Altium ActiveRoute Debuts at PCB West: Routes Under One Second Per Connection
While at PCB West in Santa Clara in mid-September, I had the chance to sit down with Charles Pfeil of Altium and learn more about their exciting new tool, ActiveRoute, that was introduced and demonstrated in their booth during PCB West 2016. I also learned a bit about Pfeil, who is a living history lesson in PCB design.
Judy Warner: Charles, nice to see you again. You have been very busy here at PCB West, doing hourly demonstrations of your new product, ActiveRoute, in the Altium booth. Please tell us a little bit about what you're demonstrating here at the show.
Charles Pfeil: ActiveRoute is a tool that helps designers do their interactive routing. It's not an automatic router, although it has very high levels of automation. The intent is to provide the designer with a way to interactively route, following all the rules, constraints, and restrictions, under their control so they can tell the routing technology where to route, what layer to route, and then they will route it very, very quickly. It generally routes in less than one second per connection.
Warner: What is the standard routing time?
Pfeil: I've actually run some tests and some competitions, and for the best designers, when we're talking about a 100–200 nets, the average is about one minute, and I'd say for the average designer it is closer to three minutes.
Warner: Impressive. So this speeds things up dramatically, up but still gives designers the control? I know with autorouting, designers lose some of that control, which they don’t like.
Pfeil: Exactly. Autorouting has a stigma, right? And rightly so [laughs]. The problem with autorouting is that it will put in way too many vias, and a typical statement I hear is, “It will take me more time to clean it up than if I had just routed it by myself in the beginning.” Although the autorouter itself would be very fast, the time it takes to clean it up and the pain to clean it up isn't worth it, so they'd rather route it interactively. This tool works as an interactive tool. You can take a small number of nets or a large number of nets, route them, and you have tools for guiding where it's supposed to be routed. The intent is to make the designer more productive, not just put it into a route engine and have it work on it for a while, and then give you back the results.
Warner: It sounds like it will speed up the design, keep the control, but give you the advantage of some of the speed of an autorouter.
Pfeil: The speed and the quality are really important. Designers like me are OCD, but quality is something that isn't just, "It looks pretty." It's about being efficient, and it's about, "I want the least number of segments, I don't want extra meandering, and I want it to be routed in groups. I want things spaced out at times." This is what quality is about. Sometimes quality is misinterpreted as pretty, but it's really about having efficient routing that is easy to edit in the future. The OCD part of us will make things symmetrical and evenly spaced, even when it's not necessary, but that's the way designers are. If you give a designer a tool to help with routing, they won't use it if they have to spend a lot of time cleaning up. Cleaning up means, “It didn't do what I would've done.” That's the hard part: producing the results in which a designer would say, "Yeah, that's good. I'm going to go to the next step. I don't have to adjust all these things."
Warner: Will this tool be an add-on or will it be integrated into Altium Designer?
Pfeil: It's included with Altium Designer. It's part of the base product.
Warner: Is that starting right now or on the next release?
Pfeil: It's starting with Release 17.0 which will be out before the end of this year.
Warner: Do you think that having this feature may help you sell more licenses?
Pfeil: In the end, it's the bottom line, right? It's one of many things that are new in 17.0. We did a lot of work on making the user interface easier. Our Vault capability has been enhanced significantly. We're continuing to improve the tool in whatever ways we can. I've been focused on the routing side, and really trying to make a tool that designers will want to use and become more productive.
Warner: You've been giving demos every hour here. Tell us a little bit about the response from the designers that you've been talking with.
