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Integrate Your ECAD Tools with Mechanical Design Software

Zachariah Peterson
|  Created: July 14, 2019  |  Updated: April 24, 2020

Communication between ECAD and MCAD teams can be like a game of telephone

Ever play a game of telephone as a child? Once the message gets back to the sender, successive miscommunication along the way causes the original message and idea to be completely modified. This is the same thing that happens when mechanical and electrical design teams are siloed into different groups. Collaboration breaks down and communication becomes difficult. The mechanical team doesn’t know what the electrical team is doing, and vice versa.

These days, you probably have trouble remembering the last time a new product was released that was purely mechanical. Collaboration within an electrical design team is vital for modern PCB design, while collaboration between electrical and mechanical designers is critical for creating an entire product. The disparate methodologies used by each group of designers are finally converging thanks to the right software tools, coalescing into a consistent, coherent workflow.

Electrical and Mechanical Design: A Story of Collaboration

The typical electrical and mechanical portions of product design start off on different treks in different programs. As the PCB nears completion, it becomes time to ensure that it fits into its enclosure. At this point, an iterative process begins, where the mechanical and electrical designers make small changes to the PCB layout and enclosure design in order to accommodate each other’s requirements.

Obviously, this leads to unnecessary iterations of design modification. This then delays manufacturing and time-to-market. In some cases, you might not find out there was any disagreement between the two groups of designers until you receive boards from prototyping runs. In the worst case, a modification from the mechanical side might completely inhibit the desired electrical functionality.

As an example, you might find that mounting holes are not aligned, dials or buttons do not align with their intended locations on the front panel, or the PCB simply doesn’t fit in its enclosure. All this arises due to miscommunication between electrical and mechanical designers. A mechanical designer may make a last minute change to the enclosure without telling the PCB designers, or a PCB designer might swap a component without consulting the mechanical designer, causing the PCB to no longer fit its intended package.

Wireframe for a robotic arm

Robotics is one area that requires ultra-accurate electrical and mechanical design software

Some Considerations in Successful Product Design

Electrical and mechanical designers already see the value of this type of collaboration. According to a 2018 survey, 83% of engineers (N = 265) recognize the value of better integration between electrical and mechanical design software. At minimum, this eliminates unnecessary meetings between designers that are spent on working through each team’s requirements, or it can prevent a botched prototyping run.

Many important electrical design requirements can be satisfied mechanically. Chassis grounding, ESD safety, and EMC protection are three important electrical aspects that are intimately related to mechanical design. Satisfying all three electrical requirements without violating any other mechanical constraints requires careful design of a metal enclosure.

Another mechanical design aspect that is related to PCB design and layout is thermal management. An enclosure needs to have a certain thermal mass to prevent the packaging from becoming too hot during operation. This is particularly important in handheld devices. In the case of active cooling, the enclosure needs to allow sufficient airflow to bring the temperature of active components down to a safe level.

Engineer using mechanical design software

Mechanical designers don’t have to be siloed from PCB designers

The points listed above are just a few examples that illustrate the value provided by integrated electrical and mechanical design software. Perhaps the greatest value provided by integrated software is the improved collaboration and communication among team members.

Collaboration with Electrical and Mechanical Design Software

When it comes to designing electronic products with complex mechanical enclosures, electrical and mechanical designers need to remain in communication in order to ensure the final product will meet industry standards and function as desired. Communication is about more than just keeping everyone in the same office building. It takes real collaboration tools that provide consistent information to both sides of a design team.

With the right ECAD platform that integrates directly with mechanical design software, your team will be able to treat product design holistically and in a collaborative manner. Designers can view a mechanical model of their PCB in their electrical design platform and their mechanical design software. This helps eliminate clearance and component placement errors, helps mechanical designers identify required changes to enclosures, and, most importantly, it gives mechanical and electrical designers the ability to see each other’s design data. Overall, this helps ensure compatibility between the electrical and mechanical portions of a new product.

Working in this type of platform also allows designers to adapt a PCB for use with additive manufacturing systems. These systems require specific printing instructions be generated from mechanical design software, and you’ll need to import a mechanical model of your design into your MCAD platform to generate the required printing instructions. Working in this integrated platform saves you a significant amount of time: you can design the mechanical portion, electrical portion, and printing instructions in a single platform.

If you want to take advantage of a unified workflow that integrates ECAD tools and mechanical design software, then you need to work with Altium Designer and the MCAD collaboration features in Altium Concord Pro. This gives any team a complete tool set to design an electrical layout for a PCB and its enclosure. The data management features in Altium Concord Pro ® also give designers real-time supply chain visibility and obsolescence information in a single program.

Contact us or download a free trial of Altium Designer® and Altium Concord Pro. You’ll have access to the industry’s best layout, MCAD collaboration, and data management tools in a single platform. Talk to an Altium expert today to learn more.

About Author

About Author

Zachariah Peterson has an extensive technical background in academia and industry. He currently provides research, design, and marketing services to companies in the electronics industry. Prior to working in the PCB industry, he taught at Portland State University and conducted research on random laser theory, materials, and stability. His background in scientific research spans topics in nanoparticle lasers, electronic and optoelectronic semiconductor devices, environmental sensors, and stochastics. His work has been published in over a dozen peer-reviewed journals and conference proceedings, and he has written 2500+ technical articles on PCB design for a number of companies. He is a member of IEEE Photonics Society, IEEE Electronics Packaging Society, American Physical Society, and the Printed Circuit Engineering Association (PCEA). He previously served as a voting member on the INCITS Quantum Computing Technical Advisory Committee working on technical standards for quantum electronics, and he currently serves on the IEEE P3186 Working Group focused on Port Interface Representing Photonic Signals Using SPICE-class Circuit Simulators.

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