Mentor Graphics’ PADS Platform Bridges Design and Manufacturing
At PCB West, I spoke with Paul Musto, marketing director for Mentor Graphics’ Systems Division, about Mentor’s PADS Product Creation Platform and their introduction of scalable software tools to help design better boards, from the enterprise level down to the entry level and hobbyists. We also discussed the continuing evolution of the design process infrastructure in North America vs. Asia, and what design engineers should focus on to increase their value within that process.
Barry Matties: One of the most common concerns I hear in the marketplace is that many designers don't have hands-on manufacturing knowledge.
Paul Musto: That's true. In general, with the PADS Product Creation Platform launch, we're trying to shift our focus to the engineering desktop. These are design engineers who don't have a lot of experience or training in board design and typically don’t have a lot of knowledge about that manufacturing element of it. Traditional PCB designers would certainly get trained through various means, such as IPC, and they would be very well aware of manufacturing requirements and constraints that they need to follow. With the evolution towards design going to the engineering desktop, these engineers are trying to do it all, so they have less knowledge about the specific manufacturing requirements to get their design successfully fabricated.
What we can do as a tool provider is give them easy, intuitive access to run manufacturing-based checks on their design, right there on their desktop, and be able to easily get information and feedback that enables them to go through and correct those violations. In the PADS environment, we have a product called DFMA that encompasses about 100 of the most common Valor DFM checks and it is plugged directly into the PADS environment. You can run those checks and get graphical feedback of where the errors or violations are, with very intuitive ways of how to resolve those errors and issues.
Matties: Programming that must have been a lengthy undertaking.
Musto: We were able to leverage the Valor NPI technology, which is a very comprehensive DFM analysis and checking environment, so we were able to utilize the robustness of these checks and improve the usability and integration to make it easier to use within the PADS environment. There's still some effort in setting it up and making sure that you understand what manufacturing checks are required, depending on what fabricator you use, but for an engineer, it's all about reducing risk and this effort can pay big dividends. There are two things: engineers don't want to send their design off and have it come back because they've made some violation or had some issue from a manufacturing perspective. The other thing that's very common is that fabricators will actually change design content to improve yield and manufacturability, or if they encounter an error they'll do whatever they need to do to fix it on their end. Often these changes are made without the engineer ever even knowing.
Matties: It shouldn't get to that point, right?
Musto: It shouldn't. The point is that if you're a design engineer and you're working on a really complex design, you don't want your fabricator changing anything that you've designed and validated on your end. You’ve run simulations, you know this works, and now you bring it to the fabricator and he tweaks something that might have violated design intent.
Matties: Is that “no time to do it right, plenty of time to do it over?” Or is that just somebody's interpretation of what's best? If a fabricator comes back, saying, "Oh, we should do it like this." The designer's saying, "No, no, this is exactly what I want."
Musto: It goes back to the original point you were making, that the fabricator understands all the nuances to make a design higher yield from a manufacturability perspective. Or, without the DFM checks, the designer would have violated some manufacturing constraint or rule. Again, there's that gap in knowledge. If you have a design engineer who's an EE, they're not going to know all the intricacies of manufacturing, so they're not going to understand the rules. This DFM environment enables them to take that 100 or so very common checks and bring that further up in the design process. So without them really being manufacturing experts, they can run the same checks that would be typically run by the fabricator.
Matties: When they run a check, what sort of acceptance do you expect the fabricator to have?
Musto: 100%. Again, these are 100 core Valor NPI checks that most manufacturers will use during their verification process.
Matties: Having Valor in your tool chest must give you a heck of a competitive advantage.
Musto: Absolutely. The one value that Valor brings to the table is that we can see the design all the way from inception down to the shop floor. In fact, our technology not only does the design for manufacturing checks, which we're trying to drive further upstream in the design process, but we also have the technology that's actually going to drive the SMT machines. That technology then collects the data and does the material management and the quality assessment. Where we're going in the future is to take that Valor knowledge and push it further upstream into the design process. Imagine how valuable it would be to modify or engineer your design based on actual manufacturing yield data that you've collected on the shop floor, on that product, on your SMT lines.
