Design teams must keep up with a ton of information in the course of a board-level design project. Not only are these teams frequently geographically dispersed, they also comprise individuals with expertise in different domains.
Then there is the data itself, both that which concerns the circuit and board layout and that which concerns the components and intellectual property (IP). The latter is a highly dynamic set of data coming from multiple sources, including distributors and manufacturers. The issues of business-system integration, supply-chain integration, and the reality of external manufacturing all add to the morass of data management and threaten to swamp the design process.
The Altium Designer suite has gone through a number of revisions over its lifespan, many of which have sought to address this growing issue. With Altium Designer 10, the company believes it has arrived at a milestone in its efforts to tame the design-data beast.
Many things can happen in the context of design data that can derail the design team, such as price/availability changes related to components, change-management miscues, engineering change order (ECO) management, IP management, and release management, to name just a few. Altium Designer 10 handles this amalgam of data through a unified data model, which pairs with a single executable.
According to Bob Potock, Altium’s director of marketing in the Americas, this approach trumps that of competitors whose flows are less organic in nature. “The unified data model and data-management layers were developed concurrently,” says Potock. “This provides a great foundation for the design tools at the next layer.”
That design-data management layer, which Altium has dubbed Altium Vaults, enables designers to store and manage design data and revisions. It also lets them manage component lifecycles and track usage of components across designs. Further, it contains links to the supply chain and manufacturing. “All of this data is very dynamic. In the supply-chain databases, hundreds of parts are added and/or updated daily,” says Potock.
The implications of the data-management problem become clearer when considered from the standpoint of product development. Component data comes from manufacturers such as Xilinx and Texas Instruments. On top of that is a layer of distributors such as Arrow, Digi-Key, and Mouser. This information enters through a business system and then propagates into the design process.
Feeding from this profusion of data are various domain-specific design processes; the data must move within each domain and across them. Imagine a circumstance in which a high-pin-count FPGA in your design needs to be pin-swapped at the printed-circuit board (PCB) level. This design change must propagate into the FPGA design process. This is a non-trivial exercise typically involving two separate tool chains. According to Potock, Altium Designer 10 makes this process a pushbutton affair.
Altium Designer 10 presents engineers with a hierarchical project view that enables collaboration (see the figure). At the top level are all PCB-related design files, and inside the PCB project is the onboard FPGA project. Inside the FPGA, if you were using an embedded processor, would be the software development project for that processor. The project view also provides for version control, which encourages a fluid, iterative design process.
The Enterprise Vault has three data zones. These zones connect to the outside world of distributors, business systems, and manufacturing partners. With all of the component data in the Vault, it becomes a simple matter to trade off criteria to aid in making design decisions.
Finally, when the design achieves maturity, data integrity checks ensure that everything is correct. Altium Designer 10 verifies that all parts on the bill of materials are approved and that the schematic and PCB layout are in sync. It also runs design-rule checking. If any of these checks fail, the process halts. If they all pass, the design moves to manufacturing with a high degree of confidence.
Another key addition to Altium Designer 10 is a feature called AltiumLive, which is an implementation of cloud-based services for software downloads and maintenance. Using AltiumLive, users can customize their initial installation of Altium Designer 10 and then use it subsequently to change their installation as needs evolve. With AltiumLive, there are no more service packs when updates occur but rather cloud-based updates. Future enhancements will come in a continuous stream rather than in lump form.
A second element of AltiumLive will be availability of design content and IP. Much of this will be provided by Altium itself. The first design content comes from Altium’s technical centers in Shanghai and in Hobart, Tasmania, Australia. In the future, the ecosystem will be opened to user contributions.