Mechanical and Electrical Design Come Together With Altium’s MCAD CoDesigner

Zachariah Peterson
|  Created: July 16, 2021
ECAD MCAD Integration

Electronics designers working in small design houses or in large enterprises often encounter a common set of challenges when interfacing with mechanical designers. For many new products, the mechanical form factor requirements will constrain the electrical design in terms of physical layout, location of interfaces, and component selection. 

For many electronic products, flex and rigid-flex board designs require careful modeling of the mechanical behavior of the flex region to ensure form factor constraints are satisfied and the flex regions are reliable. These problems are compounded by faster product release cycles, requiring electrical and mechanical engineers to work together more than ever.

Success in these areas requires close collaboration between MCAD and ECAD domains to ensure mechanical constraints are not violated and the finalized design can be produced at scale. Because today’s design and data management systems still lack basic integration features, collaboration between these domains still relies on file exchange between each side.

Bringing ECAD and MCAD Together

Altium has stepped up to help design teams overcome these productivity challenges with the MCAD CoDesigner extension. This simple utility connects Altium Designer projects to popular MCAD applications via the Altium 365 platform. By unifying the traditional ECAD/MCAD workflow, multifunctional design teams can eliminate many of the manual file exchange processes normally required as part of enclosure design, defining constraints, and interference back-checking. 

Innovative companies like Quantel Laser use the MCAD CoDesigner to collaborate on all aspects of product development. Mixed design teams can have visibility into ECAD and MCAD data via the Altium 365 platform, which helps streamline product development and eliminates many inefficiencies in ECAD/MCAD collaboration.

Empowering More Efficient Workflows

The CoDesigner panel in Altium Designer and its corresponding add-on panel in MCAD software allows electrical and mechanical designers to interact seamlessly, enabling an efficient collaborative workflow. Behind the scenes, this workflow is facilitated by robust server-side support allowing design changes to be transferred, reviewed, and accepted or rejected without the need for manual file transfers in lossy file formats. The CoDesigner extension provides best-in-class model support by preserving references to board features, ensuring mechanical updates in one application are accurately reflected in the corresponding application.

After the initial component placement is completed by the PCB layout engineer, it becomes the mechanical engineer’s job to check that everything fits the enclosure and communicate required changes as necessary. In many cases, mechanical designers need to perform detailed mechanical checks, finite element analysis (FEA), and modify placement to ensure mechanical constraints are satisfied. The CoDesigner extension enables these tasks and many more for PCB assemblies with synchronization and modeling features.

Design Data Synchronization

The MCAD CoDesigner capability implements a simple Push-Pull process, where updates are exchanged between each side with a button in the CoDesigner panel. Updates on one side can be transferred to a colleague in seconds, and this triggers a notification in the collaborator’s CoDesigner panel. Each side can keep track of changes by adding comments to each Push operation. This instant exchange of critical ECAD and MCAD data is accomplished without the need for manual IDF/IDX/STEP/DXF file imports and exports. Engineers in both domains can focus on design instead of creating and transferring files.

MCAD application file exchange
The push-pull functionality in the MCAD CoDesigner makes an Altium project accessible to a mechanical engineer from within Altium Designer.

Once the design is imported into an MCAD application, any changes made in the MCAD tool are synchronized back to the ECAD side with the Push-Pull functionality. Once the design is pulled back into Altium Designer, the PCB layout data will immediately update to reflect changes in the board outline, copper, hole placement, or component locations. Similarly, subsequent changes in Altium Designer can be pushed back into the MCAD side, causing the board model to update once the design is pulled back into the MCAD application. This back-and-forth synchronization is also applied to the enclosure, which can be pushed into Altium Designer.

MCAD CoDesigner Altium 365
Altium Designer users can view their enclosure in Altium Designer with the push-pull functionality. The MCAD CoDesigner plugin quickly synchronizes ECAD data to Altium 365, and designs are immediately available in MCAD applications.

