The idea that electronic product development is becoming more complex each year, or possibly each day, is patently clear to anyone involved in the electronics industry. Electronic products are becoming smaller, cheaper, smarter and more connected, with sophisticated electronic systems making their way into an increasing range of products.
From nuclear power stations to neurological implants, electronics is rapidly becoming a core design element in the quest for greater product functionality and differentiation in an increasingly global electronics market. In the process of making this possible, the number of complex elements that contribute to and influence product designs has also dramatically grown.
Within the electronics design sphere, traditional design capture and board layout has been joined by the development of programmable hardware and embedded application software. The complexity these domains add to the design process is magnified by their interdependence. Even a minor design change in one domain, such as tweaking the pin configuration in the FPGA space, will trigger a rippling series of ECO revisions through the others.
However, in seeming contrast to the co-dependency between the design domains, the design tools themselves exist as separate, independent entities that use their own design data structure and storage database. Typically, that will be one system for hardware design, one for application software development, one for FPGA design and invariably, one management system to keep track of it all.
The result is that while all parts of the design itself interact, the development processes themselves remain separate and produce a host of diverse output data that must be successfully combined to create the final product. Maintaining the integrity of the design data, keeping everything in synch and releasing an error-free design to production have become major headaches.
If that’s not convoluted enough, the number of determining influences from outside the electronics design environment has ramped up in proportion. Company and external systems such as mechanical design, procurement, manufacturing, production and perhaps the most invasive of them all, design data management, all reach into and influence the electronics design sphere.
From an electronic engineering perspective it means that the entire product design, right through to deployment, production and resource management now pervade the traditional, once isolated electronics design process. Conventional design systems that are based on a collection of individual design tools are struggling to handle the myriad of factors that mesh together to create the latest smart and sophisticated electronic products.
Unified design and data
Electronics design can no longer be an isolated sphere of engineering that’s simply added to or slotted in with all the other processes and systems. It needs to easily hook in to the complete product development task, while reducing complexity between processes. Changing to that approach is no trivial task, and needs to be done at the fundamental levels of the design environment, and through all domains.
It starts by revising the way the design environment models the process from a collection of disconnected design ‘silos’, to a single concept of product development. This singular approach is built upon data rather than a collection of separate design applications, where design editors for each domain access and modify a single model of the design data.
This effectively creates a single design platform, with the single data model representing the electronic system being designed. The beauty of this approach is that a single source of data can incorporate multiple domains. Here, multi-dimensional data span the traditional design tool boundaries by providing relevant data for each domain.
For example, an IP block for a USB port is a single entity that might contain the required schematic symbols, board patterns, 3D models, FPGA IP and software drivers for its implementation in all parts of the design. Once added to the schematic, the required IP elements are automatically made available to all design editors and processes, in all domains.
A platform-based approach can also map the project design data as a single accessible entity, which vastly simplifies both the management of design data and the process for generating and handing over the data required for production and manufacturing. A singular point of contact then also exists for all design data access and management, both inside and outside the design sphere.With design data brought together as a single coherent entity, the platform approach to product design can then harness a single application design environment to access and modify that data store. One design application and environment uses one data set to tackle the single task of developing the complete electronic product design.
In practical terms, synchronization between domains becomes a straightforward process that does not need to span data formats or editing tool boundaries. A common and normally disruptive process such as pin optimization between an FPGA device and its board layout, for example, is significantly simplified.
In this case the high density packaging and large pin count of FPGA devices tends to create a complex PCB layout, so changing the pin configuration is normally regarded with trepidation. In fact, some design houses strictly limit the number of FPGA pin configuration iterations that can be performed, in an effort to minimize errors and eliminate design delays. Typically, propagating pin changes is a manual, often error-prone, process.
With a system based on a single application and design data model, the FPGA pin layout, normally determined by the FPGA designer to meet device and timing requirements, need not create routing nightmares for the board designer. Pin configuration iterations can be co-operatively done between the domains to mutual benefit. An automated synchronization process is applied to the common design data within the same design environment, which vastly simplifies the task and eliminates the risk to the integrity of the design data.
