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Leveraging the Cloud to Connect the Electronics Industry Ecosystem

June 22, 2021
In this Q&A, Ted Pawela of Altium discusses the Nexar Cloud platform, which can build a connected ecosystem of design, supply chain, and manufacturing stakeholders, enhancing the engineering of smart and connected products.

This article appeared in Evaluation Engineering and has been published here with permission.

It has often been the case in our current state of disruptive development that the core technologies transforming the devices we use also is revolutionizing the way we make them. A growing aspect of the cloud and IoT are solutions like logistics and supply-chain management like telematics, and the explosion of collaborative software tools that are changing the way the electronics industry works together, evolving processes and tasks into an integrated environment of collaborative workflows.

One of the companies offering a solution is Altium, who recently introduced Nexar, a cloud-based partner platform that connects the rapidly growing Altium 365 PCB design community with the tools and partners needed to create smart and connected products. To get a better understanding of how collaborative cloud-based platforms can accelerate the industry’s ability to introduce new products, and what it means to the electronic design community, we spoke with Ted Pawela, Chief Ecosystem Officer at Altium, about the design and development challenges involved.

EE: One thing about electronic design, is the more sophisticated the solutions, the more challenging the development environment, right? Between technology convergence, new technology, and other advances, it's almost like a red queen's race. We're constantly moving faster and faster as we progress into the future. What are your thoughts on that?

Ted Pawela: I think ultimately what we see in design from a software perspective, is that simplicity represents more sophistication than does complexity. I think the same thing is true in terms of product development, and more and more we see, whether it's the organizations or the processes that they use, that people are striving for that simplicity without giving up sophistication.

EE: Once upon a time, for example, if I manufactured a mechanical part with an electric motor in it, like a church organ, I didn't have to worry about software. Today, a church organ design may have to be a web system specialist, because that organ's probably tied into the church's LAN with a link to the priest. Everything is now more complex. 

Pawela: I think there's a combination of things that have kind of contributed to this; one is that, in many industries, everyone has moved away from kind of vertically integrated development and supply chains to where there's more specialization. That means that you need to be able to work with and collaborate with and co-design with many more people.

Then you have more stakeholders in the process. Then you kind of layer on top of that, the fact that we're much more geographically distributed than we used to be. Something that's very temporal as well is that we find that even when we're co-located in a city or a country, we still layer on top of that yet again, things like the COVID situation, and the fact that we've all kind of adapted to working remotely, which makes us more distributed by nature.

All of those things, plus what we see in virtually any product that you look at today, there's the whole notion of electrification, or trends of IoT, and things like that. But everything's getting smarter, which means from a product perspective, it's not a simple device anymore; it's a smart and connected product, which means that, in many cases, moved from pure mechanical design to now electromechanical design.

You've got to connect to an infrastructure of information. I think the level of complexity as you suggest is vastly increased from what it was even five years ago, let alone a decade ago or two decades ago. Our approach to addressing that has been that people need to interact in the design process, and that need is sort of more acute than it ever has been.

We feel that the only way in today's world that is really possible and practical and effective is through the cloud. What we've been trying to do is not change our software from desktop applications to cloud, but to cloud-enable them so that collaborative mechanism is ever present and to do it in a way that people don't have to think about it, and don't have to do anything beyond what they've already been doing, but it's just there. It just works for them.

For the last two years, we've been focused on the introduction of a cloud platform called Altium 365. It was intended all along to be a two-sided platform in that it was intended to support our users and their collaborative workflow, but also for partners and other stakeholders in this product development ecosystem. They can participate in it in a collaborative way, they can contribute to it.

That was really for us, the genesis of this idea of Nexar that we're launching now, and Nexar is really that same cloud platform, but is the face of it to our partners where we expose APIs and we expose solution development kits. We likewise expose things like feeds of data that we have available to us through our various product lines and businesses.

So you can easily connect into that ecosystem, and provide value to the people who are doing design today. What our team is trying to achieve with that is the thing that we've been talking about now for certainly as long as I've been a part of Altium, which is five years now, and that's to help to transform the industry. What we mean by that, is to move the electronics design industry from something that was designed and architected to work 20 or 30 years ago. It's largely stayed the same, and we're trying to move it into 2021 and beyond into again, a more connected collaborative style of product development.

EE: Right. We interviewed a company that had been working with Altium and one of the questions that I had was how this has been almost a perfect storm for collaborative technologies, because it's not like they haven't been around, but they were in their evangelical growth process when COVID hit. And all of a sudden everyone started demanding these products that the industry had been trying to convince them they needed for such a long time.

