Altium Designer Increasingly Used for High-Speed Design

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I recently met with Mark Forbes, the director of technical marketing at Altium, during the AltiumLive event in San Diego. We discussed Mark’s class on MCAD/ECAD collaboration and the success of AltiumLive, as well as the growth of Altium users who design high-speed PCBs with Altium Designer.


Andy Shaughnessy: Good to see you again, Mark. One of the only things that Altium seems to be lacking in is a high-speed tool. But at this event, I've talked to designers who are doing some high-speed stuff with Altium Designer. How common is that among Altium users?

Mark Forbes: Here’s a good example. I went out to visit a customer to do a customer success video, and I was chatting with the engineer before we began. I asked him how long he had been using Altium Designer, and he said just a couple of months. Then, I said, "Do you have any boards you've done?" He pulled out this very small board, probably two inches by two inches, and it's all HDMI. The board has a radius on one edge, but the two sides are not parallel. This is a difficult design, and it was for a drone. I said, "When did you do this?" He said, "That was my first board." I said, "How long had you used Altium Designer before you designed this?" He said, "Maybe a week." I was very impressed. He was able to put together a high-speed design on a very constrained board, and he had virtually no experience with the tool.

Shaughnessy: I was talking to somebody last night who is doing 10-Gbps boards, some pretty high-speed stuff with Altium Designer. It's not really designed for high speed, but some designers are doing that anyway.

Forbes: High-speed design is interesting. I go back a long way, and early on, high speed was one megahertz. Back in the early days of software tools for PCB design, the only place you could go to find out anything about high speed was the Motorola RF Design Guide, which we called the designer’s bible. That's where anyone who wanted to know about high speed went if they wanted to learn about crosstalk and all of the problems that you get running at radio frequency speeds.

With most boards now, you worry about those same things, but it's come a long way. As a customer once told me, "I can do anything, including high speed. It might take a little longer, but the other things like learning the program are very quick." Lots of people find that within a week they’re up making boards. Maybe they’re doing something that next week they’re going to learn to do quicker, but they’ve got it down. And that's the bottom line, right? Get it done, on time, and out the door.

Shaughnessy: Somebody was saying that Altium was almost fun to use. You never hear people say that their tools are fun.

Forbes: I've heard that more than once, yes. The other project that this fellow did was really interesting too. They had a medical probe, and the customer wanted them to put a Bluetooth interface in it so they could watch it in the surgery gallery. They were not allowed to alter any external characteristics. The connector was about an inch in diameter, and they pulled it apart, and they found that if they made several rigid-flex connections, they could wrap the circuits around the connector. Then, they had another flex circuit that came out and went over the pins to grab power. It was a really clever design.

Shaughnessy: So, tell me about your talk on MCAD/ECAD.

Forbes: I'm going to give a sneak preview of some excellent improvements we've made in our ECAD/MCAD collaboration tool. It’s a presentation with a customer, which is great because the customer has a lot of experience and they’re going to go over these problems that users have and how they would be solved if we could do this electronically. One of the things that customers have been asking for is the ability to move the copper so that the mechanical person can say, "I can't put a mounting hole here, because we'll go through a trace.”

That's what we can do in Altium Designer, and it's quick and accurate. That's the other thing that customers have mentioned: Some of the tools bring the shapes over, but the dimensions are not preserved—just the relative dimensions. I went in and made a mounting hole the other day, measured it, and it was 0.0246. Then, I went over to the MCAD tool, and it was 0.0246. It's exact, so when your mechanical person puts it into an enclosure and it fits, it will to fit when you make the hardware.

Shaughnessy: Is this with the STEP files?

Forbes: We are working with Parasolid data. It is much smaller than STEP but contains more information. The data is translated in a workspace in the cloud then sent to the Altium plugin in the MCAD tool.

Shaughnessy: So, you don't have to keep going outside the tool.

Forbes: Exactly. And the people I've shown it to say, "Wow, that can save a lot of time. " I can have an interaction five or six times in 10 minutes with a mechanical person, whereas if I have to go over there and we're looking at drawings or something, that's going to take half a day. If I can virtually prototype it like that and maintain those kinds of dimensions and tolerances, then I know when I build the hardware that I'm not going to have to re-spin it; it's going to fit. In the past, I've had to design things that didn't quite fit. Oops! You have to move things around. I didn't think that pin was there. It just adds time and cost.

Shaughnessy: It sounds like they're keeping you busy.

Forbes: Oh my, yes.

Shaughnessy: Where are you based now?

Forbes: I still live up in the Pacific Northwest in Washington right across the river from Portland. I do a lot of flying. There's no state income tax in Washington and no sales tax in Oregon. When I moved from California, for the same gross, my net went up 10.2%.

Shaughnessy: Where were you living in California?

Forbes: Sacramento.

Shaughnessy: And that's not even the worst place to live as far as cost.

Forbes: No, no. When I first moved out here, I lived in San Jose—expensive, lots of traffic, and it took a long time to get to anywhere. Now, I can be in the Columbia River Gorge in 14 minutes.

Shaughnessy: Do you fish?

Forbes: I do. I'm a bass fisherman.

Shaughnessy: I like to fish. Well, I like to catch.

Forbes: That's why I fish for bass. Those guys go out for salmon, they'll catch maybe two a year, and I'll catch 30–40 bass in a day. It’s a lot of fun, and like they say, "Give a man a fish, feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, and he's going to buy a boat, a trailer, and a truck."

Shaughnessy: Brilliant. Anything else you want to mention?

Forbes: I've talked to quite a few customers in the last few days, and the reception to this event is incredible. People love to get together and learn new things, as well as talk with people who do the same thing in different design spaces or whatever; they love to exchange ideas. At every break, people are talking, having an enjoyable time, and learning something that's going to benefit their work.

Shaughnessy: I can't believe you had 200+ designers last year.

Forbes: And more this year. For many trade shows, attendance has really gone down, and you ask why—travel costs, lodging costs, etc. But this event, because it's so focused and people can exchange one on one, is doing really well.

Shaughnessy: Thanks for taking the time to speak with me today, Mark.

Forbes: Thank you, Andy.


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