Multi-domain design synchronization, transparency between domains and automated data processing are just some of the challenges that need to be overcome as electronics design becomes intimately connected into the overall product development process. Managing multifaceted design data, both within and outside the electronics design space, is the key factor in tackling those challenges. Reducing errors by maintaining the integrity of the data is imperative.
The lock down
Risk minimization has inevitably become a greater concern as product design complexity has increased and companies compete in what’s now a global electronics industry. Errors such as incorrect files released to production, design elements that aren’t correctly synchronized, using invalid or deprecated components parts and so on, can all introduce crippling design delays and cost blowouts.
This has inevitably led to tighter control being imposed on the development process, where design change is tied down as a risk management strategy. That data management approach can take on a variety of forms, including manual paper-based sign-off procedures through to external audit and approval systems. As an add-on data management solution, it inherently restricts design freedom, or in other words, limits on how and when design changes can be made.
By restricting design experimentation and exploratory change, a locked down product development system does not encourage innovative design, which is crucial to creating competitive products. Therefore, organizations must now balance two opposing forces when managing the product development process; the need to foster creative, exploratory design versus the need to manage risk by maintaining design data integrity.
Where a lack of integrity in design data reaches the critical state is the transition from design to the production stage. Releasing a design to production is one-way step where an error, and there’s plenty to choose from, will delay and add cost to the final product. The potential flow on effects are missed market opportunities, problematic design re-spins and damaged customer relationships.However, if the electronics design system is based on a single application development platform and single model of the design data, the potential exists to leapfrog manual design data management and its implicit restrictions.
In this case robust, high-integrity design data management can be introduced into the electronic design space itself, where it becomes part of the design process, rather than an add-on that gets in the way and stifles innovation. Formalized, versioned storage ‘vaults’ can be introduced for both design and release data. It allows the system to provide an audit trail that gives you total visibility from the release data back to the source data, even to the level of hour to hour changes to that design information.
The advantage is that design data and release data are managed but effectively separated, allowing full control over the links between the two.
To formalize and control the design release process, a new layer of ‘configuration management’ can be implemented into the design environment at a platform level. Along with managing the design data, it allows the creation of formal definitions of the links between the design world and the production chain that is responsible for building the actual products.
The configurations map the design data, stored as versions of design documents in a nominated repository (design vault), to specific revisions of production items (typically blank and assembled boards) that are going to be built. The formalized management of design data and configurations allows changes to be made without losing historical tracking, or the definitions of what will be built (a design revision) from that version of the design data.
In practice, this tightly controlled release process extracts design data directly from the design vault, validates and verifies it with configurable rule checkers, and then generates the outputs as defined by the link definitions. The generated outputs are pushed into a ‘container’ representing a specific revision of the targeted item (board or assembly) that’s stored in a design release vault.
All generated outputs, stored as targeted design revisions, are contained in that centralized release storage system where any that have actually been released for production are locked down and revisioned. The maturity of the revision's data can be controlled and defined as a lifecycle management process, which also provides a high-integrity foundation for integration with PLM and PDM systems if this is required.
The enabling technology and approach here is applying a platform level unified design system to a single design database, and providing the necessary versioning and data management infrastructure within the design space itself. The process of managing the underlying design data can then be intelligently automated across all design domains, eliminating the need for complex data translation and management processes that must span multiple collections of design data.
As products are increasingly developed as a collection of mechanical parts, electronic assemblies and externally connected systems that are physically and functionally interdependent, a radical change in how design data is managed and controlled is overdue.
Bringing all the data together in as a single, coherent and accessible entity and introducing the required data management systems into a unified design environment is a liberating way forward. It maintains a high level of design data integrity while encompassing the whole electronics design process, and best of all, restores the engineering freedom that’s needed to allow product design creativity to flourish.
About the author:
Rob Evans is technical editor at Altium Limited (Sydney, Australia).
Rob studied Electronic Engineering at RMIT in Melbourne, Australia. He has over 20 years experience in the electronics design and publishing industry including several years as Technical Editor for Electronics Australia magazine. Rob currently holds the position of Technical Editor at Altium Limited.