Fifty Years of Electronics in Munich
Electronica, the enormous "trade fair for electronic components, systems, applications and services", to quote the organisers, was nearly a month ago. So why have I waited this long to report on it? Mainly because I needed the time to recover and to try to get a perspective on what I saw and heard during three days packed with meetings interspersed with long walks.
Looking back to the year electronica first took place, 1964 was the year that I Want to Hold Your Hand triggered Beatle-mania (and the Rolling Stones released their first album), US President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act, and the US began ramping up the forces in Viet-Nam. In Russia, Khrushchev was deposed as Soviet leader, and, in Britain, Harold Wilson became Prime Minister. China, France and America conducted atom bomb tests, and the second Vatican Council replaced Latin with local languages for Roman Catholic church services. Moog launched his music synthesiser. General Douglas McArthur and Cole Porter both died and Michelle Obama and Sarah Palin were both born. If most of this (except the births) means nothing or little to you, you are probably too young to understand.
Are You Ready for Tomorrow?
There are times when you shouldn't really think too deeply about things. Last week I was driving along the motorway from London to Winchester. While accelerating to overtake, I saw the engine pass through 4,000 rpm, and I wondered about each piston moving from stationary at top dead centre to stationary at bottom dead centre and then back to top dead centre 50 times a second. (Geeky? Moi?) Sadly, I can't perform in my head the sum that would calculate the speed at which each piston was moving at its fastest, but it must be pretty speedy, and that cycle of movement would be putting all sorts of stresses on all sorts of metal parts. I eased my mental stress by consoling myself that, at least in my 15-year-old Golf, there wasn't software running on silicon to control the engine.
So I didn't have to worry that the software could be like that in the Toyotas that may have suffered unintended acceleration. There has been no resolution on whether the software caused the issue. The evidence of software guru Michael Barr was so damning that, while he couldn't say that the software caused the incident, he had the Toyota lawyers worried. Add to this the way in which the opposing legal team were being successful in throwing dust into the eyes of the jury and sowing doubt into their minds, and it is clear why Toyota settled out of court.
To Grandma's PCB We Go
This week’s Fish Fry is all about your next PCB design. From power integrity to mixed-signal place and route, from Gerber files to schematics, from output pins over the FR4 and through the vias, to grandma’s house we go. My first guest this week is Greg Lebsack from Tanner EDA, and we discuss why you want a digital place and route tool, integrating ye ol’ analog into your next design, and what Tanner EDA brings to the mixed-signal party. Next up, we bring in Hemant Shah from Cadence Design Systems to chat about one of the biggest pain points of PCB design: the hand off to manufacturing. Hemant and I investigate a rapidly expanding industry consortium that is hoping to change all of that awful file hand off once and for all.
Mentor Elevates PCB Game
For decades, the PCB design tools competition has been a board game. The scope of the problem was the design of a single PCB, and the competitors - Mentor, Cadence, Zuken, Altium/Protel, and the rest - all battled for supremacy with the scope, features, power, and cost of their solutions. The market for board tools actually got a little boring for years, with the major players competing mainly on cost and incumbency in the high-end (enterprise) level and in the low-cost (desktop) markets.
In the past few years, however, the battle has been heating up again. Demands on even “ordinary” board design have grown, as signal- and power-integrity became common problems with higher speed components, and IC packaging and mounting technology caused new challenges for layout. As a result, “desktop” tools began to inherit many of the features associated with “enterprise” tools. Enterprise design tool suites had to once again scramble to differentiate themselves and justify their significantly higher costs.
From Artisan to Arduino at World Maker Faire
We walk past a small booth at the 2014 World Maker Faire, and a young boy, perhaps eight or nine years old, jumps out to get our attention. He is so excited we can barely understand what he is saying. He wants us to see his sneakers - adorned with an array of LEDs giving a high-energy light show that would make any grade-schooler envious. He explains that he programmed the lights himself. He is ecstatic, and his enthusiasm radiates into the crowd. “Can I sign you up? Can I sign you up?” He pulls up a registration form on a laptop computer. We have no idea what he wants us to sign up for.
