Welcome back to the Altium Vault Primer series. In Part 1 we talked about the most common problems every design team faces without a centralized data management system. If these issues resonated with you, then it’s time to consider getting set up with the Altium Vault. But what is Altium Vault? And how exactly does it help with PCB design?
A Brief Overview of the Altium Vault
Altium Vault provides active company data storage, as well as an archive for any data that your team creates in or uses with Altium Designer. An independent product from Altium Designer, it was introduced in 2011 and has since progressed to its current version, Altium Vault 2.6. The development of the Vault has enhanced PCB design in a number of ways and created an ergonomy of usage. However, basic principles remain the same.
Vault’s core purpose is data management, such as processes and rules, for team leaders to set functional and easily maintainable infrastructure for their colleagues. This infrastructure must be flexible enough to be able to cover any situation which can occur during PCB development. Software is only part of that infrastructure: the part which is able to store, track and find data. As such, software alone is not enough for a comprehensive data management plan, since many sources of information related to the data are not available in digital form.
For example, one team member may be notified that the latest version of their device is not working properly. They will naturally perform the necessary steps to fix it, but they also need to follow other prescribed steps, which were designed to prevent the error from occurring again in the future.
Data management is an approach to product development as a whole. Rather than focusing on one project at a time, it provides a better perspective for the team as a whole, and their projects in general, past, present, and future. The Vault will also act as a central location for all of your PCB design data, including:
- Schematic symbols
- Footprints and component libraries
- Reusable schematic sheets and templates
- Batch files for output generation and manufacturing data
- Project source data
Almost all of this data comes from Altium Designer. After being developed in Altium Designer, the data is loaded into Altium Vault, which guards against unwanted changes. Altium Vault takes care to give unique names to each file, so that the data from one design can be used again in Altium Designer, as the building block for a higher level design.
Symbols and footprints form the basis for components; components are used to create circuits in Managed Sheets; and sheets and components together are used to create entire projects. But how, exactly, does Altium Vault work together with Altium Designer, to provide you with easy access to all of the data and designs that your team is working on?
The Relationship Between Altium Designer and Altium Vault
Typical design flow from Altium Designer to Altium Vault and then onto production
The graphic above shows the design flow for a printed circuit board, from Altium Designer to Altium Vault, and ultimately to production. This design flow allows your team to track the relationships between different kinds of data, and manage these relationships with the Where Used function. This way it is possible, for example, to find out which project contains a particular SMPS driver, by localizing that component in the library. You can also find out where the component is used by employing reusable Managed Sheets from your colleagues. That way, you can save time, as you don’t need to design and test the circuit from scratch.
Altium Vault Naming and Storage Scheme
The main characteristic of Vault is that it stores data as distinct items. An item can be auto-named or manually named, but either way, each item receives its own, unique name, before being placed in storage for data revisions. The item is empty until data is loaded into it, and your first revision is established.
Subsequent changes of data won’t overwrite existing data, but will establish a new revision, with a higher revision number, under the same item. Once a revision is loaded there is no way to modify the data. If someone from the team needs to modify schematic symbols to comply with a new datasheet, you can simply open and modify the symbol, and it will be loaded to the same item with a new revision number.
Old projects will be linked to the previous revision, and new projects will use the New symbol. This way, there are no nasty issues that arise from modifying the library over time. There is also a simple way to upgrade old revisions in existing projects, but again, the project still needs to be released under a new revision as well. Altium Vault preserves all previous modifications, in case they’re needed down the line. Once data is loaded, it is stored forever, and there is no way to modify or to add something to it, except by making a new revision.
Design Data Organization in the Vault
Items in the Vault are organized into main folders/zones and subfolders, the same as on your hard drive. These folders are used for setting access rights, auto-naming and a variety of other applications. The key difference between these folders and the ones on your hard drive, though, is that in the Vault, folder structure doesn’t define a link to an item.
When any item from Vault is used, the link is simply the name of the item, including its revision number. But there is no complex path to that folder. Because of that, you can move items between Vault folders, and the links to your data remain unchanged. This folder structure can be used as a flexible sorting tool, which is capable of fitting your team’s current needs. On the other hand, since the folder doesn’t define the path to an item, you can’t use the same name for two different items in different folders. Rather, each item name must be unique in the entire Vault. That’s where auto-naming comes in handy.
Tracking Design Data Revisions with Lifecycle States
Another basic property of Altium Vault is that every revision (not each item, but each revision) has a Lifecycle state. This state represents validity of the data: whether or not it can be used, and for what. States can be labeled as Empty, Loaded, Checked, Error, etc. The aim is to inform team members in a simple, straightforward way, which revisions can be used and which cannot, and subsequently to forbid certain operations based on its state.
Strategizing Your Day-to-Day Data Management Process
By adding Altium Vault into your existing design process in Altium Designer, it’s easy to manage, track, and share data with your entire design team in one centralized location. The final part in our Vault Primer series will cover the most important part of your data management setup - strategizing your day-to-day library management process. Check back in next week where we’ll be covering how to create your own personalized library management strategy for your entire design team.
Ready to get your data management strategy in place now? Download our free Altium Vault Primer ebook to learn more about adding the Altium Vault to your existing design workflow.
About the AuthorMore Content by Petr Tosovsky