AltiumLive Summit—Munich, Germany, Part 1
Altium held a very successful AltiumLive PCB Design Summit in San Diego, California at the beginning of October for the benefit of their North American design community, and followed it three weeks later with a counterpart European event in Munich, to which I was delighted to be invited. And what an eye-opener it proved to be—literally hundreds of delegates, a superbly organised and managed programme, billed as a completely immersive two-day interactive design experience on a theme of learning, connecting and getting inspired. And to Altium’s great credit, although they used the event as a vehicle to introduce the latest enhancements to their design tools, the agenda was definitely not primarily sales-orientated but focused on the realities of overcoming current and future PCB design challenges and sharing practical experiences. An intensive two-day schedule combined world-class keynote presentations with professional development workshops and technical breakout sessions, and a team challenge contest provided some constructive after-dinner diversion.
In his welcome and opening remarks, Altium Chief Marketing Officer Ted Pawela was delighted to announce that the number of Altium subscribers had grown to 34,522, making it the world’s largest PCB EDA product user group. Altium recognised that not all PCB designers had the same requirements, therefore a series of four unique PCB solutions had been developed to suit every usage profile and the AltiumLive Summit had been created to bring users closer together as a PCB and electronics design community. He ended his introduction by quoting American civil rights activist Cesar Chavez: “We cannot seek achievement for ourselves and forget about progress and prosperity for our community. Our ambitions must be broad enough to include the aspirations and needs of others, for their sakes and for our own.”
Altium’s Global Head of Technical Marketing, Dan Fersebner, took centre stage to introduce Altium’s latest revision of their mainstream product—Designer 18—which now featured a modernised user interface, multi-board editing, and 64-bit architecture. Many of the enhancements had been based on feedback and suggestions from the design community, although Fersebner referred to Steve Jobs: “You can’t just ask customers what they want and try to give them that. By the time you get it built, they’ll want something new,” adding, “I knew a few of those customers!” The new package included 20 major features, 100 minor improvements and 600 bug fixes. He was joined by colleagues Ben Jordan and David Marrachki, each at a workstation with a big screen overhead, who did a live side-by-side comparison of Designer 18 with Designer 17, to demonstrate the improvements in speed, functionality and user-friendliness.
I never before got to meet Lee Ritchey face-to-face, nor to sit in on his presentations. The AltiumLive event gave me the memorable opportunity to experience both. Acknowledged as one of the industry’s premier authorities on high-speed PCB and system design, Ritchey explored the paradigm shift of PCB design over the last 30 years, and blew out some of the misapprehensions as to causes of the dramatic reduction in the numbers of PCB designers and fabricators in the USA. Whereas there had been over 1200 board shops and the PCB West show had attracted 5000 engineers, there were now only about 200 shops and fewer than 1000 engineers attending PCB West. And the number of laminate suppliers had fallen from 10 to three. What happened? Did everything go off-shore? No!
He explained the trend in terms of innovation and integration, the transition from TTL to CMOS and the evolution of integrated circuits, from devices with 2000 transistors in 1970 to microprocessors with more than 10 billion transistors in 2017, reducing the number of PCBs required to design a computer to one or two.
Taking internet routers as an example, he described the first terabit router, introduced in 2002, which required 51 PCBs and consumed 7kW of power. By 2007, as a result of high levels of integration in ICs, the equivalent router was reduced to a single PCB and consumed one tenth of the power—all of this in five years. In 2013, routers with two and a half times this performance, with 32 ports each operating at 100 Gb/S, were the norm.
“What’s inside a cellphone?” he asked, “One PCB as big as your thumb—that’s where the jobs have gone; we integrated them out of existence!”
What of the future? Would the trend continue? Would more designers lose their jobs? Would the fabricator base continue to shrink? Ritchey thought not; electronics technology had entered an era where almost all products could be designed using a single PCB. But each PCB had more functionality, operated at much higher data rates, and often had more than a dozen different power supply voltages, many of which had dropped to below one volt with currents sometimes exceeding 100 amps. He made the point that technology was changing so rapidly that it was not safe to carry old design rules to new designs, and emphasised the need for advanced training to enable designers to upgrade their skills to ensure that these single-board systems performed properly and safely.