Pfeil: It's been very good. The first person who saw it had one comment: "Wow." What they want to know is, does it follow the rules? Yes, it follows the rules. One of the things that I think differentiates ActiveRoute is that it's able to route on multiple layers simultaneously. This is a significant enhancement, because if you're routing 100 nets between BGAs, the hardest part in manual routing is, how do you escape them from both ends, and then get them to connect without additional vias? It's all about the ordering. Not only will it figure out the order, but it will also distribute it on the number of layers that you choose. You’ve got a fairly even distribution (+/-10%) of the routing on those four layers, and what it will do then is give you an environment where you can now tune those, for example on a DDR circuit, because there's now space. As opposed to just packing it in on one layer, and then whatever is left over you go to the next layer, and next and next. It distributes it, so that's something that is a game changer.
Warner: Is there anything else you would like to share?
Pfeil: I will say that we’ve had a lot of traffic. We're running this demo, a video, and people look at the video and they'll say, "That's nice, but what does it do on the real board?" So in the live demo, I show them some real scenarios, and I think they're no doubt impressed by the speed and the quality, but the thing that grabs them deep is knowing how hard it is to route lots of nets between BGAs. There it is all of the sudden in 20 or 40 seconds. It's routed 50 or 100 nets. That is pleasing and I'm pleased. We've worked really hard on it to come to where we are, and it's a first release. We have more in the pipeline to make it even better.
Warner: Lastly, just tell us a little bit about your background as a designer. I always say no one got into the industry on purpose, except EEs. What's your history in our industry?
Pfeil: Here's my history. When I was a sophomore in high school, my dad worked at Northrop Corporation in Hawthorne as an engineer. He got me and my two brothers summer jobs inspecting Rubylith designs with a magnifier to look for scratches, which we would take a red pen and fill in.
Warner: I'm sad to say I know exactly what you're talking about [laughs].
Pfeil: That's where I started. I worked two summers there, and the following summer I went off to college and the next summer I got a job as a designer at a company called Datatronics, which did keyboard design. So that got me started as a designer in the LA area, and I job shopped through college, and then finally in 1978 I started my own service bureau, Computer Circuits in Fairfax, Virginia. We bought a Racal-Redac minicomputer in 1979, and started designing using computers. We lost all our customers because they didn't want computer-aided design. Fortunately, there were enough customers in that Virginia-Maryland area who were using Racal-Redac and we hooked up with them and did well. Then in '82, I went to work for Redac, and that's where I started on the dark side, the software side. I worked there as a product manager. A few years later, my service bureau was bought by Automata, a fabrication company. I stayed with them a couple years after that, and then came out to San Diego and worked for ASI.
I was an engineering manager there, and Cadence bought them in ‘89 or ‘90. I worked for Cadence for a couple of years, and then I went to Intergraph in Huntsville, Alabama in '91, and we were developing a PCB design tool on UNIX, and then we eventually developed Expedition as VeriBest. I was an original architect of Expedition, and then in 1999, Mentor bought VeriBest. I always worked on the Expedition side at Mentor, not the BoardStation side. I was at Mentor for 23 years, counting my VeriBest time. Then I took an early retirement and moved to San Diego. I was retired for 11 days [laughs], and took the job with Altium.
Warner: How long have you been with Altium now?
Pfeil: Almost a year and a half.
Warner: That’s quite a story. You're like a walking history book of PCB design.
Pfeil: I've been around.
Warner: From Rubylith to cutting-edge ActiveRoute.
Pfeil: It's been good, and when I came to Altium I didn't want to just catch up with what I had done with Expedition in the routing area. That's a challenge. That's what ActiveRoute is; it's a step beyond, and we have some more plans for additional features coming out relatively soon that will really separate us.
Warner: It sounds like your last chapter will be an exciting one, and a fun one.
Pfeil: Yeah, and it's in San Diego.
Warner: I’ve been to the Altium office in La Jolla. What a beautiful office. It's not a shabby place to work. I want one of those window offices in La Jolla!
Pfeil: It's very nice. I have one.
Warner: Beautiful, but you probably never look up from your computer screen.
Pfeil: Well, there's always that. I do get to stand up and just look out. It's beautiful.
Warner: Well, thank you very much for catching us up and good luck with the show.
Pfeil: You're welcome. My pleasure.