Matties: That's incredibly valuable. Are there other companies that are positioned the way Mentor is in terms of these assets?
Musto: No, not in that respect. Valor’s pretty much the de facto standard for manufacturing design verification and shop floor.
Matties: Was this a natural evolution to bring Valor into the family, or was it more of a strategic vision that somebody had?
Musto: It was the vision of being able to tie that element of manufacturing closer into the design process to mitigate the risks associated with throwing a design over the wall to fabrication, and manufacturing a design that's not optimized or has potential errors.
Mentor has always been interested in being more than just the PCB schematic capture, design and, place-and-route tool supplier – we want to look at the entire design flow. Our customers don't think about just building a PCB design; they have to worry about the entire product creation process. Mentor is really the only PCB solution out there, and the only EDA company that can really provide a solution that helps designers work on PCB systems design in a holistic way.
Matties: So for PADS, which is a non-enterprise tool, how does it support the design through manufacturing flow?
Musto: With the PADS Product Creation launch, we've restructured the way that we present the tools to our user communities. Designers can buy into a core flow or a core platform, which is your PCB front-end and back-end design layout portions of it, with all the key functionality required. Some people are doing DDR design, some have low power issues, whereas other might want to roll in a DFM-type check environment to make sure the designs are manufacturable. We've created this PADS base platform where users can buy these modules that can be plugged in as needed, to do more advanced kinds of analysis, including thermal, high-speed simulations for DDR, and DC drop. There is also an electrical DRC checker that enables the user to check signal integrity of the design without the need to be an expert or run simulations. This can be valuable since engineers aren't necessarily signal integrity experts.
Our HyperLynx DRC product encapsulates simulation-based rules in a design rule check fashion, so they're more physically oriented. You can run these rules and it correlates to simulation results, identifies potential errors and issues in your design. You can fix the errors without having to run simulations and analyze wave forms and other kinds of data.
Matties: So part of the strategy is reducing the amount of time from concept to final design as well?
Musto: Absolutely. There are essentially three tiers of product that you can purchase. There's a PADS base standard configuration which is front-end design and back-end design. The PADS Standard Plus configuration incorporates all of your basic front-to-back design capabilities along with high-speed analysis. There's a conductive thermal analysis capability as well. Those are the base platforms. The high- end PADS Professional configuration draws in Xpedition-level capabilities and technology from our enterprise product line. The idea is that you can scale it as a user. If you're just doing a start-up and developing your first design, you might start off with the standard version, but as your designs become more complex, you'll be able to grow and scale your design requirements. Going back to what I was saying before, the modules add another dimension to that.
A customer using the PADS standard version may have a low power issue and will want to analyze the power delivery network. We have a DC drop tool for less than $5,000 to add onto your base configuration to run that kind of simulation. One of the things that we found in the entry-level market is that people don't really have access to those kinds of technologies; they're typically reserved for the high-end signal integrity guys, so they're high-priced and out of reach. We wanted to leverage that technology down into the mainstream for people who are innovators, entrepreneurs, building new technology, next generation technology, and over time, enable them to evolve and grow with the product.
Matties: Mentor offers the Xpedition flow for enterprise customers as well. So are there clear distinctions between both types of customers?
Musto: What makes Mentor different than a lot of the other EDA vendors, in addition to the breadth of our solutions, is that we have different solutions aimed at different market segments. If you're a hobbyist or an entry-level designer who wants a very low-cost solution, you can get that. If you are in the mainstream space, that’s where the PADS product line sits. Then at the enterprise level, we have a set of enterprise tools, with capabilities for a large team environment where many engineers are working on a single project.
We connect all of this technology so that it's scalable, so if you start out in the mainstream you can work your way up to enterprise tools. If your company gets acquired or it evolves into an enterprise-type environment and you need to add elements like library management, data management, and other enterprise infrastructure demands, we can help you every step of the way.
Matties: What do you think are the greatest challenges for a designer?
