How does Altium Designer improve PCB design workflows?

August 26, 2019 John Watson

One of the great pleasures in my life is to be the grandfather of—as of now—five grandkids. It’s interesting to watch them go through various stages of learning. There is Caleb, who is four, and  Ashley, who is five (though she loves to remind everyone that she is NOT five, but five and seven months). Both are in different stages of learning. Ashley’s question for everything is “WHAT”, and Caleb, his question is “WHY.” 

What are we doing? Why is the sky blue? What is the answer to the math question? Why is water wet? 

Fortunately, I have quickly learned that the answer to any of their questions is the same “Go ask your mother, she knows everything.” 

Many of us would see those constant questions as a nuisance, but as for me, between the two of them, I have a fantastic start to a new Process Workflow. (It’s just the way my mind works): What & Why. So often we want to jump into the “How” to do something without a clear understanding of precisely what you are doing and more importantly, why you are doing it. 

To make matters even worse, many times, the justification for this is “that we need to do something” as if undirected activity alone was the objective, “not exactly sure what we are doing and why, but…we sure are busy.” 

 

Why = Motivation 

Why is all of this so important? Isn’t the critical part that we get the work done? Yes, it is. However, the question “Why” gets down to the motivation of a person. It is probably one of the most challenging tasks for any company to have a highly motivated workforce, which can only be achieved by either externally or internally dishing out rewards or punishment.

The most desired employee is one that is internally motivated and understands exactly why they do something, which I might add, is contagious to others working with them.

 

What = Objective 

The question WHAT gets to your objective. That should not be the complex, detailed, smart sheet view but rather the Reader's Digest version of an answer (I know I’ve just aged myself). You should be able to sum up your objective in a single sentence. 

That is incredibly important for an organization. It lets the entire team know the road they are traveling on and where they are headed. 

The Why and what of where to start any project is the very foundation for it. Understanding these is the key to a stronger and more efficient team. Usually, where problems exist, it is because there is not a good understanding of what and how. That in no way is a complete dissertation on the subject.

 

How does Altium Designer improve PCB Design Workflows?

Great question. When you look at other various ECAD software for PCB Design, many of them have the same general structure and features. Since the workflow of the PCB design is just about the same, there must be a component library, Schematic capture, PCB Design, and a way to output your data for Fabrication and Assembly. I wholeheartedly believe that the leader of the ECAD software industry by far is Altium. They have gotten there in a couple of ways. First, going far beyond the “general structure and features” of a typical ECAD software, and by offering fantastic features that help the designer not just do things faster, but do it better and with fewer errors. Secondly, by having a canny sense for where the industry is heading, and being prepared for those changes. They have gotten to the place they are at by being the leader and leading the industry. 

You always know you’ve got a great software package when everyone is asking “When can I get it?” They wait like it is Christmas morning for the release and they rip open the wrapping paper and start playing with their new toy. 

 

Just a few of the shining stars of Altium Designer features

The features and software below are just a few of those things that have had the most significant impact on the workflow of the PCB design process. Might add they are the ones that I have enjoyed the most. 

Draftsman®

It used to be that once you completed a PCB design that you would need to export the Fabrication and Assembly drawing out to third-party software. There you would finalize it. The other option was to go through a rather elaborate process of setting up the mechanical layers and various items, design views, and even worse, setup for the print jobs. That has now been wholly done away with with the release of the Draftsmans feature

The Draftsman tool takes your PCB design and sets up your Fabrication and Assembly in just a few easy steps. What used to take hours literally is now done in just minutes. You know what? The best part is that it looks much better. Altium is always adding new features to Draftsman which include orthogonal views, 3D views on your Assembly drawing and also easily dimensioning the PCB fabrication drawing

ACTIVEBOM®

ActiveBOM is a BOM tool that evaluates component availability, among other things, of course. It is a tool that provides a tremendous amount of “LIVE” information for the designer. It used to be that this sort of information came from the procurement people, and usually after the fact. Now with ActiveBOM, we know the status of the components right at the beginning of a project. With information like this, we know the changes early on in the process. 

Altium Concord Pro™

Altium Concord Pro is the brand-new kid on the block. That is, a fully consolidated tool with library and Workflow management; this has revolutionized the PCB design area. For anyone who has followed my blogs, you know how vital PCB Data Management is to the entire process. With the recent release of Concord, now a company has a central location of Component library, PCB Data and most importantly, organized workflows that help direct the PCB process. Watch for more information and a complete series of blogs that we’ll do on the new Concord software. 

 

Conclusion

I recently consulted with a company in the Los Angeles area regarding the structure of their PCB Data Management system. Talking to one of the Team leaders, he was proudly announcing that he doesn’t use (in his words) “these crazy unusable features of Altium Designer.” His “banned list” included all the ones I mentioned above. I thought, what a waste. Not just for the process and workflow, of course, increase the time that it takes his team to accomplish something. And what a waste for the designers themselves. These features are not just there as bells and whistles but rather to help the designer be a better designer.  

I guess it is true what is said; it is difficult for some to change. However, as designers, we must change, we have to do our jobs better, faster and with fewer mistakes

Would you like to find out more about how Altium can help you with your next PCB design? Talk to an expert at Altium and learn more about making design decisions with ease and confidence or find out more about product lifecycle management in Altium Concord Pro

About the Author

John Watson


With nearly 40 years in the Electronic industry with 20 of them being in the field of PCB Design and engineering, John has stayed on the cutting edge of the PCB industry as a designer/Engineer and more recently as a trainer and mentor. His primary work has been in the Manufacturing field but it has also expanded to several PCB Service arenas. As a veteran, he proudly served in the Army in the Military Intelligence field.

John is a CID Certified PCB designer. Presently pursuing his Advance CID certification. Now as the Senior PCB engineer at Legrand Inc, he leads the PCB Designers and Engineers in various divisions across the United States and China.

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