What is Digital Transformation in PCB Design?

Zachariah Peterson
|  Created: June 10, 2022
Digital transformation electronics

Innovative companies know how fast the technology landscape evolves, as well as the difficulties faced in staying competitive in a rapidly changing market. The electronics industry is hyper-competitive compared to many other industries, with product lifecycles and time-to-market for new products steadily decreasing. Even as companies have become more competitive and accelerated their development schedules, new supply chain and logistics challenges have emerged that work to derail go-to-market strategies. Whether geopolitical factors, black swan events like a global pandemic, or a garden-variety parts shortage, companies have to manage all aspects of a product beyond just the design data.

To confront these challenges and keep development schedules on course, companies have historically looked to automation and collaboration tools to keep their teams efficient. However, at some point automation stops being so effective, and product managers need something more important: visibility into and control over the development workflow across an organization. Today, digital transformation is part of the competitive strategy that enables these capabilities. But what exactly is digital transformation, and what does it look like for electronics companies and PCB design teams?

Digital Transformation Defined

At a conceptual level, digital transformation refers to implementation of a set of software systems that unifies workflows, inventories, and data within a centralized platform. In addition to consolidating all these aspects of product development into one location, platforms enabling digital transformation act as an administrative tool to enable access to product data for all stakeholders.

Digital transformation can be implemented on-premises or in the cloud, both of which are a natural step for electronics development teams, which are cross-functional and often distributed. Cloud platforms take digital transformation a step further by giving any stakeholder access to product data from anywhere. A flexible workflow management platform (on-premises or cloud deployment) is also a natural place to aggregate and manage data from other enterprise platforms, such as:

  • Inventory management
  • Data warehousing and version control systems
  • Project or workflow management
  • Collaborative development platforms
  • 3rd party supply chain data services

At a practical level, a digital transformation strategy can be very unique for different companies within the same industry. Of all the new technologies and trends that get assigned a compelling buzzword, digital transformation is the most difficult to define because every  company faces different challenges. As a company grows and its product management scope grows, a type of digital transformation is typically implemented with a PLM system that tries to apply a universal tool set to every industry. Some PLM vendors have specialized their platforms to address common pain points in specific industries, and yet they continue to miss critical elements that drive successful digital transformation.

ECAD users and engineers need to interact with all other team members involved in product development, but they need more than a PLM system to do it. Digital transformation is the key to providing unficiation that integrates ECAD beyond the typical PLM implementation. Successful digital transformation for electronics and PCB design reaches into the design software to enable a new type of digitally-enabled efficiency and collaboration.

What Digital Transformation Means For ECAD Users

Multifunctional teams know that the lines between ECAD, MCAD, manufacturing, application development, and procurement blur every year as teams become progressively more multifunctional. PLM systems have done a decent job unifying just about every area of product development except for ECAD users.

For ECAD users on product development teams, systems enabling digital transformation and enterprise-wide workflows can reach PCB designers directly through their design software. With a specialized workflow management platform that integrates with a PLM system, ECAD users can access MCAD, simulation, application, manufacturing, and supply chain data through a single platform and can be active participants in cross-domain product development.

Digital transformation
Digital transformation drives unification across the design and development process with integration between multiple platforms.

This link between ECAD users and all other design domains involved in product development enables instant file and model exchanges in design tools, simplified data management and revision tracking, simplified releases to manufacturing, and access to past projects. For team leaders and project managers, workflows become unified and can be applied across functional domains. Reaching ECAD users directly in their design software is the easiest way to bring PCB design data into enterprise-wide product development workflows.

Bringing PCB Design Into the Digital Age

Of all the transformative industries that make modern life possible, the electronics industry tends to lag other industries in terms of digital transformation, both at the design and manufacturing level. However, companies have an opportunity to fully integrate their lifecycle, design, and production activities into a single management platform, realizing true digital transformation.

The best platforms for electronics companies offer a multi-functional collaborative environment with full control over design and production workflow:

  • Multi-domain collaboration - The standard PCB design workflow does not always include mechanical design, application development, documentation, and release to manufacturing. Enterprise-level systems should provide visibility of all product data, not just the PCB design files, to create a truly collaborative environment.
  • Customizable workflow creation - Different projects and products may proceed along different workflows and schedules, depending on stakeholders involved and the development tasks required. Unified management systems should offer total control over development workflows across design domains, starting from initial concept and ending in release to production.
  • Comprehensive visibility - Go-to-market strategies begin when the design cycle begins. Total visibility into development progress, spanning all portions of a product’s data, helps designers catch errors before they create additional costs and delays that delay release of a product to market.

These solutions help companies catch mistakes early, manage changes throughout projects, minimize redesigns, and track a product from manufacturing to market. Rather than using a PLM system that doesn’t integrate with design and development tools, look to a platform that integrates your team across design, development, and production domains.

Electronics companies that want to streamline their product development, management, and workflows across all stakeholders need a comprehensive, integrated solution linking design data with workflows and supply chain information. Now you can use Altium NEXUS Server to manage your team of Altium Designer® users, develop custom workflows, publish to your enterprise PLM system, and much more. Begin your journey towards digital transformation today with Altium NEXUS.

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, American Physical Society, and the Printed Circuit Engineering Association (PCEA), and he previously served on the INCITS Quantum Computing Technical Advisory Committee.

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