Beyond Unified Workflow: True Unified PCB Design

Created: April 24, 2018
Updated: September 25, 2020

Vector of business people working on gears together

When it’s crunch time my only focus is on getting my PCB design to the finish line correctly and out the door to manufacturing - unified workflow comes later. I know from experience that there are a number of obstacles in that can get in my way and cause a delay. You know, unavailable parts, feature creepage - I’m used these obstacles, they are part of the job. But I am routinely stressed by needing to manipulate different design tools and data to get them to work together.

I finally decided that I needed to put an end to this particular stress by organizing my design environment into one that works smoothly together. As I looked deeper into some of the problems that a disorganized design environment was responsible for, I was surprised to see how much it had impacted my overall design workflow. Let me explain to you what I have found and see if it mirrors any of the problems that you’ve been experiencing.

Diagnose Your Non-Unified Workflow Frustrations

Have you ever had a shift in CAD software that required you to undergo multiple weeks of training just to get up-to-speed with the functions and tools that you had grown used to in your previous software? What about all those times where you were frantically translating schematics and designs between what purchasing needed, and what the mechanical engineers needed?

Of course, dissonance between your CAD tools only amplifies the frustration from these interdepartmental communications. Yet, largely it is still common for a company to purchase a grab-bag of tools from various software in order to obtain all the necessary tools without the bulky overhead cost for anything unnecessary.

The key here is that since these systems were not initially designed to work together they must be manipulated and forced in order to do so. Sure, you might have a unified workflow in mind, but just because you have all the tools you need doesn’t mean they cooperate. It may seem that purchasing tools from the same software vendor will resolve this, but it is possible that you may still end up with this problem without realizing it.

With a blended tool environment, you are working with separate systems that often are dissimilar. In addition to the problems of dropped data and costly translations, you also have to relearn the other system every time you go to use it. This has often been considered to be “part of the job,” but it shouldn’t be. You and your staff shouldn’t be spending time re-familiarizing yourself with the tools every time you switch from one to another.

Realizing Where the Pain Comes From

Having tools that aren’t based on a unified design environment, the most glaring problem I ran into was that schematic capture and PCB layout tools weren’t created to work together. This requires you to have to make them work together with translators or interfaces. In some cases, it may even require editing a netlist in order to synchronize the tools. Aside from the time that this takes, do you realize that there are deeper issues that you may not even be aware of?

The data transfer mechanism that you are relying on may not be handling all of the data from schematic to layout. This could include simulation models or component information such as pricing and availability. Then, the same problem could be happening in reverse. There may be important data from layout such as physical part parameters that get dropped on the way back to the schematic.

Screenshot from Altium website of unified data modelA unified design environment can be a real benefit in your design process

With different tools also comes different data formats. Some sort of data translation will be needed in order to synchronize the tools together. It is possible that there is a potential for these data translations to be incomplete or perhaps even incorrect. Translators can also put the emphasis on data that isn’t pertinent to your design workflow while de-emphasizing data that you really need.

If the software vendor is blending different tools into the same design environment, it isn’t a real unified design environment. The tool architecture and data formats may still be very different and require translations in order to talk to each other.

What a Unified Workflow Will Give You

Take a look at the benefits that a PCB design system that is intended to work together will ultimately bring you:

  • Tools designed to work together: You will not be spending time on translating, verifying, or re-entering data that was dropped from one tool to another. Not only will this save you time, but it will save you the frustration of having to force the tools to work together as they should.

  • The data is designed to be used natively across all tools in the system: The data that you enter in the schematic will be passed to where it is needed in the other tools of the design system. Whether that means the layout tools, the drawing tools, or the BOM tools, the complete data will be available and can be used without extra translation steps or processes. With the data fully accounted for in all the tools, you don’t have to worry about data that is dropped or missing that will require manual re-entry at a later time.

  • These tools have a similar interface. You should expect that all the tools in PCB design system that features a unified design workflow will be very similar to each other in appearance and functionality. The drafting utilities in one tool will be located and behave in a similar fashion in another tool. This is going to save you time as you go between the different tools during your design cycle.

Picture of monitor with AD session and multiple windows open A unified design environment can simplify your workload and speed up your design cycles

How Altium’s Unified Design Environment can Help You

The PCB design tools in Altium Designer are designed to work together in a unified design environment. Whether you are editing the schematic or laying out the board, you are interacting with a unified model of the design designed to be seamless while moving around in these tools. Each component within Altium Designer contains this unified data such as schematic symbols, PCB footprint, supplier procurement data, and signal integrity models.

The unified design environment in Altium Designer will give you a measure of confidence in the integrity of your design data that isn’t available from other design systems. You no longer have to worry if your design data has translated correctly from tool to tool because the tools have been created to work together in the first place. Without the need to worry about interfacing, translating, and verifying design data integrity, you can then focus more on the actual design itself so that you can get over the finish line with a correct design that is on time.

Would you like to find out more about how Altium Designer’s unified design environment can help you with your next PCB design? Talk to an expert at Altium.

Start the journey to switch over to Altium Designer today.

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