Richard van der Werf and Niek ten Hove work at Dizain-Sync, as PLM consultant and account manager, respectively.

24 January

Electronic design automation (EDA) tools are widely used for PCB, FPGA and IC design. As standalone tools, they work perfectly for many designers and design departments. Product lifecycle management (PLM) usually isn’t that well integrated into the flow, but that makes it no less essential, argue Richard van der Werf and Niek ten Hove of Dizain-Sync.

In recent years, there has been a lot going on in the EDA market. Vendors like Altium, Cadence and Siemens (Mentor Graphics) have constantly been advancing their tools, to improve the design process but also to further optimize the integration between various disciplines and global departments. However, there’s more to a successful electronic design flow than a powerful tool with good vendor support.

The electronic design flow in companies typically consists of many different tools. Design managers often ask us for help on the automation of this environment, ie the software, the processes and the ways of working. In small and medium enterprises (SMEs), the responsibility for the flow usually lies with a designer, rather than a dedicated EDA engineer, and major changes in the environment require additional knowledge and support, which we then provide. At larger companies, every discipline generally has its own toolset with just a basic integration with the outside world and our work includes advising or supporting an ECAD or IT department.

Product lifecycle

PLM view

Instead of having an internal focus, electrical design departments should integrate the electronic design environment into their entire ecosystem. There are several options to do so. Here, we take a data management perspective, a PLM view.

Data is the crown jewel. It allows a company to successfully create and produce a product. Many people use this data: engineers from different disciplines, suppliers, support departments and other stakeholders. Organizations are becoming more aware of this and want to manage the design data better throughout the product lifecycle. That’s where PLM comes in.

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According to experienced PLM consultant John Stark, product lifecycle management is the business activity of managing a company’s products all the way across their lifecycles in the most effective way. It’s common knowledge that good collaboration with departments, suppliers, co-makers and customers results in a better relationship and product. Note that PLM is usually not managed in one system; all systems at a company are part of PLM, but also all processes.

Data management

Electronic design is also a part of the product lifecycle. Next-level integration of the design flow brings several advantages. For example, optimizing the design/production time and costs reduces the production cycle and lead times. Sometimes, it’s simply a practical benefit. Integrating with a supplier’s component library, for example, is more efficient than updating it manually.

In most cases, design departments start with improving their product data management, which is a good first step. Storing design data in the right location has numerous benefits. Engineers can easily search the databases and reuse design blocks, thus saving a lot of time. In a demanding complex world, working efficiently is important for getting high-quality products out on the market as soon as possible.

Unfortunately, the available PLM tools typically have their roots in data management for mechanical design and don’t provide much support for other disciplines. For the daily activities of electronic design, they’re only useful for managing deliverables, configuration management of the complete product and production handling. More is needed before these tools can handle the actual electronic design part.

Layered system

This applies to all disciplines; PLM tools can’t handle every type of design data equally well. As a typical workaround, data management solutions are created on the team level to take care of the day-to-day design data. Those are integrated into a product data management (PDM) system, which focuses on managing the design configuration during development while the enterprise level deals with all production aspects. In smaller companies, which are usually less complex, some functions are combined into a single solution.

Data management system

Electronic design consists not only of circuit board design but also FPGA development, IC development and cabling, all with their own design tools and data formats. Focusing on the board design flow, it’s important that the design and layout tools used there have a library, maintained by librarians with the right data, including part properties, symbols, footprints, simulation models, lifecycle information and cost information. With this data, designers can make informed decisions about which components to use best and in what way. Often, there’s also a request system to add new components.

Board design flow
A schematic overview of a design and layout tool in a workspace.

On the delivery side, the design tooling needs to connect to the rest of the business. Typically, there’s a PDM/PLM system in place to further process the data, or an ERP system to handle the production of the PCB. As there’s usually no direct link, an interface is needed to upload the deliverables to these systems.

During the design cycle, it’s important to store the design data, such as design reviews, after schematic design, prototyping or start of production. Folders can be created for each version, but in many cases, this leads to chaos. Here’s where a data management system proves its usefulness. All the versions are stored in there, eg all the tests and versions in review.

Basically, the data management system stores the design data and keeps track of the changes – who did what, when and why? It provides traceability and makes it possible to go back to the version that was used for the review or the version that was delivered to the customer a few years ago. It also enables designers working on the same product to collaborate efficiently and maintain data integrity.

Text based

Most data management systems are based on a revision control system built for software, such as CVS, SVN or Git. These are well suited for text data. They can show the differences, provide commenting functions and integrate with a tool like Jira, which can be used to plan and track development. For electronic design, however, such text-based solutions aren’t very useful as the data isn’t made up of readable text. It’s much more useful to be able to visualize the designs, visually compare differences and graphically comment on them.

Unfortunately, there aren’t many solutions that offer these features. Occasionally, it can be solved using the design tooling itself. Some vendors provide design software data management systems, based on snapshots: they take a complete picture of the design every time it’s checked in. Some also offer comparison capabilities but only for their own tools. Simulators are generally not supported.

FPGA development, on the contrary, is largely text based, with the ‘code’ being in VHDL or Verilog. For this flow, therefore, text-based software data management systems work just fine. It’s even possible to build the FPGA images automatically, using the capabilities for continuous integration/deployment (CI/CD), and start regression tests.

Automatic FPGA builds
Automatic builds in an FPGA design flow. The deliverables are created from the data in the data management system, ensuring the code is complete and it’s always possible to go back to the code that was used to create the image. This can be the starting point of a full CI/CD workflow. For example, the images could also be automatically deployed on test systems.

Proper support

Design data management tools can be very instrumental in improving the electronic design flow. They can’t do everything yet, but they’re becoming increasingly powerful. Especially, the visualization and comparison capabilities are still lagging, some data formats are too complex to be handled by a single PLM solution and configuration management is a challenge. However, the proper support can get designers a long way.

Keep in mind that there’s more to a good flow than data management software. There are also the processes to scrutinize: when to review, how and what to communicate with suppliers, what quality checks to perform? There’s training: design engineers, project leads and support people need to be trained in the proper use of the systems. Do’s and don’ts are important. Good support is very helpful here as well.

Edited by Nieke Roos