The latest form of intellectual property (IP) to enter the market is the humble PCB design. In moves to make it possible to transfer known good designs to new projects, design automation vendors have put software in place to let engineers 'cut and paste' PCB layouts.
Concerns over the rapidly rising cost of designing high-integration silicon and a shortage of layout engineers have encouraged the main vendors in the PCB arena to revamp their high-end tools to try to take up some of the slack.
Mark Ashton, head of marketing for Zuken, said: "There is a lack of people. In the US, they are now paying more for layout guys than EEs."
Design automation vendors are arguing that staff shortages are pushing customers to look at greater levels of automation. Consequently, the mid-1990s idea of constraint management, in which rules are set on each PCB trace to ensure that it is routed correctly, has made a return.
Cadence Design Systems has rolled new support for constraint management from schematic capture to layout into release 14.0 of its Allegro software. Zuken Group plans to put a constraint management system into HotStage 4, due out later this year.
The problems they are expected to solve come from the large number of critical traces still on the PCB. Ashton said: "[System-on-chip] has not developed as quickly as people expected. People are using multiple, off-the-shelf chips be-cause of the NRE cost of developing an SoC.
"You have to have a lot of confidence in your market projections to go for an SoC design rather than a collection of cheaper off-the-shelf parts.
"But there is still this trend to smaller, faster, cheaper. In some cases, the boards are smaller than all the components they are expected to carry so they are going inside the PCB itself."
Gary Hinde, European marketing manager for Cadence's PCB group, said: "PCB layout can be IP. It becomes the thing that differentiates a vendor."
By combining constraints with known good layout, Hinde says it becomes possible to transfer designs to new products and still expect them to be routed effectively by automated tools, with the help of signal-integrity analysis.
The push for signal-integrity analysis has spilled over into lower end products. For its latest release of Cadstar, Zuken has rolled some of the EMC technology it acquired with Incases into the routing engine. The EMC checking software in Cadstar 4.5 first identifies critical nets then analyses whether those nets will cause problems once they have been routed.