Tracing the Routes ep.5
- Ben Jordan

INTRODUCTION

In this new episode we go back to the “Routes” and to the place everything starts, the virtual design board. The EDA (Electronic Design Automation) tools are getting more and more complex in order to address the ever increasing number of challenges inside the electronics industry. To tell us more about the future of “EDA” and see whether or not we will soon be able to “trust the autorouter” we invited Ben Jordan, Director of Product and Persona Marketing at Altium for our latest episode of “Tracing the Routes”.

You can read the previous “Tracing the Routes” episode here.

INTERVIEW

Radu: Hi Ben, it’s a pleasure to have you on “Tracing the Routes”. Please tell us more about yourself and your transition from Engineering to Marketing.

Ben: Nice to talk to you again Radu! I am actually a computer systems engineer, and I joined Altium to work on VHDL libraries and to support our FPGA design features, but I also designed hardware before. I still design and make my own electronic devices (e.g. guitar pedals) on the side. I was always writing articles, training users, demonstrating the software and eventually making videos about how to use Altium Designer. That’s what ultimately moved me into the marketing side of EDA. Now I’m in product marketing - helping to research what designers need and developing the roadmap for Altium’s products, and working on messaging platforms. I still do some content creation too.

R: I’ve read your recent article in the PCB Design Magazine and found it very insightful. You talk there about the fact that the number of dedicated “PCB Designers” is declining with more and more EE’s involved into ECAD and sometimes even MCAD? What does this mean for EDA tools?

B: It means that the lines of who does design are blurred. First, PCB design was done by PCB designers. Now it’s done by PCB designers and engineers alike. In the future, anyone with a good inventive idea should be able to design electronics. That means EDA tools need to offer more automation, and higher levels of abstraction in design authoring. It means also that the domains - mechanical, electrical, and software - all need to converge. We see this happening with some MCAD companies acquiring ECAD (like Autodesk and Siemens) or in our case close partnership with Solidworks.

R: Due to the cross-functional nature of design teams we have methodologies coming from SW development that are being adopted into Hardware, such as Agile Development. How do you see those trends from the EDA perspective?

B: Altium was an early adopter in supporting those methodologies. We foresaw the need for good project and data management, for instance, and were the first EDA vendor to offer formal support for SVN for version control (as an example). The next phase for supporting agile practices for hardware, is integration with (or creation of) project management and workflow features within the tool. Altium Nexus is a new product which caters to the “Agile Enterprise”, but through version control it’s possible to link any Altium Designer project into those sorts of systems.

R: What do you think are the main challenges faced by current design engineers that need to be solved in the future?

B: Well, there’s always the same challenge: do more with less time! But this is so, because designs are always becoming more complex, with higher pin-count devices, more high-speed signals, etc. This is compounded by market opportunities coming and going faster than ever. Who remembers USB OTG? Can you get a phone that has a micro-USB jack on it today? No, they’re mostly all type-C. That’s just one example but the same short shelf-life occurs with many technologies and markets.

R: What do you think is the next “frontier” of electronic design automation?

B: I think it is the enablement of developers of any skill level. In other words, you could be just a novice inventor, and use EDA with some good content libraries to quickly pull in the hardware feature blocks you need and then using smart automation, customize the circuit and PCB shape (and even 3D model) to your requirements. Then ideally, work with a one-click manufacturer to product the PCBs and 3D printed enclosure for rapidly prototyping the invention.

R: Coming back to your article, you talk there about Neural Networks and how Altium uses AI to make designers “trust the autorouter”. Do you believe this technology has the potential to significantly reduce the design cycle time in the near future?

B: It certainly has the potential. But the potential can only be unleashed if users do trust it, and use it. We are seeing this begin with the ActiveRoute tool in Altium Designer. This tool is still very much user-guided, yet does the routing job orders of magnitude faster than manual routing can be done. To improve completion and ease of use, we need to build in more data analysis so the AI can continuously learn.

R: I know you were quite active in the OSHW community. How do you see the future of OSHW?

B: I think OSHW plays a key role. In light of what I stated above - that designs in future should be rapidly done using known-good blocks - the only way to build a big, diverse enough library of IP for such rapid design practice, is to base it on OSHW. Software engineering has lead the way of course, but now you can build a custom operating system with a highly optimized API and applications built on that, in record time, all based on open source software. The same approach is in store for hardware design. It will only be possible if the entire community contributes to it.

R: Finally, do you have a piece of advice you would like to share to Design Engineers about the future of their field?

B: Be open minded and willing to keep learning. Learn additional skills besides the technical ones too - you just never know when you will have to persuade someone to hire you, or negotiate a feature specification, or visit a user who has some critical but necessary feedback about the product you designed. Remember that most human decisions are emotional first, and we bend the data to back up our decision afterwards.

R: Thank you very much Ben. I hope our readers find your insights as interesting as I did. For more episodes, don’t forget to subscribe to our newsletter and follow us on Twitter, Facebook or LinkedIN. If you have any questions or suggestions, please send me an email to radu@swie.io

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