Musto: Designs are becoming more complex, systems in general are becoming a lot more complex, and you have geographically dispersed teams and engineers. The one thing I keep touching on about the engineering desktop is that the role of the specialist is going away. It's changing where you once had a design engineer, a signal integrity engineer, a PCB layout guy, a manufacturing guy, and you'd have all these specialists within your organization that you could rely on. That doesn't work anymore. There are still a lot of companies that have PCB design groups, but PCB design expertise, in general, is declining.
More importantly, designs are becoming so complex that it requires a lot more upfront design consideration and analysis to get a functional product out the back end. Again, whether you're in a small company, a large company, whether you're using desktop tools or engineering tools, everybody's playing a much larger role in the overall product creation process. Even PCB designers are now being required to run simulation and analysis or at least be able to provide data back to their engineers.
Matties: One of the most common challenges that we hear from designers is they don't have enough time to do their design, they don't have enough real estate to do their design, and they're not brought into the process early enough. It's going over the wall and they often don't have all the data that they need when they start the design. I’ve heard this set of four or five complaints or issues for many years.
Musto: I was going to say, that hasn't changed much in the last 30 years.
Matties: But why not? Why doesn't it change?
Musto: Because as we get faster and more efficient, the demands for being faster and more efficient go up as well.
Matties: That's a foundational change, I think. If you're running a business today and, as you're saying, the designers are so critically important, why aren't we bringing them in sooner?
Musto: That goes to the point where design engineers are required to do a lot more early validation and prototyping on their piece to make sure that, after it gets passed off, there’s less risk that the design's not going to work. Today, designs and systems are becoming a lot more complex, so we have to do things differently. We have situations with a couple of customers who do large multi-board systems that are incredibly complex. In the past, there would be a system architect who would partition the design into its individual elements and boards, then everybody would go off and design their boards, and eventually it all gets connected and hooked together and everything works.
Now it's to the point where if you don't look at this system in its full entirety and context, it's not going to function, it's not going to work, and it’s a heightened risk. Companies are realizing that they cannot afford this risk. They don't want to go down this path with these massive investments in technology and have something that potentially doesn't work at the back end of it. That's driving the change.
Matties: Your tools are really answering that age-old problem to fill that gap with knowledge.
Musto: Yeah, and to make sure that we keep the community of engineers and designers connected—there’s intelligence behind this. In the example that I gave, whether you're working on board A, B, or C, there's some communication and infrastructure that ties those communities together so that if some change happens that might impact design A, there's a link to catch and communicate that change to the other teams.
Matties: Your tools allow for collaboration up and down the supply chain, as you were saying. Is it a simple solution for people?
Musto: Yes. Actually, the other piece of the collaboration factor is at the individual board level. Multiple people can be working on the same PCB design at the same time, in a concurrent, real-time design environment. That's real time.
Matties: Designers must be really excited when that feature came online, or maybe they weren’t [laughs]?
Musto: It's a double-edged sword, yeah [laughs].
Matties: They're like, "What the hell? Why are you doing it like that, Bob?"
Musto: They're very protectionist. For management teams who are looking at reducing cycle time and improving efficiency, this was the way to do it. You put two or three people on a design and let them crank away. A lot of the designs today are built up of IP blocks. This allows them to go work on the GPU section, the MPU section, or whatever section of the design that can be separated and partitioned so designers can collaborate and get the project completed quicker. Then you have the higher level of abstraction where you have all these multiple boards in the same system that all need to talk to each other to some extent.
Matties: What would you say to a designer who walked up and said, "I'm a designer. What's the best piece of advice you could give me?"
Musto: Obviously, I think it's all about broadening your experience and opening your mind to doing things differently and in new ways. It's really vital and critical, whether you're a design engineer or a PCB layout guy, to extend your reach beyond just your particular function. As a PCB designer, you need to start incorporating simulation analysis and more verification checks into your world to make you more valuable as an individual. As a design engineer, you need to understand simulation, analysis, verification, and even board design, in order to increase your value within the enterprise, beyond your specific job function.
Matties: With the average age of designers though, does the phrase “teach an old dog a new trick” come into play?
Musto: Exactly. We face this all the time, absolutely.
Matties: If I look for the youth in design, do I have to look oversees? Is that where the design boom is going on in terms of demographics?
