OrCad and Allegro Speed Up Board Design
The PCB Design tool race is perhaps the most stable and long-lived competition in all of electronic design automation. Since at least the 1980s, commercial tools have fought to own the screen of board designers as they convert ideas to schematics to metal traces etched into a substrate. Through all of those decades, the basic process has always been the same. Craft a schematic drawing with components from a library, verify that the thing will probably do what you intended, and create a board layout that physically hooks the parts up the way you specified.
Board design tools have never seen the kinds of explosive market growth - or the dramatic revolutions in methodology - that other areas of EDA have experienced. Where chip design went through waves of revolutionary change from schematic to language-based design to high-level specification, the level of design abstraction in PCB design has remained remarkably stable.
Device Packaging May be Going to the Ball
Two weeks after the three-ring circus that was embedded world (see "Embedded World Diary"), I was at another event: SEMI's ISS Europe. This was on a different scale and had a different topic. SEMI is the trade body for the companies that build the kit and supply the materials that, in turn, are used to make micro- and nano-electronics. ISS Europe (Industry Strategy Symposium) is a two-day event where members of SEMI are briefed on the trends that are going to shape the industry.
Now some of these trends, particularly the big global socio-economic issues, such as the overall economic climate and the important role of China, were discussed in “May You Live in Interesting Times".
Xilinx Ups the SerDes Ante
The scope display clearly showed 58.0 Gbps. I was curious. I was expecting a 56 gig demo - you know, the next official step in the traditional “doubling of the data rate” that we get with each process node in FPGA transceivers. The last node sported 28Gbps SerDes transceivers, so, clearly, this time we should be dealing with 56. I started to ask about the discrepancy, but somehow I knew the answer already:
“Yeah, but this one goes to 58!”
One Company Has its Hands in Almost All of Our Products
“I guess I'm just hopelessly fascinated by the realities that you can assemble out of connected fragments.” – Junot Diaz
If you were told that there is a high-tech company that can boast, “virtually every electronic device in the world is produced using our technology,” who would you think of first? Are we talking about a chip company like Intel, Microchip, Freescale, or Toshiba? Surely they’re not in every device in the world. Maybe it’s a software company like Microsoft or Google’s Android? They’re popular, yes, but not that widespread. I know – maybe they’re talking about the Free Software Foundation or a group like the IEEE? It’s conceivable that their standards or technology appears in “virtually every electronic device” in the world.
Mentor Upgrades HyperLynx
These days, the metal on your PCB has to do a lot more than just connect a few dots. With the pervasiveness of high-speed serial interfaces and other signals that put a premium on signal integrity (SI), most board designs can’t get away with simple-minded placement and routing anymore. And, with the compression and perforation of power planes, we can’t take power integrity (PI) for granted either.
The situation is only getting worse. New protocols and standards for high-speed interfaces like DDR4, multi-gigabit Ethernet, and PCI Express put even more strain on the design, and continually increasing operating speeds combined with decreased voltages up the ante yet again. It is becoming rare for a design team to be successful with a leading-edge PCB without state-of-the art SI and PI simulation and analysis.
Tools, IoT, and Safety in Nuremberg
In the subterranean hallways of the main railway station in Nuremberg, every ticket machine is surrounded by people wrestling with the fare structure and the unfamiliar currency. The regular morning commuter traffic works it way through the crowds with a resigned air; the hotel owners post room rates that are twice the normal rack rate; the restaurants offer special menus with special mark ups; and the bars are full of people nervously or enthusiastically pouring back Maßkrugs of beer. It's trade fair time again, and, as it is February, it is embedded world, the enormous event where every company with the pretension of serving the embedded market sets out its wares.
ANSYS Brings Mechanical and Electrical Together
ANSYS has recently released version 17 of their tools, simply referred to as ANSYS 17. The improvements they made cover a lot of ground, much of it having to do with mechanical design. Which might lead you to think, “oh, this is a mechanical tool; I can move on, since it’s not for me.” But be not so hasty: we’ll return to this in a minute.
Their theme for the release is 10x, meaning lots of things are 10x better. 10x is a convenient number (I personally think of it as a convenient threshold for how much better something needs to be to get a user to switch from something else). Again, this distributes over so many feature changes (many of them mechanical) that we could take all day chasing that angle. But suffice it to say that many of the changes aim to smooth or unify flows and, in general, save time and effort.
Unsung Heroes of Winning Engineering
We like to pretend that engineers choose their parts by detailed analysis of data sheets and careful study of critical specifications. But the truth is, we’d have a pretty hard time these days getting anything designed into our circuits at all without access to some high-quality development kits. If we order basic bare chips, the time it takes from breaking open the bubble wrap until we have something reasonable running on our lab bench is weeks at best. At a minimum, we have to develop some kind of prototype PCB with the FPGA, processor, and other major components at the center, and all the peripherals we think we need orbiting around it. That's just not a practical way to begin a development project.
