By Jim Romeo
Robert Irwin, Altium Designer
Altium Designer is a design solution that brings together the development of electronics hardware, embedded software, and programmable devices in a single application under a single design environment.
According to Robert Irwin, product marketing manager for Altium Designer, “We really need to invert the current design process, to some degree. What electronics designers—and design tool vendors—need to start thinking about is how to take the‘me too’ design work out of the equation and concentrate first and foremost on the differentiating functionality they are going to program into their designs.”
According to Irwin, the importance of doing this is that it creates the time to innovate, and this is crucial in maintaining any sort of edge when all your competitors have access to exactly the same chips and manufacturing resources. You simply can’t afford to rely on cost or even being first to market for success anymore. The globalization of the industry has effectively taken these out of the equation as sustainable differentiators in product development.
In developing the Designer product, Altium was focused on integrating various design processes that are currently done separately. It offers designers a single environment that connects any process directly related to the electronics design and any external information, such as the mechanical constraints of the enclosure that will confine the electronics. In order to gain a better understanding of how this software integrates with other software and the more comprehensive picture of design, we asked Irwin for an explanation.
What are some specific applications of the product and how does it integrate with other design software?
Irwin: Altium’s vision has always been to provide the best possible design tools for every engineer. So Altium Designer isn’t targeted at any specific vertical markets. Altium is very focused on enabling interaction between Altium Designer and areas such as mechanical design, procurement, manufacture, and the wider business systems necessary to get a product to market.
Both the automotive and medical industries you named have a big focus on process and documentation, and these are areas where our unified design approach provides great advantages: a single application and single design data model for the entire electronics design means that documentation and output generation can be centralized, and that’s a big advantage for these industries.
What are some things that engineers and design team s need to know about integrating different types of designs (electronic, me chanical, structural) With their respective software?
Irwin: One of the common misconceptions is that integration is all about getting design information from one place to another and from one tool to another. While accurate data transfer is a start, it will rapidly become a clunky alternative in the future. More often than not, simply enabling data transfer between two processes—and a lot of tool vendors are happy to call that integration—just pushes a problem or complexity from one point in the design cycle to another. It doesn’t actually solve the fundamental problem. For that you often need to take a step back and look at the bigger picture.
How have distributed team s changed over the past five years and what will that mean to design and engineering?
Irwin: Obviously the Web and standardized data file formats have had a huge influence in our ability to collaborate across geographically distributed teams. The speedthe last five years or so have made it possible increases we’ve seen in Internet access over the last five years or so have made it possible to shuffle larger amounts of data around the world at will.
I think we’re really only starting down the road of tapping into the potential of distributed design at the moment. It’s still the exception rather than the rule that a single design is worked on by geographically dispersed teams. And when it does happen, it still tends to be divided along design disciplines—the software team may be in one location and the hardware team in another.
One of the barriers to truly distributed design at the moment is how well we can actually convey basic design intent remotely. Most software tools that designers use simply don’t provide the mechanisms to fully capture the essence of the design—a lot of information is still kept within the designer’s head. Traditionally this has been communication directly between designers in an ad hoc way. They simply talk to one another and scribble stuff down on the back of napkins. When designers don’t inhabit the same physical space, and particularly where time zones are vastly different, this form of interaction isn’t possible.
So from that perspective we’ve still got some way to go in terms of developing the mechanisms to allow designers to convey design intent in other ways.
Based on your Experience, what are de signers most interested in, in regard to design software?
Irwin: Interestingly, one of the biggest areas of interest for designers in terms of design software—particularly in the electronics arena—is the stability and long-term commitment of the company supplying that software. We’ve seen a lot of consolidation and acquisition in the industry over the last decade and there are a lot of companies, and some quite big names among them, who find themselves in the position where their design tools are no longer being actively supported or developed. This is a big concern for designers.
Changing tools is never easy and not something to be done lightly. So we find that a lot of designers that approach us are interested not only in the capabilities of the systems we sell, but also in our business philosophy and strategy. This is something that has certainly taken center stage of late.
Electronics is a very fast moving industry from a design perspective. But it’s a bit of a schizophrenic one. A lot of money is involved in the chip design end of electronics, where the engineering challenges require enormous investment. The majority of engineers, however, don’t work at this end. They spend their time putting chips onto boards and creating systems and products from them. What we’ve seen over the years, though, is that the tools used by the board-level engineers have ended up in the hands of companies that are essentially focused on servicing the chip design portion of the market. The needs of the large numbers of board-level designers have not been well served by this.
I think this has led to a bit of stagnation in the industry and designers are really looking for some innovation from tool providers to stimulate innovation at the board design level. I believe Altium is providing this innovation.
Can you comment on what are some of the greatest challenges you see for design engineers and how software and technology will met such challenges?
Irwin: There are a couple of challenges that really stand out. The first is the sheer amount of information that needs to be assimilated by engineers and the requisite knowledge needed to do this. I read somewhere that it had been calculated that the half-life of an engineer’s knowledge was currently around five years. This means that five years into their career, half of everything an engineer learned at university is obsolete. And that situation is just going to get worse.
So the challenge is, how does an engineer keep up? Part of the answer is that the software tools they use are going to have to hide more and more of the complexity. This is a two-edged sword, however, because when you hide the complexity you necessarily take away a certain degree of the control and flexibility also. And engineers aren’t renowned for wanting to give up control. The trick for tool developers like Altium is to hide complexity in the right areas and to return the loss of control with an equal or greater increase in the scope of things they can accomplish with the software. Our unified approach does this because it allows individual designers to cover more of the overall design process than they could with disparate point tools.
Another challenge design engineers face is rooted in the globalization of the electronics industry. What one engineer designs in one country today is copied by another somewhere else in the world tomorrow. We all have access to the same chips, the same data sheets, and the same reference designs. So what’s going to be critical moving forward is designing in a way that protects the essential differences between your product and your competitor’s. Creating functionality in fixed hardware doesn’t do this.
What are the biggest misconceptions in designing products and systems for the global manufacturing environment?
Irwin: The biggest misconception is that you can sit back and keep designing things in the same way you’ve done for 20 years.
In electronics we still have a very hardware-centric view of the design process. And that’s a bit of a paradox given that most of the functionality is implemented in software. But every project still starts by defining the hardware parameters needed to run the software that will deliver the functionality. We effectively guess the hardware requirements that the system will eventually need and then start to program to fit that hardware.
The problem with this is that if you get the hardware definition wrong, it’s very difficult to change things to any great degree. Changing to a different processor architecture, for example, is tantamount to starting the project again in most instances. The reality is that designs are complex and it’s simply becoming too difficult to accurately determine what hardware is required right at the start of the design process.
Jim Romeo is a freelance writer specializing in industrial technology topics and can be reached at jimromeo.net. To comment on this interview, send e-mail to DEEditors@ deskeng.com.