Help Your PCB Design Process with CAD Tools that are Designed to Work Together

Created: January 26, 2018
Updated: November 12, 2020

Diagram of all-in-one playground

I’ve never quite understood how in all of our technological developments as humans, we haven’t yet developed a better grounding for playgrounds. When I was still small enough to swing, instead of sinking the whole swingset, I remember being so frustrated that our playground had rocks and mulch for us to run around on. That has always seemed a bit counterintuitive to me; designate an area as a play area for children but line it with hard or uncomfortable surfaces so when they inevitably fall they do not enjoy it. This thought was sparked because, of course, I walked by a park near my house and saw a playground with those familiar stones lining the ground.

There are plenty of things which seem dissonant like this to me, and they all annoy me to a similar extent. But one dissonance which is more than a simple annoyance is when my CAD tools don’t mesh with each other. With a less communicative design process, I’m looking at schedule delays and design errors. On the other hand, though, CAD tools that are designed to work together can be a tremendous joy to work with. If you’re reading this, you’re still probably a bit too big to fly down the slide like you used to but you can certainly take the next step to make your CAD tools work together much more effectively than stones under playground equipment.

Make Blending CAD Applications Together Part of Your PCB Design Process

It used to be that there were a lot of different PCB design CAD tools out there to pick from, each with their own unique strengths. Some had strong layout features while others had strong schematic capabilities. It wasn’t unusual for design departments to have a mixture of those CAD tools so that they could leverage the strengths of a different tool for specific needs. The problem, of course, was that these different tools had difficulty communicating with each other and design departments found themselves relying on simple netlists to synchronize the schematics and layouts.

Over time many of these different tools were blended together through corporate mergers and acquisitions between CAD tool companies. The acquired CAD tools would then be re-designed to work with existing tools, and presented as a single design solution to the customer. These blended tools were still separate applications though, and sometimes they looked and behaved as separate applications as well.

Engineer working on CAD design
Keeping track of communication between multiple CAD tools can lead to unnecessary errors.

Interfaces and Translators

Another way that CAD tools have blended together is through interfaces and translators. This solution allows design departments to retain all of their different CAD tools giving them a certain amount of flexibility. They don’t have to make large-scale changes to their libraries or procedures, nor do their personnel need to retrain on new software.

Interfaces and translators though have the same problems as blended software tools, the users are still working with two different CAD tools. Both tools need to be maintained, and the interface or translator needs to be maintained as well. If one of the tools goes through a major software enhancement or change, it could significantly affect how the two tools interface with each other. I have used tools where after an update the ability to cross-probe between the schematic and layout was lost even though the two sides would still synchronize.

The longer a design department continues to support different tools, the greater the risk they have in some day losing the ability to synchronize their schematics and layouts together. CAD tools are going to change over time, and sometimes a required update in one CAD tool will completely remove the ability to interface with the other tool. Why rely on the uncertainty of an interface when there is a better solution?

 Illustration of internet media icons and blogging and digital presence concepts and designs in curved wave stream
If your tools automatically translate to each other, it will make your updating process much easier.

The Benefit of a Unified Design Environment for your PCB Design Process

The way to avoid the complexity of a blended system and the uncertainty of an interface is to use a CAD system that is based on a unified design environment. Unlike a blended system where multiple tools in different environments are combined, a unified design environment includes all the different aspects of the design working together as one. Then, the schematic, and the layout are all part of the same unified design environment.

This is accomplished because the applications used for the different aspects of the design such as the schematic, and layout have all been created to work together. Their data is processed together through the same unified platform instead of collecting and processing differing data from different systems. Not only does this solve the problems of blended systems and interfaces and translators, but it also gives a commonality to all the tools that the user is working with to simplify their job.

It is impressive how multiple CAD tools have been linked together over the years by blending them or using interfaces. As we have seen though, there can be some big disadvantages to relying on this process. All it takes is one major software update and half of your design process is no longer talking to the other half leaving you unable to get a design completed and out the door. If this sounds like a concern that you might have in your design flow, I would encourage you to take a look at a CAD system that is based on a unified design environment.

For PCB design software that is designed to work together in the way that I have been talking about, consider Altium Designer®. From creation, through schematic capture and PCB layout, and to manufacturing output files everything is based on a unified design environment. This will give you the software stability that you need so that you can focus on getting the design done right instead of worrying about if the different tools of your design software will let you down.

Would you like to find out more about how Altium can help you to bring your entire PCB design process into one unified design environment? Talk to an expert at Altium.

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