Internet-Enabled Tools Open Doors To New Design Strategies

March 6, 2000
Pc-board designers must leverage new Internet-enabled methods to ease the burden of increasing board-design complexity.

When did you last log onto the Internet to accomplish a design-related task? Perhaps you browsed company web sites for data sheets, or researched new design-automation tools. Maybe you even downloaded a software patch or models for some new components you want to use in your next board design. You can, for as little as $100 a month, get access to a complete set of tools and all of the required logical and physical information needed to create an electrically correct pc-board design.

In the next few years, the pc-board industry, and the way pc-board vendors market, sell, and support tools, will change dramatically. Even the way you design your next board and the tools you use to accomplish that task will change, and it's all due to one undeniable factor—the Internet. From geographically disperse design team communication to Internet-enabled design tools, it's all on the way. And this new way of working may be here sooner than we think.

Naturally, you may assume that if the Internet can have such a tremendous impact on the pc-board design industry, then it should have a similar effect on the IC and ASIC industries. If you came to this conclusion, you would be wrong. In its present form, IC design is a complicated proposition. Therefore, it does not lend itself well to being done via the Internet. ASICs, while more suitably fitted for use on the Internet by virtue of their modularity, also do not appear to translate easily to the Internet.

In contrast, pc-board design by its very nature lends itself to being accomplished via the Internet. Consider for a moment that a large number of engineers design pc boards today. According to one estimate, the market size for EDA tools used for the design of pc-boards and systems is roughly $800 million. The projected growth for 2000 is roughly 8%. That's pretty significant growth for a segment of the industry that traditionally lags behind its cohort in the IC tools market.

With all of these people doing pc-board design, you end up with a very diverse group of users and tools. Yet, despite these differences, there are certain commonalities about the information pc-board designers use as input into automation tools. Using these commonalities as a starting point, the Internet helps bring these diverse group of designers and their tools together.

Through the use of any standard browser, the World Wide Web essentially acts as a common user interface by providing a common ground for the distribution and management of information. And, by replacing the board as the user interface, the web allows information regarding the board to be made available to a multitude of people in a variety of different disciplines, not just designers.

Lots of pc-board vendors recognize these potential benefits and now offer a range of Internet-based capabilities. Not surprisingly, pc-board designers seem willing to give them a try. Many have been searching for and evaluating component data on the web for some time. They are comfortable using the web and, for the most part, know how to successfully navigate it. For these designers, adding Internet-enabled capabilities to their design tools is simply the next logical step.

Interestingly, in an industry where IC design is considered the "sexy" technology and has been given the lion's share of press coverage, pc-board vendors now seem to be leading the charge when it comes to breaking new ground and staking out new territory on the Internet. They're defining the rules of engagement when it comes to doing business on the web and helping to set the standard by which all those that follow will have to look for guidance.

What can you expect to see from pc-board vendors in the future, and what price will you have to pay to gain entrance into this emerging Internet-based design environment? This article will take a closer look at pc-board design done the Internet way.

You may be asking yourself why pc-board design seems to be playing such a crucial role in migrating design onto the web. To answer this question, it's important to first take a step back and observe some of the forces that are driving and influencing the pc-board industry today.

It's safe to say that the pc-board industry is in a state of flux—not so much driven by the need for information, but rather, by the need to communicate information. This communication revolution can be attributed to a number of factors, not the least of which is the consumerization of the industry. It's forcing designers to produce faster, higher-performance, and higher functionality devices in a shorter amount of time and at a lower cost. It's also driving a change in the average designer's work environment; literally redefining the way they work.

These changes are easy to understand when you realize that engineers and designers are in short supply these days. Finding skilled workers is a daunting task that has prompted a shift in hiring practices at many companies. In the past, a company would seek out a skilled candidate who knew how to use a specific set of automation tools. Today, companies just look for the right skill set. The tool, or tools, a potential candidate knows how to use is irrelevant as many companies are now willing to standardize on more than one toolset.

Oftentimes, finding skilled candidates means looking out of state, or even out of the country. As a result, telecommuting and working with design teams sometimes halfway across the world has replaced collaboration around the traditional white board. Mergers and acquisitions also have played a role in making geographically disperse design teams commonplace.

