Innovation in PCB design software

Radical Innovation in PCB Design Software in 2019 and Beyond

By ZM Peterson • Jul 12, 2019

The PCB industry can be divided into two very broad sections: PCB design (which includes analysis) and manufacturing. These two sectors are intimately related and are unified by a common tool: design software. Software for designing PCBs are essentially CAD packages that include other features that are specifically adapted to electronics design. Anyone familiar with the PCB design software industry knows about the Altium, Cadence, and Mentor Graphics, as well as the products they offer.

When one examines the progress of EDA software innovations over time, and once one gains some experience using different software packages, one quickly finds that many companies mimic each other’s innovations as one would expect. However, these innovations are decidedly incremental; they have not drastically changed the landscape in the PCB design software industry.

The last radical software innovation in PCB design software was pioneered by Altium Ltd. (formerly known as Protel Pty. Ltd.). While still doing business as Protel, this company developed a type of software that uses a single, unified data model that is adaptable to all designable aspects of a PCB. This data model then passes data to design tools using a single, unified data format.

While other design software companies were building separate tools for drawing schematics, CAD tools for laying out components and conductors on circuit boards, and even more tools for analyzing signal integrity, Altium was integrating these tools into a single software program. This became possible by developing a unified data model, and these efforts have contributed to Altium’s two-decade-long track record of success. As of mid-2019, the company trades in the US as an OTC security and on the Australian Stock Exchange; the company grossed over $140 million in revenue during FY 2018, which is equivalent to 26% growth over the prior year [1]. For comparison, Cadence reported FY 2018 revenues of $2.146 billion, which is equivalent to 10% growth over the prior year [2].

Altium differentiates their software from comparable products offered by other companies like Cadence and Mentor Graphics by integrating numerous, and apparently disparate, PCB design features into a single software platform. Users can access all the critical design features required to take a PCB from idea to manufacturing in a single program.

Old ICs on a green PCBs

Integration spans beyond ICs…

In contrast, Cadence and Mentor Graphics still separate basic functions required to finish a design into separate programs with different interfaces and workflows. For example, Cadence’s two flagship PCB design products (OrCAD and Allegro) have overlapping functionality and still use the same interface that was used 15 years ago. The interface appears outdated and amateur, and I personally do not find the interface as intuitive as other PCB design packages. Cadence has clearly followed the “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it" mantra. Altium’s integration among design, layout, sourcing, and manufacturing capabilities offers users a single solution to a variety of problems and is a major innovation within PCB design software.

Regarding PCB manufacturing, the processes used to fabricate printed circuit boards have not seen any radical innovation over the past decades. While some sophisticated manufacturing machinery has been incorporated into the standard PCB manufacturing process, and some processes have been partially automated, the overall PCB manufacturing process essentially remains unchanged.

Some innovations in the PCB manufacturing industry were driven by innovations in electronic components, e.g., the emerging popularity of newer surface-mounted components over through-hole components in the 1980’s. Others were driven by new conductor routing architecture (e.g., routing through microvias and every layer interconnect (ELIC) architecture), although these process innovationss were reactive innovations that were meant to accommodate the requirements specified by PCB designers, rather than simply being driven by the availability of new technologies.

  • Learn about the evolution of printed circuit boards with this infographic from the team at PCB Solutions


Innovation in PCB Manufacturing

The most recent innovation in the manufacturing sector is in additive manufacturing of PCBs. Just like with mechanical products, additive manufacturing allows fabrication of electronic devices with unique form factor, lower manufacturing costs, reduced lead time, reduced material waste, and broader embedded functionality [3] compared to PCBs produced with traditional manufacturing processes.

Additive manufacturing and its core 3D printing process was invented by Charles Hull in 1984 [4] has largely been used to produce mechanical parts in a variety of industries [3]. Therefore, the extension to 3D printing of electronics is natural. The first commercially available 3D printers for electronics hit the market in mid-2009 [4], and a number of startup companies have followed suit, developing unique additive manufacturing systems that use different standardized fabrication processes.

The rise of 3D printing and additive manufacturing within the electronics manufacturing industry represents a radical innovation that will inevitably change the way designers create new electronic devices, especially when one considers the freedom of design offered by these systems [3]. Companies that still use traditional PCB manufacturing techniques do make efforts to refine their processes in order to keep up with customer demand, but these innovations are largely focused on keeping up demand for producing smaller products with more functionality packed on a single circuit board [5]. These innovations do not radically change the fundamental manufacturing process itself; they are wholly incremental and involve minor updates to an existing process, and they do nothing to provide the level of design freedom offered by additive manufacturing.

