Portals and Platforms
PCB design tools and methods continue to evolve as they race to keep pace with faster, highly integrated electronics. Along the way, the design-for-manufacturing (DFM) capabilities of today’s PCB design suites are getting more sophisticated, leveraging cloud-based collaboration and more.
Long gone are the days when PCB design tools were limited to just schematic capture and board layout. Today’s leading PCB design tool suites offer a complex set of functionalities, including design-for-manufacturing, multi-board designs, 3D designs, component management and IC-PCB codesign. Meanwhile, their automated chip placement, intelligent routing and high-speed signal support capabilities continue to advance.
Because there are so many aspects of PCB design tools to consider, no one article can provide a complete look at everything. With that in mind, this article is focusing on the design-for-manufacturing (DFM) offerings of today’s PCB design tool suites. DFM is part of a continuum within tool suite packages that considers not just PCB itself, but also all the system processes revolving around PCBs, including collaborative team design support, verification solutions, detailed component libraries and more. Recently, tool vendors are making use of cloud-based solutions for connecting design and manufacturing stakeholders. The differences in approaches seem to hinge on the idea of keeping everything within the tool suite versus using some outside portal solution.
Exemplifying these trends, Cadence Design Systems offers its Allegro PCB DesignTrue DFM technology. DesignTrue enables PCB designers to reduce rework and shorten cycles by running manufacturing design rule checks (DRCs) in-design, while designing. A wide range of spacing and copper area requirement rules ensure manufacturability, fabrication and assembly, independent of electrical requirements. The tool makes it easy to configure, apply contextually and reuse manufacturing rules. You can use it to work directly with a participating manufacturer in the DesignTrue DFM Program portal to download DFM rules before you design (Figure 1).
“You’ve heard the term ‘digital thread.’ DFM can be thought of as a kind of digital rope,” says Patrick Davis, Product Management Director for Allegro at Cadence. “Just like a rope, there are many strands. At one end, those strands fray out to multiple stakeholders on the design side. And, the other end there are numerous stakeholders on the manufacturing side. The rope in between needs to be strong, robust and well-constructed,“ says Davis.
According to Cadence, its Allegro PCB DesignTrue DFM technology is aimed at enabling you to actually design for manufacturability. That’s in contrast to “redesigning” for manufacturability or making frequent changes for manufacturability. With DesignTrue you can define your manufacturer’s rules before you start, and apply them in real time as you design. That way, when you’re finished with the design, you’re all ready for first-pass DFM signoff.
DesignTrue DFM checks in the Allegro PCB Editor are always running as you design. You’ll have already run all your design rule checks before you go to final signoff. When you do, signoff is smoother with less to fix, and less stressful when your release schedule is unharmed. This is all while ensuring manufacturability above all else.
The signoff process—including DFM signoff—is probably the most nerve-racking experience for engineers and managers, says Cadence. The DesignTrue DFM technology in the Allegro PCB Editor provides a wide set of checks to ensure the manufacturability of your designs. Spacing between copper features such as traces, pins, vias and solder joints relative to the board outline and other copper features can be verified in real time while you design, independent of electrical and signal-based rules.
According to Cadence, manufacturability is more than just copper spacing—it’s volume, and non-copper features, like holes and silkscreen printing—all of which come into play at fabrication and assembly times. With over 2,000 checks, engineers and managers can be confident that their designs are electrically sound and manufacturable too.
Manufacturability rules are easy to manage and collaborate on. Just like electrical constraints, the easy-to-use spreadsheet interface is intuitive for engineers and non-engineers alike, which makes re-use easy. The constraints are highly configurable with the ability to enable and disable groups and whole categories of rules, or individual rules. Rules can be applied in etch mode, non-etch mode, and in stack-up mode, giving designers the ability to isolate layers, geometries and cutouts.
In April, Siemens EDA (formerly Mentor) introduced PCBflow, a cloud-based software solution designed to bridge the gap between the electronics design and manufacturing ecosystems. PCBflow extends Siemens’ Xcelerator portfolio with a secure environment for PCB design teams to interact with a variety of manufacturers, and by rapidly performing a range of DFM analyses in the context of each manufacturer’s process capabilities, which helps customers accelerate design-to-production handoff (Figure 2).
PCBflow is powered by the Valor NPI software engine, which performs more than 1,000 DFM checks, PCBflow enables PCB design teams to rapidly identify manufacturability violations. These violations are then sorted and prioritized according to level of severity, guiding users through images and locations on the design for easy identification and immediate correction.
According to Siemens, PCBflow is the company’s first step toward PCB assembly online solutions, which automate the design-to-manufacturing handoff process. Siemens claims it as the first online, fully automated DFM analysis technology, which can help optimize designs, reduce front-end engineering cycles, and streamline designer/manufacturer communication. It supports comprehensive designer/manufacturer collaboration with a closed-loop feedback mechanism that drives continuous improvement. Because customer designs are in sync with the fab’s capabilities, respins can be reduced, time-to-market can be shortened, board quality can be optimized and yield can be enhanced, says Siemens.