Considering the changing face of pc-board design teams today, it's natural to wonder how teams from different geographic regions using different tools can ever be brought together in a cohesive manner. The easy answer seems to be the use of the Internet with its flexibility and ability to enable a design-anywhere, anytime environment. In fact, with the need for companies to access resources on a virtual 24-hour-a-day basis, the Internet becomes a requirement. For the pc-board industry this requirement is one that can, for the most part, be easily met. That's because many of the non-processing-intensive tasks related to pc-board design naturally lend themselves to being done on the Internet.

Consider that the migration to system-on-a-chip (SoC) design in the IC design space has placed new and more challenging demands on the pc-board designer (see "After The System-On-A-Chip Revolution, Where Will Pc Boards Stand?," p. 82). This complexity must ultimately be managed at the pc-board level. As a result, pc-board designers must now face a host of issues that were never before a cause for concern. Signal integrity, high-speed design, packaging, and even interconnect are now issues that the average pc-board designer must face. Add in the fact that the increasingly wireless world is forcing smaller pc boards, and that growing digital and RF content is causing problems such as noise and EMI, and it's easy to see why many pc-board vendors find the Internet so appealing.

As board design becomes more challenging, many companies have chosen to outsource pieces of the design task, such as manufacturing. This move helps cut development costs. It also means that contract manufacturers must now use multiple tools and maintain multiple part libraries. This requires team members to share information, designs, libraries, and even design-automation tools amongst themselves. Unfortunately, when you factor in the global nature of today's design teams, this isn't an easy task.

Of course, here is where the Internet has the greatest potential to aid the board-design process. Design iterations can be reduced through enhanced communication and collaboration, and redundant effort can be eliminated through design reuse and better library-management practices. The result is a huge gain in productivity. Additionally, as the Internet enables improved integration to purchasing and manufacturing, component cost will decrease.

Since the Internet offers a lot of information in many different formats and on many different sites, pc-board designers are now able to search for and quickly find the information and/or parts they need. This is a crucial feature for pc-board designers since the fast pace and turnover in parts and design technology often make parts obsolete before they ever reach the manufacturing stage. With its quick and easy access, the Internet helps cut out a sizable amount of time, thereby enabling a faster time from design to manufacture.

Not to be overlooked is the fact that the Internet makes an ideal mechanism for the marketing, sale, and distribution of various pc-board design tools. In fact, many companies now have e-commerce web pages set up for these types of tasks.

However, Randy Hartgrove, product marketing manager of performance engineering at Cadence Design Systems, cautions, "Some companies have actually confused the ability to distribute a license over the Internet as Internet-enabled pc-board design. Internet-enabled design actually refers to a suite of tools that communicate across the Internet to facilitate engineering and design collaboration, easy location of required design information from third-party sources, and shared access to design data from anywhere in the world. In this sense, the Internet brings the same capabilities to the engineering organization that it provides to businesses at large: access to information, greatly improved communication, and business-to-business commerce."

This is an important differentiation. While the Internet can certainly play a role in marketing, advertising, and e-commerce, that doesn't necessarily mean it is an acceptable platform for some of the more interactive and processing intensive pc-board design functions.

Getting the various design automation tools used in a pc-board design flow to work effectively on the Internet is not as easy as it may sound. One reason is because its success depends on many factors. It depends, for example, on the application involved and the steps entailed in your design flow. Design tasks, which are less processing-dependent (such as pc-board layout), tend to work well on the Internet. On the other hand, if we look at something like simulation or routing, this isn't always the case.

Simulation, by its very nature, is extremely processing-intensive. Just imagine that you run a simulation on someone else's web site and access it through a standard modem connection. It would take so long that it would be counterproductive to even attempt the task. Granted, you could always get yourself a T1 line, but how many of us actually have access to one of those? Until the computer/modem technology improves to the point where the speed of connection is fast and inexpensive enough to make transferring huge amounts of data quick and easy, performing such tasks as simulation via the Internet will simply not be feasible.