A look inside the sneakers reveals an Arduino board with its obligatory Atmel AVR microcontroller. Sitting on the table nearby is another laptop - running a kid-friendly drag-and-drop programming interface that allows kids to write code to create their own shoe-wear lighting spectacular. You want blinky shoes? You gotta program them first. It’s gonna be FUN!
Ecosystem for Interposer-based Design?
We’ve talked a lot lately in these pages about the impending demise of Moore’s Law. Consensus is that, somewhere around the half-century mark, one of the most astounding prophecies in human history will have finally run its course. Next year, we’ll have a round of FinFET devices that will be so exotic and expensive that only a handful of companies will be able to use them. In the decade that follows, we may or may not reach 10nm and 7nm production - using either esoteric unlikelies like EUV or extreme-brute-force multi-patterning techniques - to solve just some of the multitude of barriers to continued downscaling.
Sci-fi techniques like carbon nanotubes, graphene-based devices, quantum computing, and that other-one-you-read-about are so far from production practicality that we may not see any of them in widespread use in our lifetimes. While incredible research shows great promise for many of these ideas, they are all back in the silicon-equivalent of the early 1960s in their evolution. The time and engineering it will take them to catch up with and eventually surpass what we can do with silicon today is substantial.
A Hot DATE in Dresden
The Dresden conference centre was designed to represent a stark modern contrast to the restored Baroque buildings of the old town of Dresden. For some reason, the architects decided to build a curved building with one floor on a slope, cutting through other, flat, floors. The entrance is up a long flight of stairs, exposed to the wind and rain blowing across the river Elbe. The conference rooms are all provided with wonderful glass walls overlooking the river, which have to be blacked out if you want to be able to see the information projected onto the screen.
However, it is the the main conference venue for Silicon Saxony, a “cluster” of high tech companies ranging from semiconductor manufacturers Global Foundries and Infineon to a wide range of supporting and related businesses: over 300 companies are part of the network. And it is where, in alternate years, the academic community engaged in EDA make their spring pilgrimage to the DATE Conference.
The Dark Side of Reporting Features
Do you like to be watched while you work?
Most people don’t. There’s this fine line between making sure that stakeholders know about your progress on a project and having those stakeholders all up in your business all the time. The latter is micromanagement, and no one likes that.
More and more EDA tools are being provisioned with management and reporting features. These make it easier for you as a designer to let your supervisor or project manager know what you’ve accomplished and what remains – and you spend less time writing up those annoying status reports.
Part 2 - Mentor Xpedition
Mentor Graphics is number one in PCB design tools. They want me to tell you that. They want me to tell you that - even after reading about my disdain for marketing the market share of your product. So - there ya go. They’re number one. Why does this matter? Well, they rightfully point out that nobody ever got fired for buying the leading tool, and that EDA can be a fickle business. If an EDA tool is number one (they observe), the company selling it probably cares about it deeply and will want to go the distance to support you and make you happy. Point taken.
However, since we’re all engineers here, the thing that matters the most - by FAR - is whether the tool is robust and reliable in helping you get your engineering job done. In this case - that means helping you be as productive as possible designing the heck out of your PCB. Luckily, besides being number one, Mentor has done a very respectable job of that as well. Now, however, they think that’s not enough. They’re launching a big ’ol ambitious program to upgrade their PCB design suite - in a clear effort to fend off the similarly ambitious competitors (Cadence, Zuken, Altium, et al) who are coming full-tilt right at them.
Part 1 - Cadence Allegro TimingVision
They say timing is everything, and when designing digital electronics, “they” are absolutely correct. Unless we can get the timing right on every path in our project, we’re going nowhere fast. Timing closure runs the gamut of our engineering tasks - from the inside of our FPGAs through our boards and out into the world.
With the proliferation of high-speed interfaces into common standards like DDR, PCI and others, even “normal” PCB design can involve complex timing issues, and resolving all of them at once can be a bit like squeezing a balloon. We have paths that need to meet minimum or maximum delay specifications, groups of paths that must be equal length, differential pairs that must be routed together, and phase alignment corrections that must be applied. And, all of these need to be handled during PCB routing - at the same time that we’re struggling with things like getting from point A to point B, minimizing the number of vias and layers, navigating our way out of complex BGA pin fields, and applying our sense of aesthetics to our work.
