includes advanced high-speed capabilities such as the ability to enter advanced constraints and interactive routing of high-speed signals (such as differential pairs, min/max length and matched lengths).

One cool aspect of this is that everything comes on the same media, so you can start off “small” and then activate new licenses, features, capabilities, and tools as and when you need them. Speaking of which, Mentor has expended a lot of time and effort on integration with regard to other tools in their EDA arsenal.

For example, PADS2004 now has the ability to leverage tools like Mentor's DxBoardLink, which tightly integrates the FPGA design flow into the PCB layout process. DxBoardLink reads pin-out data from an FPGA design and automatically generates corresponding schematic and layout symbols (it also allows you to partition over-sized symbols into smaller, more manageable “chunks” that make schematics more readable and useful).

Furthermore, DxBoardLink is bi-directional, in that it also allows the layout designer to make changes to FPGA pin assignments so as to facilitate routing at the board level. These changes can subsequently be fed back into the FPGA flow.

Working out what the various PADS suites actually consist of and wrapping one's brain around the almost embarrassing overabundance of other Mentor offerings that can be called into play would require a better man than “yours truly” (me). So the best I can do is to award Mentor's PADs team an official “Cool Beans” and invite you to visit their website for more details. Until next time, have a good one!

Clive (Max) Maxfield is president of Techbites Interactive, a marketing consultancy firm specializing in high-tech. Author of Bebop to the Boolean Boogie (An Unconventional Guide to Electronics) and co-author of EDA: Where Electronics Begins, Max was once referred to as a “semiconductor design expert” by someone famous who wasn't prompted, coerced, or remunerated in any way.

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