Ritchey’s presentation sparked some energetic discussion about analogue versus digital: “It’s all analogue!” and whether Moore’s Law would come to an end because of limitations in IC fabrication technology. He was asked for recommendations for high-speed materials: “Don’t rely on a single source—design for at least two suppliers!” and whether advances in PCB fabrication would make impedance control tighter: “10% is good enough—any more is a waste of money!” Whatever the problem, he believed that if there was enough money in it, then someone would solve it. He closed with a smile and the simple throwaway: “I’m going to retire, then you can worry about it!”
The trouble with parallel sessions is that you can’t attend them all! The first technical breakout session gave a choice of applications experiences shared by three industry experts: Tor-Anders Lunder, senior hardware engineer at Staaker, makers of the autonomous tracker drone, reviewed some complex geometrical PCB design considerations and explained how the 3D modelling features in Altium designer enabled “right-first-time” multi-PCB product development. Martin O’Hara, senior technical manager at Victory Lighting discussed component selection for best EMC performance, how to identify critical parameters and how to reduce the overall BOM. Richard Marshall, CEO of Xitex addressed the challenges of moving a hardware product into production and onto the market, and how Altium Designer could aid the transition and reduce the workload. These workshops were very well-attended and generated plenty of high-level interactive dialogue.
The afternoon of the first day began with a keynote from Thomas Wischnack, senior expert for Hardware Development at Porsche Engineering Services, billed as “The PCB Doctor,” who would diagnose and treat common design challenges. He began by emphasising that rather than helping developers to cure sick PCBs, his objective was to help the PCBs by curing the developers! Dismissing some of the mythology surrounding EMC, he made it clear that there was no black magic—only physics, and that designs could often be made simpler after being “cured” and all unnecessary components had been removed. He offered interactive consulting for developers, project managers and management, and analysis of hardware, software and interfaces as well as coaching and assistance during validation and production setup. He reviewed some of the common pitfalls which caused designs to fail and once again stressed that the laws of physics could not be cheated and would win whatever the constraints of costs, project plans or project managers.
The basic question was always: “Where does the current flow?” and he had some set ideas on ground planes and where and where not to place ground connections, although not everyone agreed with his philosophy of avoiding copper flooding on outer layers—in particular with respect to the control of plating thickness.
To give an illustration of a design he had helped to optimise, he introduced Rainer Beerhalter, responsible for the design of large LED displays such as those used for outdoor advertising. Each 250mm square module had 176,000 tracks and 11,000 components of which 4096 were individually controllable LEDs. Power consumption had been reduced from 1kW to 420W per square metre: substantial when it took 272 kW to power the perimeter display in a football stadium!
Next came another parallel session, this time with a choice of three professional development courses: an introduction to PCB design with Altium Designer 18, presented by field applications engineer Damien Kirscher; creating documentation for successful PCB manufacturing by TTM field applications engineer Julie Ellis; and effective methods for advanced routing, by San Diego PCB’s Mike Creeden, kindly stepping in at short notice to deputise for Altium senior product manager Charles Pfeil.
I chose to attend Mike Creeden’s tutorial on advanced routing—lucky to get a seat it was so popular! Creeden discussed the routing and power delivery challenges of today and tomorrow. “Where to start? What are the goals for the end usage? What are the cost drivers? We want Revision 1 to work! Visit your PCB fabricator and learn his capabilities.”
He remarked that as speed and performance increased, so did heat, driving a reduction in operating voltages and resulting in reduced package sizes and increased pin counts. With increasing placement and routing density, power delivery and signal integrity became all the more important. To ensure success, routing should be properly constrained. But over-constraining rules should be avoided. The key was in finding the right balance of compromise. “Do a good placement—it will tell you a lot about how feasible it is to route.”