For manufacturers, PCBflow helps simplify customer onboarding processes and provides designers with a comprehensive source of knowledge, which can streamline customer/manufacturer collaboration. Because manufacturers’ capabilities are shared electronically, lengthy phone calls and email exchanges can be reduced, helping enable real-time customer communication to focus more on strategic, high-value discussion.
As a software as a service (SaaS) technology, PCBflow incorporates the strict security standards of Siemens’ software, reducing risk and protecting intellectual property (IP) with no additional IT investment. PCBflow works with the Mendix low-code application development platform. The platform provides the ability to build multi-experience apps and share data from any location, on any device, on any cloud or platform, to more quickly realize the benefits of digital transformation.
Engineered for ease-of-use, PCBflow requires neither training nor prerequisites, and it is accessible from virtually any location, including mobile phones and tablets. Additionally, PCBflow provides designers with images, tool-tips, measurements and precise locations of solderability issues and other PCB design violations. Reports are available online and in a downloadable PDF format for easy sharing. PCBflow supports the ODB++ language design file format and support for additional formats is planned in 2021. Additional information is available at
For its part, Zuken’s flagship PCB design solution is its CR-8000 tool suite. As part of that suite, CR-8000 DFM Center is a comprehensive manufacturing preparation and output solution supporting panelization and common output formats. With DFM Center, users can prepare and verify manufacturing data by paneling up a single or combination of PCBs with real-time manufacturing DRCs (Figure 3). Additional fabrication and assembly checks are applied dynamically based on any manufacturer’s specifications. This allows you to design-anywhere/manufacture-anywhere.
With post-processing functionality, PCB designers apply the necessary additions and modifications to the design, such as automatic copper flooding of the complete panel. The tool lets you create comprehensive manufacturing documentation with automatic drill table generation. DFM Center provides a robust set of features for data preparation and embedded verification to ensure manufacturing specifications are met.
Another manufacturing-related part of Zuken’s toolset is its CR-8000 ADM (advanced design for manufacturing) solution. The CR-8000 ADM system checks that designs are produced in accordance with component mounting and manufacturing specifications early in the design process, and concurrently as the work progresses. The system facilitates sharing personal expertise and it efficiently manages the growing number of DRCs.
The check engine for ADM can handle more than 900 individual checks in 96 groups. These include both bare board manufacturability and component-mount checks. It is even possible to automate the visual check process. The Rule Manager at the heart of the ADM system contains more than 900 rules, and is accessible using a standard web browser. Design and manufacturing parameters held in an XML database are downloaded via this familiar interface. The user can also add information to the rules.
According to Zuken, ADM bridges the gap between the layout and manufacturing phase by enabling designers and DFM engineers to exchange and run rule sets using a common check engine. Users can also review and confirm that all required rules have executed and signed-off to release the design for manufacturing.
Also offering a cloud-based solution for collaboration, in April Altium announced the launch of Nexar, its cloud-based partner platform designed to connect the growing community of Altium 365 PCB design users and their companies with the software, suppliers and manufacturers. According to the company, over 5,000 companies and 11,000 users have already adopted the Altium 365 cloud platform for electronics design.
With the introduction of Nexar, partners can join this ecosystem of electronics innovators to make valuable software and services available to Altium 365 users. PCB design, supply chain and manufacturing stakeholders today operate largely in isolation from one another, says Altium. By bringing them together on a collaborative, cloud platform, Nexar has the opportunity to dramatically accelerate the industry’s ability to introduce new products.
Some of the ways that partners can use Nexar’s open API include integrating with Altium 365 and Altium NEXUS, presenting reliable, up-to-date component data from the Octopart search engine, and embedding ready to use “embeds” such as the Altium 365 viewer (Figure 4) on webpages or within an application.
Important partner categories for the Nexar ecosystem include: Software companies, including ECAD, MCAD, CAE, PLM and ERP; PCB fabricators and electronic manufacturing service (EMS) companies; electronic component distributors and manufacturers; and engineering service providers. While these categories are anticipated, there are no restrictions on who can become a Nexar ecosystem partner, and no costs are involved. To learn more about Nexar, go to www.nexar.com .
PUBLISHED IN CIRCUIT CELLAR MAGAZINE • JULY 2021 #372 – Get a PDF of the issueSponsor this Article
Jeff served as Editor-in-Chief for both LinuxGizmos.com and its sister publication, Circuit Cellar magazine 6/2017—3/2022. In nearly three decades of covering the embedded electronics and computing industry, Jeff has also held senior editorial positions at EE Times, Computer Design, Electronic Design, Embedded Systems Development, and COTS Journal. His knowledge spans a broad range of electronics and computing topics, including CPUs, MCUs, memory, storage, graphics, power supplies, software development, and real-time OSes.