Tool Advances Speed Design-to-Manufacture Process
In my time working in the electronics division of a research organization, I would often have colleagues from other divisions come to me asking for assistance with designing specialized hardware for their projects. Typically, they were looking for high performance embedded Linux computing with a range of sensor options. I love working on these projects. All that said, once you start working with a large team and a bureaucratic process, labor costs can quickly skyrocket well beyond the time involved to design the hardware. Sadly, for my research colleagues, this meant they were often unable to get the specialized hardware they required because their project budgets didn’t allow for an additional $20,000 to $40,000 in hardware.
The cost to outsource this project to an electronics design contractor would have been similar, or even higher. As a result, the researchers would often end up trying to make something work with a Raspberry Pi and some breakout boards. The Raspberry Pi is a great series of boards, but, because the solutions were just wired together, they were not mechanically robust. And there are considerably fewer options for specialized sensors or op amps in the breakout board market than if we had designed them on a circuit board with a full selection of ICs available.
In 2016, I discovered Geppetto  during the Gumstix hiring process. Geppetto is an online circuit board design tool that’s a bit different to traditional electronic design automation (EDA) packages (Figure 1). It really takes the “automation” part of EDA to the next level, removing the requirement for user knowledge of routing and circuit theory
EMPHASIS ON AUTOMATION
For most engineers, Gumstix has been well known for its computer-on-module (COM) products. Over the past couple years, their online design program has quickly gained mindshare as well. And now it enables a much wider range of components to be used. I predict we’re going to be seeing a lot more tools like Geppetto in the coming years—both in the form of web browser-based EDA tools such as Altium Upverter  that are similar to their desktop counterparts, and more simplistic design tools that allow complex devices to be built with very little labor
My experience tells that me Geppetto is representative of where that both desktop and online electronic design software is heading. Traditional desktop ECAD software packages at all levels, from hobbyist to professional, have been making large strides towards utilizing data from services such as Octopart to assist users in designing circuit boards. This is allowing users to build higher quality component libraries, and produce lower-cost bills of materials with parts that are in mass production and readily stocked.
Some software tools provide alternatives to exporting a set of Gerber files for manufacturing to instead simply ordering a board from a list of suppliers directly in the software. By exporting data to a chosen board house directly, no design intent is lost in translation, giving even experienced engineers a higher quality, more reliable outcome. I have not seen a great deal of progress put into linking an electronic assembly company or contract manufacturer into the electronic design software, but I feel that is the next logical step. Geppetto has taken all of these future software options into consideration from the start, offering an outstanding experience in which you layout your concept and receive fully working and tested hardware at the end, without ever having to deal with sourcing, manufacturing, or testing issues (Figure 2).
KEEPING PACE WITH COMPLEXITY
Electronic design tools are getting smarter every year, and are reducing the workload for engineers. However, in many applications the requirements of circuit board design are become ever more complex at a rate that’s similar or faster than the evolution of design tools. Even as tools make routing easier, advances in embedded computing are bringing more processing power to bear in smaller, cheaper packages. Tools are racing to keep pace as we’re required to route more complex boards with tighter constraints on net length and impedance matching. These increasing complexities of both circuit board and design tools—despite improved usability—increase the costs of designing specialized performance hardware.
If you are producing tens of thousands (or more) of a single device, it makes a lot of sense to be using traditional EDA software to ensure the PCB layout is perfectly optimized to make use of every last square of space—and that each part on the board is the most cost-effective option possible. In contrast, for applications where you might only be prototyping a concept, or producing a specialized piece of hardware for a single low volume application, the future will lean towards rapid hardware development tools that take a lot of the time-consuming complexities out of the design process.
If my research colleagues had had access to a tool like Geppetto, they could have designed and ordered their own high-performance Linux boards to match their project requirements on their own with drastically lower production costs and bring-up times. Even if they lacked the technical knowledge to identify the sensors and modules their design required, I could have made use of the EDA tool to define the board far quicker than if I was using a traditional ECAD product.
The ability to simply order a fully assembled and working product directly from the design tool is a huge advantage for researchers lacking technical expertise in electronics. Also professionals working on projects with strict timelines can take great comfort in the trend toward supplier/manufacturer integration into the design process.
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PUBLISHED IN CIRCUIT CELLAR MAGAZINE • OCTOBER 2019 #351 – Get a PDF of the issueSponsor this Article