He emphasised the importance of power delivery and power integrity analysis: “If you can’t power your ICs, how can you route them? Where do you put your power plane? Where is your signal return path?” He held the audience enthralled—they hung on the every word of a top IPC Designer Certification Master Instructor as he led them through the complexities of HDI and via fan-outs for fine-pitch BGAs and explained board stack-up options, sequential lamination, thin materials, blind and buried microvias. “How many signal layers do I need?”
An understanding of electromagnetic theory was fundamental to predicting electrical performance and signal integrity at gigahertz frequencies, managing a field to achieve high capacitance and low inductance, and to realise stack-ups that supported functional EMC. “Ground is the most important signal in the circuit.”
Routing differential pairs to efficiently and accurately meet requirements was a feature of the Altium Designer 18 release, and Creeden called upon Altium field applications engineer Carsten Kindler for a live demonstration to illustrate how the system automatically adjusted line widths and spacings according to the stated design rules—one of several enhancements that led to new automation possibilities.
Another difficult decision to make—this time to choose one of three technical breakout sessions: Bernd Schroeder from Fraunhofer Institute for Reliability and Microintegration, describing a novel thermal analysis tool from Altium for online computation of thermal maps based on power dissipation values of components; Martin Gaudion from Polar Instruments, discussing methods for calculating insertion loss with roughness of copper foil; or Dirk Stans from Eurocircuits reviewing the pitfalls to be avoided when creating production-ready PCB and PCBA data.
My choice was the Dirk Stans workshop. A hobby-horse of mine in my PCB fabrication days had been trying to build the interface between design and pre-production engineering—with limited success because few purpose-built software tools were available two decades ago. I was interested to see how Eurocircuits, most of whose sales are on-line, had equipped themselves to deal with over 100,000 orders annually from 11,000 customers for prototype and small batch work, much of it on quick-turn delivery. You certainly need a slick front-end to be able to offer that sort of service!
When Stans spoke of the days when DfM principles existed mainly in the heads of a few professional layout people and a virtual wall existed between the designer and the fabricator, over which the designer would throw the manufacturing information in the hope that the guy on the other side would sort it out, I knew exactly what he meant! “But now I have made a window in that wall”—he described how he had developed a comprehensive set of smart tools and processes to enable intelligent communication through that traditional barrier, and in many cases to educate and assist the customer in avoiding production delays or adding unnecessary cost to the job. He listed some of the key features of his on-line tools, and explained in detail how they enabled accurate price calculation and capability and manufacturability assessment, as well as identifying cost drivers and advising on efficient material utilisation. He showed examples of typical design errors, data anomalies and design-rule violations revealed by his automated analytical procedures; in each case the customer had the opportunity to view the problem, approve any proposed change and formally accept it before proceeding.
The capability of the system extended to the benefit of the assembler, with routines for resolving CAD to CAM issues, rationalising ‘jibberish’ bills of material, access to extensive component libraries, and the facility to optimise the PCBA design flow with smart menus, PCB visualisation tools, automatic pre-CAM procedures, BOM and component placement checkers and PCBA visualisers.
There was obviously still the option for people to talk to people, and Eurocircuits offered wide-ranging technical support, but the proven facility existed for the automated creation of production-ready PCB and PCBA data.
The day’s formal programme completed, a superb buffet dinner was provided for delegates. But where did they sit? They realised the significance of the coloured tags on their ID badges—they indicated membership of a team, mainly composed of people they had never met before. One table, one team. And after the dessert dishes had been cleared away, each team was presented with a large box and told not to open it until directed.
On the word “go” all was revealed. Each box contained components, tools and instructions for the building of a battle robot. No chainsaws of flame-throwers, just an articulated spike for bursting balloons, of which two were to be attached to the back-side of each completed machine. From my neutral position it was fascinating to observe the dynamics of team formation, cooperative work-sharing and product-assembly against the clock. Records were broken!
The robots having been successfully assembled, although sometimes only after an animated debate and a couple of re-work cycles, the second part of the exercise was a knock-out tournament—last team standing after everyone else’s balloons had been punctured. Great fun, great spirit of competition, and great to see the “connect” element of the AltiumLive theme being further promoted. And the beer was good!
Editor's note: To read the part two of this article, click here.