More Than Superconductors?
Last year, I delved a little into the world of superconductors and their bizarre circuits. In poking about afterwards, I ran across something called an “ultraconductor.” I wondered if this was a brand of superconductor – it wasn’t. So what is this thing?
Turns out, it’s not just one thing. I found two threads to pull, and they were different. One led to an organic approach – which would sound pretty danged interesting – but it is not being actively pursued at the moment. (I’m not sure why; for now it’s an academic question, and I’ll tackle it if we ever come back to it.)
The other thread related to some work done at the Los Alamos National Labs (LANL). One Dr. James Maxwell was leading a project to improve conductance beyond what metal alloys could provide.
Fish Fry Takes on DesignCon 2014
The lights: Fluorescent. The carpet: Padded. The lanes: Routed. Where in the world could Fish Fry be? DesignCon 2014, of course. In this special DesignCon episode of Fish Fry, we launch ourselves into the multi-faceted world of electronic design with a couple of interesting interviews. My first guest is none other than Kilopass CEO Charlie Cheng. Charlie and I get down to the nuts and bolts of non-volatile memory, and Charlie gives me his take on where he thinks the technology is headed over the next few years. Next, I chat with Mark Toth (CadSoft) about CadSoft's ubiquitous EAGLE PCB Design Software, and I get the inside scoop on the results of their recent PCB design survey.
Plays to its Base with AD14
The headline new feature for Altium’s newly released Altium Designer 14 (AD 14) is “Rigid-Flex Support.” True, rigid-flex is there, and it’s cool, but the headline might lead the casual reader to miss some very important changes that are happening at Altium. Altium has a new focus and a new mission these days. The Altium folks are going back to their roots, playing to their base, and trying to re-establish a strong partnership with the engineers the company was created to serve - the common, hard-working, in-the-trenches, everyday designers who are trying to create cool stuff but who don’t have the resources for the fantastically-expensive, enterprise-oriented PCB solutions from the likes of Mentor and Cadence.
For the past several years, Altium has been a bit like that genius ADD kid in the back of the classroom - full of brilliant ideas, but not at all focused on what is going on in class at the time. Altium has suffered from, if anything, an excess of forward-thinking vision - leading their customers with fascinating new design paradigm ideas and features, but failing them somewhat in delivering rock-solid implementation of the day-to-day, pedestrian PCB design capabilities needed for plain-old place-and-route. The rub on the street about Altium was that they were too focused on the flashy and not enough on fixing old bugs.
Intelligent Testing for Software
Everyone knows that, when developing software, you are going to have to spend a lot of time testing: identifying the bugs that are causing the software to fail, correcting the bugs, and then testing again. This phase has been estimated to take as much as 70% of the software development time for an embedded product. Last week, I attended a conference on intelligent testing, expecting to hear from a range of speakers on how their tools, research, or consultancy could improve or shorten the testing cycle. And, indeed, there was some discussion of specific tools – as we will see later. But two papers were different. The most pertinent was by Jim Thomas, a consultant who has a background of test tool development.
Signal- and Power-Integrity Take Center Stage
Let’s face it, we went to school and studied logic design because we really didn’t want to deal with analog stuff. As digital designers, we prefer our signals to have nice discrete values and to stay out of those fuzzy grey areas. We may have even settled into a clean, orderly area of engineering like FPGA design - just to preserve a firewall between us and that nasty curvy stuff.
Then, of course, our arrogant “need for speed” brought us to things like multi-gigabit serial interfaces. Suddenly, what should have been a well-behaved sequence of zeroes and ones took on a suspicious likeness to those wavy analog lines we were trying to avoid in the first place. We justified it by pointing to the benefits of getting rid of all those unsightly parallel busses. Still, terms like “eye diagram” entered our vernacular - and the next thing you know, somebody was talking about signal integrity. Yuk!