Pawela: The way that I look at it is that everything with the COVID pandemic wasn't so much changing what was already set in motion, I think what it's done is accelerated it. People had talked about transitioning to the office environment for a long time and the products that are needed to support that. It kind of happened on this slow gradual [curve], and what we've just seen is this massive acceleration of having to do that by necessity. Necessity ultimately is the mother of invention, and I think this is absolutely one of those situations, and we have absolutely seen that from our customer base.

You would potentially expect that everything stopped when the pandemic hit, but it actually didn't at all. In fact, it pushed down the accelerator because the demand for the products that our customers create, which are those smart and connected things, and the demand for those to become even more innovative has just increased in the past year.

EE: To put it in context and perspective in the process, why don't you walk us through. I'm a designer, I've got an idea for say a smart device with interoperability and connectivity. I approach you to say, "Hey, improve my development process." Where do you insert your value in my process to add that value?

Pawela: We do that at various levels. I mean for many years, Altium has been doing that at the level of the design tools themselves and helping people to streamline the way that they go from concept to a completed design that's ready and manufactured. But the thing that we've really focused on now is a couple of things.

First is that we recognize that that design process is not generally done in isolation. Sure, in a startup occasionally, somebody's got a product idea and they as an entrepreneur, they do a lot of things themselves. But largely even in the design process, we have other stakeholders, you have to add different elements to a full product design, not just a printed-circuit-board design. That collaboration element is one place that we help them today in ways that we didn't a few years ago.

More than that, when you go about that design process, you never go into it with the idea that the job is done when the design is complete. The job is done when the product is manufactured, when the product goes to market, and the product is out in the field being used by end customers. That's an extremely complex and a multifaceted process.

So imagine you complete that design and one of the first things if you think about actually manufacturing it is that you have to find the parts that are going to be used to create a printed circuit board. Suddenly you find that a capacitor, a simple passive capacitor that you designed into this printed circuit board and device a month ago, suddenly the entire stock all over the world has evaporated. As crazy as that sounds, that's a real-life scenario that happens today.

We see that in many industries. They're struggling to keep up with consumer demand because of that supply-chain shortage. Having access to real-time supply-chain information while you're designing, so you can avoid putting things in that are going to be unavailable, or that are maybe facing end-of-life, and you didn't realize it. That's another area where we're helping them. We do that through our Octopart parts and data-feed information. That tells us everything about the pricing, about the availability, about the stock at various distributors as you're designing. Making that available during design, as opposed to an afterthought with design is another way that we're helping.

EE: It is cool that you're working with Octopart. I remember when those kids launched. It's very cool to see that they got where they wanted to with that service.

Pawela: Octopart has been great. It's been a great business for us, and it's been a great contributor to the industry. They have over six million queries every single month, people looking for different parts on Octopart. So it's widely used and adopted in the industry. But it's not the end of the road for us with Octopart either, because there's a whole lot more that we can do in terms of making that information available to actual OEMs and manufacturers so that they have access to that as well—not just people in the design process.

What's interesting to many of the actual component manufacturers is to get an understanding of what are people designing today. What are the trends? Is it Wi-Fi? Is it 5G? Is it high-speed designer high-density interconnect? What are the things that we should be thinking about as we're introducing new products? And we're thinking about what stock and inventories we should create. That kind of intelligence is something that is really needed and desired by the manufacturers, and having access to both the design tools and that supply-chain information that we're talking about.

We have a unique opportunity to be able to give insight into that from a trends perspective, not an individual customer perspective, but again what seems to be the trends. If we looked at Europe, what are the design trends in the U.S.? What are the design trends in Asia? Are they the same? Are they different? And you know, what sorts of chips are people needing? What passive components, the whole thing. Octopart's been a very interesting business and we've got still a long way to go.

EE: As advanced as what you're doing is, you probably see room for growth. Is there anything you see that is something that you would want around the corner?

Pawela: For us, the big thing that we've been trying to do from a high level is to connect the design community with the supply-chain community and the manufacturing community. We see right now a really great opportunity where we've done a lot with Octopart and the supply chain, and bringing that and making that information available, but manufacturing is still sort of largely isolated and it sort of manifests itself. You see this very easily when, if you were to go to a board fabricator and just ask them, "How many board designs do you receive from somebody, that you can immediately put onto your assembly equipment, put it down the line, and actually produce that board?" Largely they'll tell you it's almost zero, almost always zero.

That's because designers don't like the fact that we have design rules that largely guide us away from things that are hard to manufacture, and we call this design for manufacturing, right? Those rules are not consistent from manufacturer to manufacturer. Because they all have different equipment and different capabilities. Your design has to conform to that specific manufacturer's requirements.

