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Changing the PCB Axis

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.

Does anybody else see a problem with this? Quite often, the most innovative and demanding designs in the world are being done by startups, small companies, and small teams within large companies. These folks don’t need massive enterprise-style collaboration features, centralized library management, and the other stuff that giant teams require. But they most certainly DO need the features for doing complex, high-speed, sophisticated boards.

Unfortunately, those teams were left trying to get by without the most sophisticated capabilities, or having to fight with bloated, super-expensive tools with lots of capabilities they did not need.

Until now. 

Mentor Graphics seems to have snapped out of the traditional PCB marketing haze, and their new generation of PADS tools shows considerable insight into the realities of innovative system and board design. Mentor’s marketing describes “independent” designers and design teams in organizations ranging from individual proprietorships to large corporations, characterized by the need for professional-grade, sophisticated board and system engineering tools without the need for enterprise-style collaboration, data management, and library management features. Mentor’s Xpedition continues as the company’s answer to the enterprise-based design team, but a whole new generation of PADS tools addresses this newly identified “independent” market.

One key difference between enterprise and independent design is the breadth of engineering expertise. Enterprise designers tend to be highly specialized, focusing on only a single aspect of the design, whereas independent designers tend to be generalists, covering many different disciplines. As a result, tools for independent designers need to be more consistent and quicker to learn and re-learn as projects go through various design phases and engineers change roles. If you don’t do full-time PCB layout, your needs are different from the engineer who does nothing but layout every day. You need a layout tool you can pick up and quickly be productive doing sophisticated design, even if you haven’t done layout in a while.

But what the independent designer does not need is a dumbed-down tool that can’t handle today’s design challenges like high-speed design, signal and power integrity, thermal analysis and management, and so forth. Mentor has addressed this with a three-tier PADS product portfolio. At the low end, “PADS Standard” brings the basics – schematic capture and layout – at a price comparable to the least expensive professional-grade desktop tools – about $5K, including support. Moving up one grade, “PADS Standard Plus” adds more layout features, constraint management, and simulation, and the price bumps up to $10K counting support. Then, the top of the line is “PADS Professional” which brings all the features of PADS Standard Plus but also brings the much higher performance of the Xpedition layout engine – including advanced productivity features like the (very cool) sketch router. Professional weighs in at $18K including support – which is a lot cheaper than the typical enterprise-class tool that you’d normally need to get the same feature set.

Even the “Standard Plus” version brings high-end features like high-speed routing, variants, signal integrity analysis, thermal analysis, and analog simulation to the table – and most of those features are traditionally sold separately. The “Professional” version’s Xpedition layout engine adds advanced 2D/3D placement planning, the aforementioned sketch router, full 3D layout with DRC, dynamic plane data generation, and documentation and manufacturing prep.

The PCB tool market has heated up considerably in the past few years. For a long time, the US high-end market was dominated by Mentor and Cadence, the Japanese market was dominated by Zuken, and the low-end/desktop market was owned by Altium/ProTel. As time has passed, every competitor has poked their nose into the others’ sandboxes – Mentor and Cadence attacking the desktop market with their PADS and OrCad tools, Altium moving up toward the enterprise with their Altium Designer series, and Zuken geographically expanding beyond Japan with a big push into the US market. 

This evolution has combined with serious new challenges in board design such as signal- and power integrity, finer pitches, high-speed routing requirements, thermal problems, handling of programmable IO devices such as FPGAs, and mobile-driven features such as flexible boards and embedded components. These four major competitors have all jockeyed for position in the market, rushed to support the features required to handle these evolving design challenges, and morphed their solutions to track the ever-changing role of the engineer. Mentor’s new PADS offering is clearly a response to these varied pressures and trends, and it looks like a strong one. The new PADS solutions are available now.

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