Electronic Design

Are The Tools Better?

Depending on whom you ask, you will get different opinions about the tools engineers need for their jobs. Some complain of too many tools with overlapping features. Others say the tools are never quite finished, are too complex, and above all, cost too much.

It's hard to imagine, but Walter Shawlee finds that many software tools and automation techniques are only 90% finished and full of problems. Therefore, they often require more time than can be spared to get to productive work.

"I was recently asked to demo a new version of my schematic capture/board layout package and was astounded to find that many old problems still remained and that libraries were no better and no more extensive than five years ago, despite a $100 million investment in the software," he says. "However, the mouse scroll wheel now works—supposedly a milestone coding achievement. But so far, there is no software substitute I have found for a sharp mind."

Sometimes, costs can be controlled by eliminating unnecessary tools. "We use Altera FPGAs and have found the Altera QuartusII compiler has reached the point that we no longer need Synplicity's compiler," says QImaging's Van Hooft. "So we've actually removed a tool from our development flow and saved some money at the same time."

Another method of reducing costs, according to Cottonwood Creek's Kitchin, "is to combine 'better-in-class' tools to get 'best-in-class' output from our tools."

Autodesk Inventor can be used for physical modeling and sheet metal and plastic component design, along with a good but less expensive multilayer printed-wiring-board layout package. The purchased cost is lower than any all-in-one design package. And, the results are far better than any package reviewed or tried by Kitchin.

What initially looks like a hidden cost of this methodology is that multiple models must be created for each component, and there's no way to interchange that work. But since the "models" provided by the CAD vendors are seldom very good in the first place, this cost produces far better end results than a more fully featured tool set would.

"Typically, our soft mockups are brochure-ready, so we've saved several manufacturing and marketing steps along the way as well," says Kitchin. "Maybe if we had bigger budgets, there would be a benefit to a 'fully integrated design package.' "

Bitmetrix's Morariu sees three issues when considering tools: new tools, test capabilities, and work methods. With new tools, there's always the issue of expense. While it makes sense to buy tools in the $200 to $500 range, it's important to analyze the benefits of more expensive tools.

One of the more significant reasons why products fail is the lack of a full suite of test capabilities. Yes, testing costs money. But it costs much more to recall the product, and even more to lose a customer. In addition, an old work method that still works well today is based on phases and periodic measurements of the results.

Open-source products also can control costs. Van Hooft's company uses an increasing number of open-source products. It employs CVS for version control, GNU C compiler, and GDB debugger and Bugzilla for bug tracking.

Taking it a step further, "GNU and open-source code is the best thing since sliced bread, but the Internet is the bakery it is made in," says American Microsystems' Perkins.

He adds that in about 30 to 45 days, designers can build a distribution of Linux supporting a totally new design, e.g., wireless networking and file systems—anything they want. What is more powerful, according to Perkins, is the thing that we all take for granted—the Internet. It's the source of communication and worldwide distributed incorporation of ideas and thoughts. Without this, our technology would still be back in the 1980s—when everything came from the Mouser catalog.

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