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The 3 challenges facing the future of PCB design: and why easing the complexity load is near the top of tool priorities.

The technical evolution that continues through 2015 and beyond has been coming for a time, but only in the past few years have studies identified three key indicators driving that path. Those three challenges include 1) changing demographics of the PCB design team, 2) increasing complexity of designs, and 3) more and more systems-oriented viewpoint to the design flow. I will share some information from studies and surveys that have been the basis for deriving those three challenges and try to point to where the industry seems to be headed in the near future.

Changing demographics. From the time that PCBs became commonplace until someplace muddled in the last decade, by and large boards were designed by a PCB designer who was a specialist in the field. The person may or may not have had formal board design education, and some were moved into the field by happenstance, liked it, and made a career of it. Whatever the reason, that definition of a dedicated, specialist PCB designer was the modus operandi for most of the life of printed circuit boards.

During the past decade, the situation began to change, and almost in an unpredicted way. Surveys conducted in the 2005-06 timeframe began to show that retirement rates were exceeding enrollment and graduation from PCB design curricula at tech schools. As a few years passed, it was clear there were fewer younger designers entering the field than older ones exiting--a major problem.

Companies recognized this as well. Their response was to involve more degreed engineers with PCB design. There was serendipity to this as well; it was almost exactly coincident with operating frequencies and layout densities reaching the point that RF behavior was being exhibited, with its associated signal integrity problems.

So, what I see in 2015 is that the number of engineers engaged, at least part time, with PCB design has reached the point that requires vendors to tailor their EDA offerings to include their needs. For example, interfaces and GUIs have become simplified, with more contextual help and greater use of wizards. These all allow users who may not be on that tool every day--or even every month--to get up to speed quickly and be efficient with the tool. A more integrated tool allows a single, knowledgeable user to execute more of the design as well.

The engineers bring advantages too. They are much more familiar with most of the constraints, and why they are important. They may also have a much greater understanding of signal integrity, power distribution network design, or thermal characteristics.

So, 2015 and beyond will see more tools that are intended to facilitate "part-time" users in response to the decline of the dedicated PCB designer. In turn, those users will become more proficient at adjacent technologies, such as simulation or laying out RF circuits.

Complexity. This next challenge needs no introduction, but it will still be a big player. No one involved with PCBs for the last decade can ignore the facts that boards are getting smaller, IC packages are not only getting smaller but have more pins/balls, and everything is running faster (FIGURE 1). So, where is the EDA industry going that can help the designer regain some sanity?

The good news is that EDA companies have been working to ease the complexity load for some time. This year will see that continue, especially in a few key areas.

First, there is more use of design rules. By employing robust design rules from the beginning of the design, problems are addressed early, before they can compound and potentially blow the design out of the water. This allows more share-of-mind for the stickier problems of complexity.

Second, improvements in auto-routing permit significantly better routing, within the context of design rules, than ever before. Again, this relieves the designers to spend more time with the more difficult problems.

Finally, tools are just being introduced that allow tackling the complexity problem as a system. Functional blocks can be moved from board-to-board, and all connections are maintained. Other tools allow optimizing package pin-outs by considering the system from the die clear to the board, allowing much simplified breakout and routing.

These trends will continue, and new solutions will address complexity with even more tools to simplify designs.

System viewpoint. As alluded in the previous section, system-level views of the design permits optimization across the entire product. Tools now let system designers move IP and full functional blocks from subsystem-to-subsystem, while maintaining all connections and all constraints.

This more macro view allows designers to make decisions about such things as thermal impact on boards by relocating/ distributing high heat components. Designers can also take advantage of system design by reallocating connectors, cabinets, cabling, and power supplies to make the product more reliable and less expensive.

This system view is being facilitated by the latest 3D viewing tools. It's no longer necessary to build a physical prototype to be able to view mechanical relationships with the components actually chosen for the design. This capability allows discovery of manufacturing issues before any prototype, or even any PCB, is actually produced, saving time and money. In addition, many viewers give users representations of airflow, thermal gradients, current flow and other useful parameters (FIGURE 2).

Prognostication. These changes have been developing over the last few years, so there is not much fortune-telling necessary to reach these conclusions. Like other EDA companies, we track trends and will continue to do so in order to keep products moving in the direction users demand.

DAVID WIENS is product marketing manager at Mentor Graphics (mentor.com); david_wiens@mentor.com.
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Title Annotation:CAD PREDICTIONS
Author:Wiens, David
Publication:Printed Circuit Design & Fab Circuits Assembly
Date:Mar 1, 2015
Words:934
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