Learn how to save hours of manual labor by automating your output job file creation process using the Project Releaser in Altium Designer.
In my previous blog post, I talked about the manual processes still being used to create professional PCB design documents like fab and assembly drawings, and how a tool like Altium Draftsman can help automate that process. Unfortunately, creating your drawings is only part of the battle you face when getting a fully documented design out the door to be produced. You’re still stuck with the task of generating outputs like the bill of materials, the Gerbers and drills, ODB++, or other fabrication files, the prints of the schematic pages, and a myriad of other documents and manufacturing files. Again, you find yourself faced with more manual work than you’d expect to be doing in 2017. I mean, we have software to automate things, don’t we? To make things easier?
The Importance of the Right Output Job Files
Providing the right output job files is crucial to communicating clear and accurate design intent to manufacturing, but the manual process of creating outputs can be tedious and problematic. When you’re trying to release a product on-time and within budget, producing output files for hours on end can cause a lot of stress. What if there was a way to automate this process so you can have more time to tackle other engineering challenges?
What most users encounter goes back to the dreaded “point tool” or “tool chain” approach, where each part of the design process – schematic design, PCB layout, etc. – is handled by a unique executable program that has little or no interaction with the others, save by file or netlist passing. There’s no overarching system that understands what your design is. You’re left opening the schematic program to generate the schematic prints and bill of materials. Then it’s over to the PCB tool for the bare board and remaining assembly files. Within each of those environments, there may or may not be methods to perform batch outputs – click here, here, and here for schematic generation, then click there, there, and there for the BOM.
Breaking the Tool Chain
Things might be a bit better in your PCB tool where, after the initial tedious setup, some of the outputs can be run as a batch. And by “tedious setup” we’re talking about adding each individual layer for your Gerber outputs. So even for a simple 4 layer board you’re looking at no less than a dozen different documents to create, when you add in the masks, silks, etc. More advanced formats like ODB++ may be available, but not as part of the same batch process. And the newer formats like Gerber X2 and IPC-2581? You’ll have to look elsewhere.
If your design requires the use of assembly variants (fitted/not fitted/varied components), then your assembly-based output list just grew exponentially.
When it’s time to rev the design, you’re starting the whole process over again from scratch, as very little of this can be reused. Because of this mostly manual process, many organizations require the use of a design release checklist of sorts to make sure nothing gets missed. Gerbers? Check. Drills? Check. Pick and place? Check. Hours later, and you should be good to go. Why is that checklist even necessary? Simple. Your tool-chain-based environment can’t see your whole design at once so there’s no way to create a single, unified design release package.
Containers and Outputs
Altium Designer has solved this issue through a combination of two unique mechanisms: the Output Job file and the Project Releaser – both included as part of the standard Altium Designer license. An “outjob file” (as it is commonly called) gives the designer access to outputs for the entire design flow. Any combination of schematic-based and PCB-based documents and file sets can be chosen and sent to multiple output “containers,” like PDF files and folder sets. This is made possible by the Unified Design Environment in Altium Designer and is quite possibly my favorite feature in terms of time savings.
Configuring an Output Job File for Multiple Output Documents
Not only are these settings contained in one environment, they are stored as a file which lives alongside the rest of the design project so it can be recalled at any time. In addition to the simple initial setup, it makes changes even simpler.
Multiple Output Job files can be created for different documentation sets (fab vs. assembly), and also if different fab shops have differing requirements. One outjob can be used for your prototype designs that you send to your US-based shop who prefers ODB++, whereas another can be set up for the overseas production run which requires Gerbers and drills.
In order to minimize the overall number of clicks even further, we’ve developed the Project Releaser. This puts the Output Job file concept alongside archive control of the source project (the schematics, PCBs, and such) to truly automate the design documentation and release process. Multiple outjobs can be run at once and their output sets placed alongside the source data for a single Release Package that can be stored locally or sent into the Altium Vault for even more security and control. Instead of ECOs requiring the same level of frustration and effort as the initial release, they are reduced to a mere handful of clicks as all of the release settings for that project are remembered.
You stand to gain back hours and hours of wasted time on manual manufacturing file outputs using Output Job files and the Project Releaser from Altium.
About the Author
Dave has been an Applications Engineer for 20 years in the EDA industry. He started in 1995 at a mid-Atlantic reseller that represented PADS Software, ViewLogic, and a host of other EDA tools. He moved on to work directly for PADS Software, and stayed on as they were acquired by Innoveda and then by Mentor Graphics. He and a business partner formed a VAR of their own in 2003 (Atlantic EDA Solutions) to represent Mentor's PADS channel, and later on Cadence's OrCAD and Allegro products. Since 2008, Dave has been working directly for Altium and is based at his home office in New Jersey.More Content by David Cousineau