Just when you think you've seen it all, something even more amazing comes along and takes your breath away. I'm talking about the first release of an entirely new PCB development platform called Xpedition from Mentor Graphics (the previous platform was called Expedition).
From what I hear, this new platform has been six years in the making, and as far as I'm concerned it was well worth the wait. Before we look a little deeper, however, let's take a moment to reflect on the way things are going in the electronic systems design arena.
In the early days of electronics, the design engineers pretty much did everything, from conceiving the circuits to implementing them in the real world. With the advent of computer-aided tools, coupled with the large-scale deployment of printed circuit boards, things started to diverge. At the "front-end" we had design engineers, who used their computer-aided engineering (CAE) tools -- including schematic capture and logic simulation -- to capture and verify their designs. At the "back-end" we had layout designers, who used computer-aided design (CAD) tools and who were tasked with placing the components of the circuit board and routing the connections between those components. (The terms CAE and CAD were eventually gathered under the umbrella term of electronic design automation -- EDA.)
Over time, the layout tools grew to be pretty spectacular. I'm a hardware design engineer by trade, which means I used to be more interested in the "front-end" flow, but I have to admit that the first time I saw the technology behind what would grow to be Mentor's Expedition (I used to work for Intergraph, which span off its electronics design group as Veribest, which was subsequently acquired by Mentor), watching the layout guys dragging tracks around and seeing other tracks and vias automatically making room and reconfiguring themselves -- I must admit that I thought, "Wow, that's amazing!"
And, of course, all of this was back in the mid-1990s. Almost 20 years has passed since then, and the tools (along with the workstations on which the tools run) have grown immeasurably more powerful. But there are a couple of storm clouds brewing on the horizon (aren't there always?)...
One big consideration is that we are all growing older (well, apart from me of course). A lot of the original layout designers are starting to retire. This wouldn't be a problem in itself; the issue is that few younger people are coming in to replace them. (At least, this is true in North America and Europe; I'm not really in a position to talk about what's happening in the rest of the world with regard to this particular topic; if you know anything about this, then please comment below.)
This may be because laying out circuit boards -- although requiring a tremendous amount of skill and knowledge -- is not regarded as being "sexy"; but it may also be that it's not something that's taught at college. The whole circuit board layout process tends to be taught by experienced layout designers to junior layout designers, but that only works when you have junior layout designers to teach. The end result is that -- within a decade or so -- layout designers may have to be placed on the "endangered species" list.
And, of course, there's more to the situation than this. In the not-so-distant past, laying out a circuit board required a certain set of skills. To the layout designers of yesteryear, the silicon chips and other components were largely seen as "black boxes." The layout designers really didn't care what the parts did or what was inside the packages -- all they cared about was coming up with an optimal placement for the components and then routing the wires connecting them together.
Things have changed. Simply connecting a trace from a pin on one component to a pin on another is the least of one's problems. When you have a ball grid array (BGA) with a thousand or more pins coupled with a ridiculously small pin-pitch, simply breaking the signals out from under the device becomes a major problem. And then you have high-speed, low-voltage differential pairs and sophisticated interfaces like the DDR3 memory interface, all of which require signals with matched lengths and impedances and phases. Also, you have signal integrity and power integrity and thermal considerations to worry about, and then your problems really start.
The bottom line is that whoever is laying out the board has to perform a lot of tradeoffs, and these tradeoffs involve a mix of design engineer and layout designer knowledge. As a result, the industry is moving toward having "design specialists" rather than "tool specialists." This also means that design engineers are more and more being required to perform layout-related tasks.
All of which leads us back to Xpedition. If you take a read of the official press release (which is titled Mentor Graphics Launches New Xpedition Platform to Optimize Advanced PCB Systems Design Productivity, phew!), you will be regaled with all sorts of facts and figures and capabilities and functionalities. And they are all wonderful, but...
...I have to tell you that the one thing that really took my breath away is something called "Sketch Routing." This allows whoever is performing the layout (layout designer or design engineer) to behave like an artist. Using your mouse like a paintbrush, you provide a general indication of the overall path you wish a bunch of signals to take, and then gasp in awe as the system automatically routes those signals. You don't like the result? Another "swoosh" of the mouse sends them all tracking off in a different way.
This is almost impossible to describe. It's much more clever than it sounds here. You have to see it to believe it, which leads us nicely to the fact that the guys and gals at Mentor have uploaded a cornucopia of short videos. Click here to bounce over to YouTube to see these videos, including a number showing Sketch Routing in all its glory.
The folks from Mentor say that the Xpedition platform is be available to early adopters right now, with general availability following mid-year 2014. Also that you can contact a local Mentor Graphics sales representative for additional product information (or click here to visit Mentor's website).
— Max Maxfield, Editor of All Things Fun & Interesting