Measuring Power Consumption Can Drive You Crazy
“The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds new discoveries, is not 'Eureka!' but 'That's funny...'” – Isaac Asimov
According to Adam Savage, the difference between science and just screwing around is writing it down. It’s the measurement – the annotation, the calibration, the methodical note-taking – that separates good science (and engineering) from mere hacking and tinkering. Without good measurements there can be no good science.
So raise a caliper and spare a thought for the measurers in our industry - the ones wielding the oscilloscope probes, the voltmeters, the electron microscopes. For they are the ones who enable us to produce better, faster, and more reliable electronics.
A Path to Flexible System Implementation
Firstly – if you are an existing FPGA user, you may not find much that is new in this piece, but really, it is not aimed at you. What would be useful is if you share it with your system architect colleagues and your software colleagues, for whom much of this may well be new and useful.
You are beginning a new project - let's say a motor control system. You can assemble components on a board – possibly a processor, a DSP, an FPGA for peripherals, and a networking ASIC. The result is a relatively large board, with the inherent reliability issues and a high BoM cost
From “Hello World” to Saving the World
After the EE Journal team’s inspiring and fascinating trip to last year’s World Maker Faire in New York, we were pumped this year to head out again to the New York Hall of Science in Queens for the 2015 World Maker Faire. Once again, the “Greatest Show (and Tell) on Earth” did not disappoint. We came away excited and energized and ready to tinker around with our own Arduino boards, 3D printers, robots, and quadcopters at home.
Without further ado, here are EE Journal’s Top 5 Favorite Things from World Maker Faire 2015:
We Attend ESC So You Don’t Have To
At last, I’ve been vindicated. A semi-official study has shown that car alarms are wholly worthless, and that they actually may be a social and economic drain on the community at large. Not surprisingly, 99% of people who hear a blaring car alarm completely ignore it (which obviously defeats the purpose of the alarm), while the few souls who actually do report an alarm to the police don’t do it because they think the car is being stolen. No, they report it as a noise complaint. Even insurance companies, a group famously guided by hard-nosed statistics over mere anecdotal evidence, and with tens of millions of data points to rely upon, treat car alarms as worthless in preventing theft or damage. Worse than useless, in fact. The earsplitting noise just covers the sound of breaking glass, making it actually easier for bad guys to steal the car or its contents. Go figure.
Flexible Silicon and Plastic Circuits
For some years, when I have travelled, my passport has been stowed in my hip pocket. This has worked well (apart from the incident with the cool wash cycle) but did mean that my passport developed a firm curve. Earlier this year I needed a new passport, and when it arrived, there was a firm instruction: "Do not Bend". This is, presumably, because it has a chip inside, and, as we all know, silicon does not bend. But when you talk to, among others, Gerhard Klink of the Fraunhofer Institute's "Group Polytronic Technologies" in Munich, he can show silicon bending. It is easy, really. You start with a standard wafer, build up your circuit on one side, and then remove the back side of the wafer mechanically until you achieve a thickness of less than 25 microns. (The technology for making wafers thinner has been well developed for MEMS sensors and related products.) At this thickness, it is possible to bend silicon easily.
Technology and Art Attempt to Walk Hand-in-Hand Toward the Future
The exhibit floor at the Inside 3D Printing Conference and Expo in New York City is packed. While other tech conferences (like DAC and whatever they’re calling the Embedded Systems Conference this year) have faced dwindling attendance each year, this one is so well attended that it can be difficult to make your way from booth to booth. The panelists and attendees are excited and enthusiastic. And they have every reason to be -- this is a technology that is exploding. Even since World Maker Faire in New York less than a year ago, the 3D printing capabilities on display appear to have improved by leaps and bounds: textures are less rough, sculptures are more intricate and detailed, colors are more varied and vivid, and projects are more interesting and ambitious.
At World Maker Faire, you could step into a scanning booth and get a 3D-printed action figure/figurine of yourself. Now, you can get that action figure in color (not just A color, but IN COLOR), and, at another booth, you can play around with a face-scanning tool that will put your action figure in a Star Trek uniform holding a tricorder - or make it a ghostbuster. The shelves of tchotchkes have been replaced by more inspired art pieces -- no one is displaying a Yoda head, even for kitsch or nostalgia purposes, and I managed to find only one example of the usually ubiquitous twisty vase design.
Mentor PADS Redefines the Board Genre
Anybody who has ever bought professional PCB software has probably noticed a problem with the way PCB tools have always been packaged, priced, and marketed. Well, anybody except for the folks who actually sell PCB tools, that is. For some reason, PCB tools have always been sold with a built-in wrong assumption - that only big companies with large design teams are doing sophisticated designs. If you were a huge company with giant design teams that required all the “enterprise” features related to team design, collaboration, IP sharing, and library management, the PCB tool vendors gave you all the features needed for leading-edge, high-performance board design.
But, if you were a smaller company or team who didn’t require all the big collaboration features, you got the toy-like “desktop” PCB tools which didn’t include the stuff you needed for high-performance, high-density board design.