In the last part of this blog series, I dove into ECAD/MCAD collaboration, and why it’s so important to have a good system for passing design data back and forth between the two domains. But even through my breakdown of the popular methods used today, the question remained: isn’t there a better way to do this? Why can’t why we have a true system for collaboration between electrical and mechanical designers?
And I’m not just talking about preserving details when moving back and forth between environments, although that’s important as well. True collaboration means designing simultaneously or in parallel using a system with features for visibility, comparing, merging, tracking, and commenting on design changes. Looking at the available options, I came across a few solutions, each with their own strengths and weaknesses.
Figure 1: True ECAD/MCAD collaboration gives designers visibility into incremental changes, allowing them to design simultaneously. If a connector needs to be moved, both designers can see those changes and make any necessary alterations in response.
Native ECAD/MCAD Collaboration
There’s nothing better than being able to use a single software tool for all electrical and mechanical design. We’re getting closer to this every day with features for creating extruded models and enclosures available right from within ECAD tools. However, the single application approach may not have all necessary functionality at the moment, and designers may simply have their own preferences for mechanical design.
There are a number of external tools that can directly plug in to electrical and mechanical CAD packages, providing a better gateway between the two programs. While this allows more seamless transition and collaboration, it’s yet another tool with its own little details and nuances. Plus, it’s another link in the chain you’ll have to troubleshoot when things aren’t going quite right.
Neutral File Formats
Neutral file formats are a bit tricky to categorize, and essentially exist outside of each design domain. They don’t require a direct interface to either software environment, thus avoiding time-consuming connection troubleshooting issues. On the flip side, each tool can write to this standard interface while maintaining native methods and toolsets, ensuring each designer’s workflow is consistent.
What about IDX?
This leads me to IDX. The IDX format is like a grab bag of the best features pulled from other collaborative ECAD/MCAD formats, with the added benefit of enabling true collaboration. It was based on the ProSTEP EDMD format, which itself was based on STEP AP 210 and AP 214 formats. The difference between IDX and standard file formats like STEP is that it tracks incremental changes, which electrical and mechanical designers can choose to accept or discard. Here’s how it works:
- IDX baseline file - At the beginning of (or at any point during) a board design, an electrical designer starts the process by exporting a baseline file. This file is the actual 3D model data, similar to a STEP model.
- Import into a mechanical environment - The baseline file exported from the electrical side will be imported in a mechanical tool. It’s likely that a mechanical designer will have some sort of enclosure or mechanical fixtures in place already, but they now have the potential to fully edit any part of the product to make everything fit together and work correctly
- Incremental change XML file - As changes are made to the design from either domain, they will be recorded in a file, stored in the same location as the baseline file. Design changes won’t automatically be applied either, so there’s no need to worry if something doesn’t quite add up. Changes are tracked and comments are added to this file, and designers can choose to accept or discard any changes as they see fit.
- Design cycle in full effect - Using this methodology, designers can make changes and comment on those changes, but they won’t take effect until the other side approves. By tracking a design like this, it’s simple to revert to an older version if something didn’t work out along the way.
IDX is by no means the ultimate solution, since it still employs a middleman between environments. But it’s comprehensive enough for complex design features, is standardized to allow translation between several different programs, and enables design collaboration in the truest sense. It’s currently one of the best ways to create a seamless workflow for designers, potentially in different parts of the world, to do different tasks simultaneously.
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