Simulation Through The Internet Of course, there are always exceptions to the rule. Suppose you're on a design team of 10 designers, each located in a different location around the world. Ordinarily, one designer might perform the simulation task and then document the results before forwarding it to the rest of the team. This process might take a few hours, or it might take a few days. Whatever length of time it requires, the work done by the design team can't progress until it has been completed.

For purposes of comparison, let's suppose now that your design team had access to Internet capabilities via its design tools. In this case, our initial simulation scenario may look a bit different. One member of the design team might be designated to perform the simulation at his/her location. But, since all of the design members could be linked via the Internet or an intranet, each designer would have the ability to see and work on those results live and in real time.

Essentially, all members of the design team would see the same exact screen, and changes made by any one of them would be instantly and simultaneously seen by all of them. In this manner, the design flow would not be forced to grind to a halt while one designer finished the simulation task.

Sounds pretty impressive. Interestingly, it's a capability that's already available in Electronics Workbench's Multisim tool (Fig. 1). Known as the control/design sharing capability, it also can be useful for students doing work at home.

If, for example, the student is having difficulty figuring out how to proceed in an engineering problem, a teacher or tutor could examine the problem on-line and in real time. The teacher or tutor then could direct the student on how to solve the problem by suggesting a fix, and then guiding the student through the fix. Rather than just listening and then implementing the changes afterward, the student can actually see the changes as they occur.

While Internet-enabled capabilities such as this are quite impressive, most in the industry would agree that design of an entire board via the Internet will not be possible for a few years. That's because there are a host of issues and concerns that currently prevent designers from accessing their primary pc-board design applications over an Internet connection.

Today's search engines, for example, are very unpredictable. You never quite know what you will get, or even if your results will be consistent. Over time this issue will be ironed out as designers are able to identify which vendors are top-notch and those that just can't be trusted.

Usability is another important issue. The Internet is great for doing things with data and for visually oriented tasks like constructing a schematic, but it doesn't work well for highly interactive tasks such as laying out a board. Standards will help in this area, although given the history of standards development in the EDA industry, chances are they will take some time to develop.

Speed and access limitations also are cause for concern, as is the security and control of data. The issue of security is one that will not be easily addressed. After all, it wasn't that long ago when the news was plastered with tales of how a hacker tried to blackmail an online store. The blackmailer requested a large sum of money in exchange for not releasing supposedly secure information about its customers. The company refused and the information was released to the public.

You wouldn't want this to happen to you, and neither would the pc-board tool vendors selling you the tools. However, this is only one aspect of potential security breaches. Have you considered the possibility that your buying preferences or design information could be tracked, and that somehow your competitors might be able to get their hands on this information? It could happen—and that's why vendors need to make sure they have appropriate security measures in place prior to offering any new Internet-enabled tools and/or capabilities.

According to Jeff Graham, product marketing manager at Accel Technologies Inc., "Another downside is that the pc-board designer loses control of their design for a period of time, and is more dependent on the EDA tool provider. If a designer is under-the-gun to get a design completed, he or she will be vulnerable to factors outside their direct control, like their ISP and the pc-board tool providers' servers."

Cadence's Randy Hartgrove adds: "You must also consider the added overhead of having to maintain an engineering environment that is connected through the Internet. However, as most businesses these days have some access to the Internet, this is a small price to pay for the tremendous benefits that can be realized."

The issue of a business model is also one that must be addressed. What would you pay to access design tools on the web? Some suggest a pay-per-use model, or perhaps even a subscription-based licensing model is the best option. The benefit of such approaches is obvious—lower cost of ownership. This is a very desirable feature as it will ultimately allow designers access to point tools that they could not otherwise afford or justify.

As you begin to look at the idea of accessing design tools over the Internet, you quickly come to realize that having this capability mandates that the tools meet a certain standard of quality. Think about it for a moment. Who is the target audience for such tools? Primarily, the engineers who design on PCs and who depend on Windows-based platforms for cost/performance as well as for integration of low-cost office automation applications. Such engineers want easy-to-use, best-in-class tools. These tools also must be intuitive and easy to implement for the occasional engineer user. That's because board design is increasingly requiring the direct supervision and involvement of engineers.