On top of that, then it's sort of like understanding from a manufacturer perspective, if you get something like, Design or Gerber files or something, you don't know what the design intent was. Did those traces have to be that close together? Did this one have to run so close to a connection that you've designed into the board? Those things can affect everything in a dramatic way. The cost of the board, the speed to produce that board, all of those sorts of things.

So what we want to do is bring manufacturing closer with design. What I like to say is it transitions from design for manufacturing, to design with manufacturing, right? That's a big part of why we're introducing this other side of our cloud platform, the partner side, the Nexar side, so that we can bring manufacturing onto that platform. The process of communicating about the design, even while it's happening, can be taking place between designer and fabricator, or between designer and assembly house or contract manufacturer.

So we can short-circuit all of those sorts of questions that come at the end of the process, and bring them forward. Not design in problems, but design out problems and design out challenges that we might not have seen so well downstream in the timeline of product development.

EE: Very cool. It's an inevitable direction. You were saying before how the task doesn't end until it leaves the factory. Nowadays, it doesn't even end there, with some products you've got in the field getting software updates, and you're monitoring the product until the warranty runs out half the time now with an advanced product out there in the field. I think we're actually progressing to almost a meta awareness of a product from the simulation and design all the way out to maintaining it and keeping in contact with it in the field.

Pawela: I couldn't actually agree more. We used to think about having all kinds of statistical information for quality and throughput on the manufacturing line, and it kind of stopped there, but now, as you suggest, we're seeing that, that extending out into the field where we're actually being able to collect data. Particularly with smart and connected products, because they are connected. We can see more how people are using them and when things go wrong.

There's a full lifecycle of information that's available now that was never available before. And the big transition is that we're moving to a place where we're actually starting to use it where it becomes not just information or data, but it becomes intelligence and that's highly valuable, right? Because that informs all kinds of decisions that we never would have been able to make in the past.

EE: Well, it could even cascade backwards if you think about it, Ted, right? I could create a product, discover a product problem in the field, and have that change cascade all the way back to the design process.

Pawela: Yes, absolutely. And it goes even further because sometimes you find that something that you see in the field that you might change on that given product, that might be a component that isn't functioning properly, and you want to know, where else did I use that in all of the products that I have available? We can really kind of blossom into something extremely valuable.

EE: That is an excellent point to bring up, because that level ofI would call it a meta-awarenessthat kind of awareness through your design processing and manufacturing procedures. It's the kind of thing that you point to and say, "that's what Big Data does well. That's why we do this thing."

Pawela: Absolutely, and I think we could start then. I think what we're seeing is also a trend in general for the industry to start thinking about now: How do I also apply artificial intelligence algorithms to that? So that I can not only sort of be reactive to it, but I can be predictive.

Let's just say the product development industry in general and particularly now that electronics are in everything. We think that our sort of relevance is extremely broad, but in the electronics industry, relevance is now applicable to almost everything we see in everyday life. Everything we do over the course of your day, if you look around, you see electronics built into that, and yet we have an electronics sort of value chain that is still largely disconnected. It operates in the same way that it largely did 20 years ago.

The opportunity for this industry to bring itself forward and modernize itself is really incredible right now. It's going to result in massive time and cost savings and massive amounts of innovation. If we can, as an industry, come together to solve that and to kind of attack that problem.

This is exactly the purpose of what Altium is trying to do with the Nexar platform right now. We're trying to attract any stakeholder or partner in the electronics design ecosystem, even our competitors, to participate in modernization of our industry. We're not asking for anyone to pay for that; it's sort of zero friction, zero costs for partners to come and do that. We know that we will win ultimately through our design tools and our design platform, and the better we do this, and the more value we can add to that platform, both organically and through partnership, the more people will come and use our design tools.

That's what we're trying to achieve is to get more and more people to actually come to that platform. People, companies, technologies, all of those things come and participate in that platform for their own benefit. They get to take advantage of the fact that we've got a vast user community who need their products. And in exchange, we're giving value back to all of the people who do the design work today.

Each of us wins, customers financially benefit by having better solutions, faster time to market, all of those things. Our partners benefit by virtue of being able to do business with this community of designers. And our designer customers, they benefit because they are once again, sort of receiving the benefit of better, more connected processes and tools and so forth.

That's what Nexar is all about, that's what we're trying to achieve. We're genuinely excited about the opportunity that fits in front of the industry. And we're hoping that the rest of our peer companies in the industry, likewise, will feel the same way.

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