Precise Model Representation

Once a PCB assembly is imported into an MCAD application, the mechanical engineer needs to have precise board geometry,  and, in many cases, a precise definition of copper and solder mask. That precise model can be used for performing detailed mechanical checks and for finite element analysis (FEA) simulations, such as thermal analysis or vibration analysis.

Synchronized ECAD and MCAD Environments

The CoDesigner extension synchronizes many of the important aspects of an ECAD environment in an MCAD application, and vice versa.

  1. The mechanical designer can work with a model of the PCBA directly in an MCAD application.
  2. The mechanical designer can select and share elements of an enclosure back to the ECAD application, allowing the EE to see a model of the housing and any relevant constraints.
  3. Because the MCAD CoDesigner works with native MCAD data directly (and carefully!), any mechanical constraints and dimensions defined among elements on the bare board, PCB components, or enclosure are preserved during each sync. Additionally, since ECAD allows to lock components on the PCB, CoDesigner synchronizes ECAD’s “locked” state with MCAD’s “constrained” state.
  4. A standard method for enforcing mechanical constraints in an electrical design is to define a keepout region in the MCAD model. Because model references are preserved on each side, keepouts can be defined in the MCAD tool and synchronized back to the ECAD side.

Synchronized Constraints

Altium Designer’s native 3D design tools provide constraint and clearance checking in 3D, and the same types of clearance definitions and constraints can be pushed into an MCAD application for use in mechanical design tasks. Similarly, these constraints and clearances can be defined in the MCAD application, and they can be pushed back into Altium Designer. This level of synchronization helps expedite interference checking on both sides and allows interferences to be caught early.

ECAD and MCAD Component Linkage

The CoDesigner extension automatically synchronizes components placed in the MCAD tool with corresponding components in the ECAD tool, and vice versa. This saves time in design collaboration as the mechanical designer can immediately determine the appropriate location for mechanically constrained components, such as connectors and mounting holes. Placement in the MCAD application helps ensure enclosure constraints are satisfied as the mechanical designer will have full visibility of enclosure constraints, and the component definitions in the ECAD side are synchronized automatically.

Keepouts can be defined as top or bottom layers in the MCAD tool, and these keepout assignments will be reflected in the PCB layout and checked for interference against the design rules in the ECAD side. If required, the keepout shape can be adjusted in Altium Designer and pushed back to the MCAD side.

ECAD MCAD keepout
Component placement and copper definitions as defined in Altium Designer are reflected in your MCAD tool.

Bi-directional Support for Rigid-flex Boards

Flex and rigid-flex assemblies require additional modeling and evaluation beyond what is applied in rigid PCB assemblies. The MCAD CoDesigner plugin provides support for flex and rigid-flex boards in both directions. Rigid and flex regions, bending lines, and board shapes can be defined in the MCAD application and pushed back into Altium Designer. Once the layout engineer places components and completes initial routing, the design can be evaluated and previewed in the MCAD side alongside an enclosure. Bi-directional support for rigid-flex designs is seamless and follows the same workflow used for rigid PCBs.

The days where PCB assemblies are “ thrown over the wall” to mechanical engineers are over, and Altium is helping design teams overcome the productivity and collaboration challenges created by the traditional ECAD/MCAD workflow. A powerful collaboration tool like the MCAD CoDesigner from Altium helps bridge the gap between ECAD and MCAD domains. Hundreds of companies rely on the MCAD CoDesigner extension from Altium to stay productive and produce more advanced designs in less time.

Instead of going through repetitive file transfers to collaborate with MCAD users, use the MCAD CoDesigner plugin for Altium Designer. PCB designs can be imported into SolidWorks, Autodesk Inventor, Fusion 360, or PTC Creo through the Altium 365 platform, giving you everything needed for product development in a streamlined workflow.

We have only scratched the surface of what’s possible with Altium Designer on Altium 365. Start your free trial of Altium Designer + Altium 365 today.

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 1000+ technical blogs on PCB design for a number of companies. He is a member of IEEE Photonics Society, IEEE Electronics Packaging Society, and the American Physical Society, and he currently serves on the INCITS Quantum Computing Technical Advisory Committee.

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