Electronic schematic on paper

There is still plenty of room for PCB design software to grow.

PCB designers who wish to create products intended for additive manufacturing face many unique design challenges. First, the popular design products offered by Altium, Cadence, Mentor Graphics, and other electronics design software companies do not include design tools that allow a PCB design to be adapted for additive manufacturing. PCB design software still focuses on purely planar PCBs and cannot accommodate non-planar substrates. Second, electrical models created in conventional PCB design software cannot be read using additive manufacturing systems due to a lack of standardization in data structure and file formats. Currently, the only way to do this is to export design data into Gerber files and convert this data into a 3D model for an MCAD program. This allows printing instructions to be generated, but it makes ECAD/MCAD co-design impossible.

In response to this, one innovative additive manufacturing company has created software plugins for SolidWorks [6], a popular 3D design program for mechanical models. This allows a given design to be quickly adapted to a specific additive manufacturing system. Unfortunately, SolidWorks is a purely mechanical modeling program; it has no EDA functionality and cannot be adapted to consider the critical electrical aspects of PCB design.

Innovation Opportunities in the PCB Design Software Industry

There are two real opportunities for innovation in PCB design software, both of which can offer sustained returns over time and are relatively low risk of failure. Despite the low risk of failure, both innovation opportunities carry significant investment and may require staffing augmentation or changes. Despite the initial investment, one can see that the potential return on investment is significant, as reflected in Altium’s long track record of success.

The first opportunity for innovation at Cadence and Mentor relates to integration of separate features into a single, consistent interface. This would involve creating a single program that unifies important design, analysis, and documentation features within a single environment. Cadence currently offers many separate products that allow users to run powerful simulations of their PCBs, and these simulations are much more powerful than tools offered by competitors [7]. Market demand for integrated PCB design software is already validated, as can be seen from Altium’s substantially higher growth compared to Cadence [1]. Integrating multiple tools into a single program would improve users’ productivity and expand the range of available functionality without requiring purchase of multiple programs.

The simulation, circuit modeling, and analysis tools integrated into Altium Designer, Altium’s flagship PCB design software package, lag behind the tools offer by Cadence and Mentor. To say that the tools are comparable is inaccurate; the tools are not perfect replacements for each other. If Cadence and Mentor could integrate these tools with their PCB design package into a single program, as well as update the user interface, they would be able to satisfy a clear market demand for integrated software.

The other opportunity available to all three of the companies mentioned here relates to integrating with up-and-coming 3D printing systems for additive manufacturing of electronics. As was noted above, current 3D printing systems require instructions that are generated from a solid model created in an MCAD program like SolidWorks or ANSYS [8]. EDA software packages do not offer support for these systems, i.e., they cannot convert PCB designs into mechanical models for a 3D printer. If all three companies were to move into this area, they would facilitate greater adoption of these unique systems for electronics manufacturing. Altium already has an MCAD collaboration solution that moves in this direction. The demand for software support for additive manufacturing systems is real. One cutting-edge electronics additive manufacturing company, Nano Dimension, offers a SolidWorks extension that allows designers to create 3D models for simple electronics [6], which can then be printed using a variety of 3D printing systems.


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[1] Altium Limited. (June 2018). Appendix 4E Preliminary Final Report

[2] Cadence Design Systems. (December 2018). Condensed Consolidated Balance Sheets.

[3] Bauer, J., & Malone, P. (2015). Cost estimating challenges in additive manufacturing. In International Cost Estimating and Analysis Association Professional Development and Training Workshop (Vol. 4).

[4] Wohlers, T., & Gornet, T. (2014). History of additive manufacturing. Wohlers report, 24(2014), pp. 118.

[5] Doering, A. (2017). AltiumLive 2017: PCBs for Computing Density From Big Bang to the Automobile.

[6] Beck, G. (February 2018). Nano Dimension Partners with Dassault Systèmes’ SOLIDWORKS Brand to Expand 3D Printing Possibilities with Add-in for Embedded Electronics.

[7] Feranec, R. (October 2018). Altium Designer vs. OrCAD Designer Professional.

[8] AMFG Ltd. (February 2019). The Additive Manufacturing Industry Landscape 2019: 171 Companies Driving the Industry Forward [Updated].


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