Parametric Information and PCB Data Management

July 9, 2019 John Watson

In the words of Tim O'Reilly, the founder of O'Reilly Media and a major proponent of Open Source & Software Development, “We're entering a new world in which data may be more important than software.” I tend to disagree with that; I believe that data is enhanced by software especially when we are talking about data related to PCB Management. I’m a long-time user of Altium software and very pleased with the way the software has evolved. So get ready to hear about my latest favorite: parametric information.

For decades now, Altium has consistently been on the cutting edge of PCB Design (ECAD) software. As the leader in a rather crowded and ever-changing industry, they are not just steps ahead of their competitors, they are miles ahead. One significant way they lead the industry is in this area PCB Data management. 

Not too long ago, a common practice while creating your schematic for a PCB design was to copy and paste a component where needed. For example, you would lay down a resistor in your schematic and reuse it by changing its value. This particular method of design was especially rigid. Very few parameters or details on a specific component were needed. Why? You were mainly concerned about the value and the footprint that you were pushing to your PCB—that is was it.

The most amazing part about this method is that it worked. However, because of market demands, electronic circuits became more and more complex; requiring more complex components that had much more than merely a “value” and footprint. Those components came with unlimited data and information, which developed into the necessity of the management system for that data. 

In August 2015, Altium made a rather wise purchase of a company called Octopart. At the time it was unknown to anyone, except Altium of course, what that would mean for the electronics industry. Altium is well known for its innovative approaches to developing the tools Designers need. I might add, possibly before the designers themselves realize they need them. With this purchase of Octopart, Altium launched into the prestigious plan to provide live consolidated component information instantly. In just a few years since that purchase, Altium has revolutionized the way designers do their jobs. 

The first way that Altium Designer improved PCB data management was by tapping the designer directly into one of the best sources of Component information through Octopart. The quote goes that “Knowledge is Power”, and to that, I would add that excellent knowledge is even more powerful. With the increase in the complexity of electronic components, it’s information that drives all this. 

In this context, information has three main categories: identifying information, Parametric information, and sourcing information. 

Identifying Information

The Component Name and Description fall under this area of information. It is vital to begin and maintain a naming convention that you consistently use throughout the Data Management system. A good naming convention allows for flexibility and data expansion. Furthermore, the description should be as detailed as possible to remove any ambiguity. 

Parametric Information

The capability to connect to a great source of information such as Octopart and all the specific details regarding the vast number of components has revolutionized the entire electronics industry. 

The various Parametric Information for components is endless. What we saw in previous blogs was the importance of structure to your data Management system. A well structured Data Management system is one that uses a Category and family structure for its components. With that in mind, the critical consideration when looking at endless parametric information is having the same parameters for each “FAMILY” of components. That way, you are comparing apples to apples. 

Altium improves PCB data Management by allowing the contrasting of various components to provide the engineer with the best choices for their specific situation. 

Sourcing Information

Probably the most significant and dynamic category of information in the PCB design process is sourcing information for components. Sourcing information is constantly changing. With sourcing involving not just Manufacturers but also component Vendors, it is a real crap shoot right now. 

Altium asked early on what is the point of having the best PCB design tool only to discover that that when you’re done, you can’t get the components you need. This question is what brought about one of my favorite tools ——ActiveBOM. ActiveBOM provides live data on the component availability from both the Manufacturers and Suppliers. But this tool also analyzes the lifecycle of the component, giving the designer the ability to see if the component is deprecating in any way. At the very beginning of a design, you can now see  lifecycle concerns and take care of them.

This ability has increased the efficiency of the entire PCB Design process. Through ActiveBOM, it has allowed for better designs of higher quality with fewer problems. 

Conclusion 

There is a unique relationship between data and software. To describe it, one could use the analogy of a river, with the river itself being data and the banks being software. The data is controlled and directed by the banks, but this  is not a one-way dynamic. The river itself affects the banks through erosion and deposition in areas. 

In the same way, the data in PCB design is a flowing river which is directed by an excellent Software package like Altium. However, being involved now with Altium for many years, I can say that the flow of that data river  continually changes them . That is, the changes in the river molds and improves the software, which keeps Altium fresh and relevant to the designer——allowing it to continue being the best tool available. 

In future blogs, we’ll look in more detail at how the relationship between designer and Altium has improved PCB Data Management. In this respect, I can only see unlimited potential for both Altium and us as designers. 

Have more questions? Call an expert at Altium.

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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