Conceivably, the Internet will help foster development of best-in-class pc-board tools by making it easier for smaller companies to come to market with new product offerings. And, it will help keep vendors honest by fostering a healthy competitive environment. Here, designers unhappy with one particular vendor's tool might be more apt to switch to another vendor's product offering simply because the cost of ownership is no longer a prohibitive factor.

Overall, this will serve to help keep vendors on their toes and stand behind their promises to deliver the best possible products to the designer.

These are issues that many pc-board companies are now having to consider as they plot out their Internet strategy going forward. As was mentioned earlier, many now use the Internet for sales, marketing, and distribution of products. Others use it to provide customers with tool updates or software patches.

Accel Technologies, for example, currently offers tool updates and utilities for downloading via the Internet. It has also integrated web publishing into its design automation and document control tools (Fig. 2) This allows users to take advantage of the powerful data-sharing capabilities currently provided by the Internet.

Agilent EEsof has recently opened the door on its CAD Data Store. It's a site that uses e-commerce to deliver readily available, low-cost library information to pc-board designers (Fig. 3) For small- to medium-size companies, the store can actually serve as their part library, allowing them to buy in a few minutes what would normally take them hours, or even days, to create. For large companies, the CAD Data Store can be used as a vehicle to augment existing libraries with easily accessible data.

PADS Software is an example of those vendors who realize they need to enable some level of pc-board design on the Internet, but have not yet committed to what sort of capabilities they will offer. In preparation for this transition, the company invested a significant amount of time developing an Internet-enabled architecture known as Latium. This architecture is contained within the company's BlastFusion product. It was designed to be flexible enough to support any Internet-based capabilities that the company might choose to add.

Cadence Design Systems introduced Internet Engineer late last year (Fig. 4). This product is essentially an Internet-enabled design infrastructure for the pc-board systems design environment. It can be installed into an existing Allegro pc-board design community and offers the benefits of improved communication and collaboration enabled via the Internet.

At the other end of the spectrum is's EDA2000 suite, which provides an integrated physically knowledgeable design tool system and an Internet sales model. The tools, which include schematic design capture as well as interactive placement and EMC analysis support for all major pc-board CAD environments, are being offered for a monthly, subscription-based fee. You simply go to the web site and download (for free) the latest version of the software. Then, rather than paying for the software each month, you simply pay for those months in which you actually utilize the tools.

While these companies are certainly not the only ones offering Internet-enabled capabilities, they do help to give you an idea of what's available in the industry today. Chances are that virtually every pc-board tool vendor has thought about the Internet and how to best utilize it for the benefit of its customers. In the next two years, expect to see many more announcements and a whole range of new Internet-enabled capabilities you never before thought possible—all available at an affordable price.

I think by now most people in the pc-board design industry no longer debate the viability of the Internet as a potential design platform. Rather, the discussion now focuses on how it will happen, when it will happen, and what the end result will look like. Some pc-board companies are just starting to look at this process and are wondering what specifically they can accomplish on the Internet. Still others have already made the initial plunge and now offer a variety of Internet-based capabilities.

If you own tools from a pc-board tool vendor that have no Internet capabilities, most likely they're already in the works. If there's a specific feature you want, don't discount the power of persuasion. Pick up the phone, send an e-mail, or just let your money do the talking—anyway you can make your needs clear to your vendors. It may help them pick up the development pace.

In the meantime, take heart in the fact that changes are in the offing. If pc-board vendors can actually deliver on their promises to enable improved communication, collaboration, and actual design via the Internet, these changes will mean that your job as a board designer will get easier.

While today you may be using the Internet to search for and retrieve information on components, tomorrow you will be doing pieces of your designs on the web. Who knows, in the next few years, you may even be doing your entire board design on the web. Of course, getting to this point will require a host of advances in everything from pc-board design-tool technology and computer technology, to standards governing the commonality of information transfer from one tool to another and from vendor to customer.

Whatever your stance on the issue of the Internet, there's no denying the fact that its true impact is only now starting to be felt and understood. It will change the way you design. And, it will change the way EDA tool vendors develop, offer, and support their tool offerings. Just don't forget to wear your seatbelt—the road may get pretty bumpy along the way.


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