Musto: That's correct. I think that's another factor in driving the change in the way companies work. The PCB design community is definitely an aging community, and we actually have studies that show there aren't enough people to fill the spots that are being vacated by this generation of PCB layout designers. Again, some of the PCB design task is falling back onto the design engineers.
Matties: What's the impact of that? What do you think the impact of that will be in 10–20 years?
Musto: We've talked about it for 30 years where we’ve said that the design engineer is going to take over the PCB design task, and it's really never come to fruition. We are in the cusp of that happening where the board design process responsibility is shifting more to the engineer. I believe on the back end of that you'll have people who are manufacturing experts or those who take the enterprise design and pull it together. It's going to elevate everybody's role where they need to play at a different level.
It's going to drive changes in the tools as well. Now you're going to have tools that will be more intuitive to use. There’ll be designers using their tools for short periods of time, so when they need that tool again, it has to be intuitive enough for them to pick it up right away. We also need to increase the levels of automation because they're not going to want to do everything manually. So as this shift is starting to happen, we're working very hard to make sure that the tools are ready.
Matties: Do the marketing or presentation between Asia, and China in particular, and America differ dramatically? Are their values different in terms of what they're seeking?
Musto: We see the work environment is very differently in Asia than we do here in the United States. In Asia we tend to still see companies using manual and resource and time-intensive methods of getting designs completed; for example, multiple people on a single design. It seems that Asia’s priorities rely less on automation and more on interactive design efficiency.
Matties: It's more about bringing automation in to eliminate that though, because we don't want to throw more people at it. What we want to do is throw technology at it, right?
Musto: China is perhaps a little bit behind on that curve, whereas in North America and Europe, you have more openness to that kind of shift happening faster. In places like China and India, where labor is less costly, you still have the ability to throw manual labor at solving complex problems. It's definitely starting to change, and we're starting to see that change.
Matties: Are they just waiting for the right tool, what's the roadblock? Is there a cultural difference to how you're approaching this?
Musto: It's an evolving process. In the United States there's gravitation towards a higher degree of automation when provided superior technology to perform a task. It’s really difficult to deal with a lot of these design challenges today in a pure manual process. Automation takes on a different feel. It's not like, "Oh, I'm going to take my board and throw it into an autorouter tonight, I'll come in in the morning and it'll be all routed," because it's not going to be routed to a point that will meet all of the design intent. There are different ways of approaching it, such as isolated automation.
One method we've seen to be very successful is our feature called the Sketch Router. This allows you to take groupings of nets, whether it’s a byte lane or a number of byte lanes in an interface, and be able to sketch a path. Then it would automatically solve and route all the paths. It's a huge time saver if you have a large BGA device, or something similar, that you're routing. We are seeing a higher utilization of interactive automation rather than full automation. Also, bringing some of the simulation and manufacturing checks that have traditionally been accomplished later in the design cycle, much further up in the design process, has been a huge time saver for design teams. It's about completing that design and having it correct at the back end. In the past, they would do a design and then pass it off to PCB layout. Well, there would be 20 ECOs in the middle of all that, which would create disruption, and then that design would go out and they would catch simulation and manufacturing errors and the design would have to go back. Bringing manufacturing check automation and simulation upfront reduces that substantially.
Matties: It sounds like Mentor is headed in the direction of more automation, with an aging population here and no pipeline filled with youth. It seems like there's either going to be this big push to recruit or a big push to automate, but it's going to be a big issue.
Musto: I think we're going to see a convergence of both. I think the PCB designer will be a very valuable asset 10 years from now because there are going to be so few.
Matties: Where do you go to learn about it? It's not a trait that people are really seeking out.
Musto: I don't know if this is a trend, but we're definitely seeing more designs that aren't typically ground up from scratch. You don't start with a blank schematic for instance. Many, many designs today start somewhere, with something that's been done and proven.
Another way that we'll reach higher efficiency, better predictability, and lower risk, is by being able to reuse tried and true IP blocks in a particular design. In fact, one company that I've talked to actually uses their best engineers solely to design modules. Those modules are IP blocks, they get stored in a library and then those IP blocks are managed and distributed through their enterprise. When you bring in these IP blocks and look at how the world is changing, the IP blocks are not just logical blocks—they're also physical blocks. Even the PCB design piece of it can be reused and instantiated on a new design.
