We’ve all been there, we’ve bought the “bargain” product to save money only to find out that it didn’t meet our expectations. It’s one thing if the knock-off shirt we bought didn’t fit, but it’s a completely different story if the CAD tools that we invested in ended up not doing what we needed them to. There’s an old adage that says; “It takes money to make money,” and it is usually correct. The question in PCB design is: how much should I invest in CAD tools in order to get the results that I need? What exactly is the cost of CAD software?
The answer lies not in looking for an amount to spend, but instead to look for tools with the capabilities that will do the job for you. To know that you need to decide what computer-aided design functionality is going to give you the best bang for your buck, as the expression goes. You need to know which features are going to be the most helpful in making your job more productive with fewer mistakes and get you to the finish line first.
To get a better idea of what kind of capabilities are important in PCB design tools, let me tell you about what I have found to be the most helpful. I’m working with Altium Designer version 18 which is a complete PCB design platform solution that takes your design from schematic capture all the way through PCB layout.
Altium Designer is a feature-rich toolset and has several important features that have helped me to be productive and successful. Any users of Altium Designer will assuredly understand its strength as a CAD modeling software and recognize how it will serve as a good example any features you should look for when investing in PCB design tools.
The Unified Design Environment Foundation of the Tools
One of the most important keys to success with any PCB design software is its ability to work together with other tools. It can cost you a lot in time and wasted effort to force dissimilar tools to communicate with each other in your CAD programs. On the other hand, tools that are designed to work together will save you a lot of headaches. Anything as simple as having an easy-to-navigate user interface to having compatible file formats such as DWG files will help.
In the case of a design system made up of tools that were not originally created to work together, the tools must be interfaced or translated which adds time and complexity to the process. Each tool may have its own way of working with design data in its component models, netlists, file formats, and more, and all of that must somehow be blended with the other tools. In the case of using tools from different systems, the problem can be even worse. You may see misinterpretations of data, or some data may even be dropped altogether during transfers and translations.
Altium Designer has been created from the ground up for all of its tools to work together through a unified design environment. Whether you are working in the schematic or going through layout you are working with a single unified model of the design. The data that you work from the components at the beginning of the design will be the same data model that you finish the design with.
The schematic compile command and the layout import command in Altium Designer
(Alt text: Screenshot of AD18 schematic and layout synchronization in the cost of CAD software)
An example of this is synchronizing the schematic to the layout. There isn’t a netlist to create or work with. As you can see in the picture above, you simply compile the schematic to make sure that it is ready for layout, and then import that data into the layout. Once the import is concluded, Altium Designer will give you a report of the synchronization as you can see below.
The completed synchronization report
(Alt text: Screenshot of AD18 completed synchronization in the cost of CAD software)
With Altium Designer’s unified design environment, working between tools is a very simplified process. Synchronization, cross-select, and going from tool to tool is designed naturally into the workflow instead of the workflow being forced to handle these different programs. In the picture below, you can see the layout and the schematic opened together in the session window. You can also see another tool open as well; Active BOM which we will talk about next.
Multiple tools working together in Altium Designer’s unified design environment
(Alt text: Screenshot of AD18 unified design environment in the cost of CAD software)
A Unified Platform that Promotes Tools Working Together
Another important feature to look for in a PCB design system is the amount of tools and capabilities that the system provides you with. In the case of Altium Designer you have a wide assortment of tools to work with, and thanks to the unified design environment the different tools can easily be used throughout the entire design cycle. For instance, you can see in the picture above a tool called Active BOM along with the schematic and the layout. This tool can easily be added to your current design by simply adding the Active BOM document as shown below.
Altium Designer’s unified design environment makes opening additional tools easy
(Alt text: Screenshot of AD18 adding Active BOM to the project in the cost of CAD software)
Using Active BOM on your design gives you yet another portal into your design data. You can work directly with the component information and cross select the parts listed with their representations in the schematic and the layout. Additionally, Active BOM gives you a cloud connection so that you can get real-time information on your components such as current pricing and availability. Using Active BOM you can better manage the parts in your design, and with the unified design environment any changes that you make are reflected in the schematic and the layout.
Active BOM is just one of the many tools that you have available to use within Altium Designer. There is a simulator and signal integrity tools as well as a power distribution network analyzer to help you as you are designing your circuitry. You also have Draftsman, a manufacturing drawing auto-generation tool as well as version controls and job output control files to help you finish your design correctly and ahead of schedule. In the picture below you can see several of these tools opened up in the same session on the same design.
Altium Designer provides you with a rich assortment of design tools
(Alt text: Screenshot of AD18 with many tools open in the session in the cost of CAD software)
Having access to a wide assortment of different tools, programs, models, and capabilities is a key factor in determining which design tool will be the best investment for you.
Powerful Tools Worth the Cost of CAD Software
Another important consideration when investigating CAD systems is whether or not the tool that you choose will have the power and flexibility to service your design needs both now, and in the future. One thing that PCB designers are always looking for is the next generation of routing tools to help them reduce the time it takes to get good quality trace routing in. Altium Designer is constantly improving on their technology, and they now feature a user-guided auto-router as you can see below.
Active Route in Altium Designer turning your drawn path into routed traces
(Alt text: Screenshot of AD18 Active Route in the cost of CAD software)
Active Route allows you to select the nets that you want to route, and then draw in a path or “river” that you want the routing to follow. Once you execute the router, it will automatically put the traces into the area that you are designated. And since this is all done within Altium Designer’s unified design environment, there’s no need to translate files out to another third party tool Active Route is all part of the Altium Designer environment and you can easily switch between it and regular interactive routing as needed.
Another example of the power and flexibility that Altium Designer offers is its hierarchical schematic editor. Working with hierarchy gives you the ability to create channel circuits once and then copy them as needed. This will end up saving you a lot of design time. It also gives you the ability to better floorplan your schematics on the top level with blocks of circuitry that make schematic organization much easier to work with as you can see the Input Channel block in the schematic shown below.
Altium Designer’s powerful hierarchical schematic editor
(Alt text: Screenshot of AD18 schematic hierarchy in the cost of CAD software)
It is important to consider what design work you are doing now, and what design work you will be doing in the future when investigating PCB design tools to invest in. You’ll want to make sure that your CAD programs have features intended for their users like 3D models and easy-to-view sketchup tools.
PCB design software, like Altium Designer as we have been talking about, has the power and flexibility to handle any level of design that you need to create. Altium Designer’s unified design environment as well as all the different powerful tools and functionality that come with it clearly qualify as being the “best bang for your buck.”
Would you like to find out more about how Altium can help you with a complete PCB design toolset that will handle all of your design needs from start to finish? Talk to an expert at Altium.
About the Author
PCB Design Tools for Electronics Design and DFM. Information for EDA Leaders.More Content by Altium Designer