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    What is Real ECAD/MCAD Collaboration? Hint: It’s Not Exchange File Formats

    Sam Sattel
    |  February 21, 2017

    What does it take to achieve real ECAD/MCAD collaboration? If you’re looking for an alternative to STEP models, paper dolls, and endless email threads, then you’re not alone. Read on to find out what’s in store for the future of ECAD/MCAD collaboration in Altium Designer®!

    The traditionally silo’d design experience between mechanical and electrical designers is now struggling to maintain its separation. The introduction of intelligently connected products and the seamless product experience are driving design processes to become more intertwined, connected, and collaborative than ever.

    And yet, despite this pressure, it still seems like the ECAD and MCAD domains are operating under old rules. Bad habits die hard, and it’s even more challenging to form new ones. So what will it take for us as ECAD designers to begin working together with our MCAD counterparts, to fully mirror the connected and cohesive products that we create?

    Pain Before Change

    It’s rare these days to find a mechanical design that exists in complete isolation with no integrated PCB. And yet as connected as our products are, we commonly find ourselves pitted in the middle of a design process that is fragmented, inefficient, and ultimately painful for the designers involved. The results of this failed communication process that we all struggle with are far-reaching, and result in some fairly obvious pain points, including:

    • Inefficient design processes. Mechanical and electrical designers commonly struggle to organize and manage multiple revisions of the same design in their own isolated domains. And what does this lead to? Breakdowns in communication, a stop-and-go design process, and lost hours that can never be retrieved.
    • Missed deadlines and budgets. As our attempts at collaboration continue to struggle and stall, we increasingly become reliant on costly methods to solve our communication issues with the use of prototypes. Trying to repair the cracks in the design process with this age-old method just leads to wasted money and blown budgets.
    • A poor customer experience. While many of us might not think about our design once it’s released into the wild, the ripple effects of a failed design process often extend into the realm of the consumer. Without products being fully tested, your company risks losing money covering the costs for warranties when products fail to meet their quality standards.

    The pain points are pretty obvious, and I think we have all experienced them at one time or another in our design processes. The real question that we all care about is - what is being done about it?

    Current Solutions

    The engineering community has been searching for a reliable solution to the growing collaboration issues between ECAD and MCAD design teams for years. We’re all familiar with these attempted solutions, the STEP models, paper dolls, prototypes, and using email to communicate design changes. The thing is, we all openly embrace these methods, not so much because they work as we want them to, but because it’s all we’ve got.

    In many ways, we have simply gotten used to collaboration processes that are broken and never worked right in the first place.

    Is the manual import/export process of STEP models between ECAD and MCAD design environments really that efficient? Is it worth dealing with the potential loss of critical design data during each translation? Yes, it works, but no, it’s not ideal.

    The same can be said for any of the above accepted methods of collaboration. How many ignored emails, last minute ECOs, and import/exporting routines do we need to deal with?

    I’m going to just say it…

    There’s a huge elephant in the room and everyone is doing their best to ignore it.

    I’m ready for something different, how about you?

    Making Collaboration King

    We all know that Altium Designer is one of the most productive and efficient design tools out there, and now it’s time to make design collaboration between electrical and mechanical design teams equally as productive. How do we plan on doing this?

    The Altium Development Team is excited to introduce a new extension, the MCAD Co-Designer for Altium Designer, built specifically to solve the problem of ECAD/MCAD collaboration. This extension finally takes all of the guesswork out of the design collaboration process by providing a managed environment for design revisions between Altium Designer and your mechanical designer’s environment in SOLIDWORKS®. Let’s see what’s inside:

    Managed ECAD/MCAD Change Process

    It’s now easier than ever to keep everyone on the same page in the design process. Designers can instantly push changes to component placement, board shape, and mounting holes between Altium Designer and your mechanical designer’s environment.

    Managed change process between Altium Designer and SOLIDWORKS® with comment and revision history

    Design Commenting and Revision Management 

    Ever wanted to know exactly what your mechanical designer changed and why? A detailed comment and revision history will show what committed changes were made to your PCB by your mechanical designer, and you instantly accept or reject them as needed.

    Commenting and revision management options in Altium Designer

    Access to PCB Copper Geometries

    You’ll now be able to export board assemblies to your mechanical designer’s environment with included copper geometries, and perform detailed thermal, vibration, and other simulations.


    Included copper geometries for PCBs in SOLIDWORKS®

    Unified Component Data

    Finally, you don’t have to waste time gluing together your electrical and component data manually. Components in development will automatically be linked between Altium Designer and an MCAD environment, with changes reflected in either design domain.

    New - Distinct Workflows and Lifecycles - Managed Lifecycle.png

    Working on the same component in Altium Designer and SOLIDWORKS® with unified component data

    Parasolid Support

    You’ll now have access to mechanical model file formats for component bodies and enclosures, taking the guesswork out of your 3D clearance checking process and ensuring your board fits right the first time.

    Parasolid component and enclosure models in Altium

    Want to learn more? You can read about all of the great features and benefits for this new extension on the MCAD Co- website. Or try Altium to get started today.

    Check out Altium in action...

    MCAD Integration

    About Author

    About Author

    Sam currently serves as the Director of Technical Marketing at Altium and has grown throughout the company in a variety of positions over the past 15 years. He started his journey in engineering at Sony as a Mechanical Engineer, and has held positions in board design, sales, and product management at various organizations.

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