This was a big shift in the IC world and it will be interesting to see if PCB follows that, with companies selling IP now, and they sell soft IP and hard IP, and it's the same thing. Will there be the availability of these soft IP blocks where it's just the logic, or a combination of the logic and the physical implementation of it? It’ll be interesting to see if that happens.
Matties: That's going to affect your business one way or another, but you're going to be prepared for it, that's the idea.
Musto: Exactly. That's our challenge. We have to keep current on technology and market trends to ensure we have the right solutions at the right time to enable our customers to successfully complete their product development.
Matties: Considering that you have such a foundation in all these assets, I'm very curious what you see down the road, since these are problems that we're going to have to deal with as an industry.
Musto: We have to understand how customers are beginning to work their way through this change and how they want to function differently going forward. It's like design IP, if you have a company now focused on not designing everything from scratch, but on doing buildable blocks.
We’re starting to see that already in the IoT space. You can get numerous, different building blocks, put them together, and then you have IP around sensors, a processor, around memory, and maybe around Bluetooth or a WiFi module.
Matties: The trick is pulling it all together from every resource; who is doing that? Who's building that library for everybody to have this?
Musto: It follows the IC model and that's exactly the biggest issue in the IC space right now. I have this IP from these separate vendors, I'm targeting it towards a specific foundry, but how do I bring it all together to make sure it's right? That's where the whole issue of design verification becomes critical.
The changes to the design process itself, as a software supplier and EDA vendor, are what we have to understand and realize that companies are going to have massive libraries of IPs. It's not just about components anymore; it's going to be how do we manage IP blocks? If I make a change to an IP block, how do I alert the quality department who's going to trace where that IP block has been instantiated? What designs, what's out in the field, what is the quality feedback that we're receiving from the field on that particular IP block, and how do we do updates? It changes that whole dynamic of the design process. Again, it goes back to that infrastructure to tie the various teams and groups together so that they can share this information.
Matties: Is there anything that we haven't talked about that you think we should discuss?
Musto: There's a significant evolutionary change, especially in the mainstream market. These are companies that don't have PCB design specialists and experts, and there's a tremendous amount of innovation and entrepreneurialism going on out there. There are start-ups everywhere, and these are pretty small entities. That is also going to drive some of the changes we see in the future, in terms of the type of people that make their way into the industry, and the profile of our end-users in these large enterprise corporations, because they're going to be a lot more self-sufficient.
If I'm creating a start-up, I don't go out and hire a PCB layout guy, a design engineer, and an SI specialist. I just don't have the resources to do that. I'm going to do it all, and that's what we're seeing. Those companies evolve to mini enterprises, and then they grow up to be enterprises. Hopefully, we will be right there to work with them through that transition. Those enterprises are going to function a lot differently in the future, relying more on these IP blocks and being able to manage all that information. That's the value that we can provide, to help them manage that collection and the complexity of data and information that they have in their environment.
At Mentor, our PCB Tech Leadership Awards are a distinction because they provide us with trend data. We actually reach out to our customers who are using a broad swath of our technologies, and it's a competition that we hold every year. From that, we have visibility into vertical segments to understand the complexities that they face. This also gives us some guidance of what we need to do to create better solutions for our customers. That's really another distinction.
Matties: Nothing like having data to guide your path forward, right?
Musto: It's really useful data and we've provided these design awards for the past 28 years. It gives us a peek into each and every customer who enters.
Matties: I was going to ask if we could get design information because it would be really good to see the trends.
Musto: To look way back in 1990, at something compared to today’s designs, it's amazing.
Matties: And what the issues were back then and be able to talk about how they've evolved and what the issues are today.
Musto: As a leader in the PCB systems business, this allows us to do a lot of retooling and new product development. As a segue, we'll be reaching out to I-Connect007 shortly because we have many new technologies to talk about.
Matties: Thank you so much for your time today.
Musto: Thank you.