Pulsonix Expands into North America with Version 10 Release
At PCB West in Santa Clara, California, I-Connect007 Guest Editor Tim Haag and Publisher Barry Matties sat down with Ty Stephens of Pulsonix on the eve of the software developer’s much-anticipated version 10 release date. Stephens outlined many new updates in the upcoming release—which has been in development for over two years—and discussed the company’s desire to break into the highly competitive North American software market.
Tim Haag: Ty, it's great to meet you. I'm not very familiar with Pulsonix, but I’ve done some research, and I'm excited to learn more. For everybody out there, can you give us an overview of your company?
Ty Stephens: Thanks, Tim. It’s good to meet you too. Thank you for your time today. Pulsonix is an advanced schematic capture, simulation program with integrated circuit emphasis (SPICE), and PCB design package, and with our latest release, 3D PCB design capability. We’re a U.K.-based company with key installations throughout the world and are very well established in Europe.
Haag: I see you have a full schematic capture program. Do you offer library parts?
Stephens: Yes, within our design programs, we have our own ready-to-use parts that are supplied with the Pulsonix installation, and also partner component suppliers such as Samacsys, PCB Libraries, SnapEDA, and Ultra Librarian to supply millions of parts and STEP models to our users. With the Pulsonix Component Search Engine—a product delivered in partnership with Samacsys—we can offer over 15 million parts from the click of your cursor for placement in the design and also automatically save them to your libraries.
Haag: So, you're able to offer quite a bit in the schematic portion. I noticed that you have SPICE in there.
Stephens: Yes, we have a fully integrated SPICE simulation package within Pulsonix that allows you to simulate at the click of a button and cross probe symbols to see live results in the application. We also have simulation exports to other SPICE packages as well like LTspice. What is nice is that the same libraries used in our schematic and PCB editors are used for generating SPICE netlists. All our SPICE interfaces are capable of running the external simulators directly from Pulsonix.
Haag: And on the layout side, you have a full place and route. Do you have your own autorouter?
Stephens: Yes, we provide two autorouters within the package; one standard out-of-the-box product that does more of a hand-routed effect to the layout, and a second advanced and more powerful autorouter for higher-density boards that can route much quicker and produce at a higher completion rate.
Haag: You also mentioned earlier that you're doing 3D mechanical, so you're able to interface with some of the other mechanical CAD packages that are out there.
Stephens: That's correct. We use the industry standard STEP format to bidirectionally exchange data between our tool and mechanical systems. We export to DXF, IDF, and IGES to complete our MCAD integration. What we've done now with Pulsonix 10—which is about to be released—is extend our 3D capabilities by allowing users to import their enclosures within the product and make positional changes to components within the 3D environment with live collision alerts between components and the enclosure. This is something we are really proud of and is an extremely powerful feature within Pulsonix.
I spoke to a customer about a year ago informing them where we were going in the 3D area. They told me about an issue they were having where they were sent a board outline from their mechanical team in STEP format, which they would read into Pulsonix. After, they would layout the component positions, produce a STEP file from Pulsonix, and send it back to their colleagues in the mechanical department for collision detection between components and the enclosure. Three or four days later, they'd come back and say, “Your position is slightly wrong. You need to move this component.” They would make this change and repeat the cycle only to find a new issue with placement. Now we're talking seven, 10, or 14 working days just to get the layout positioning correct before you can even start routing.
With Pulsonix 10, you can bring that enclosure into the PCB design environment. Our users can position the enclosure, get the component placement correct using the online collision detection, and then start routing straight away. For this customer, we've gone from essentially 14 working days of downtime to being able to begin routing in a few minutes following the intelligent checking and placement.
Haag: That seems to be a great need among designers. I wish I had that when I was designing boards. I worked for a company where I designed boards for projectors. I’d finish my layout, pat myself on the back, get it back from the 3D mechanical guys, and see a capacitor sticking through the roof of the projector, which was not good.
Stephens: No, that would not be good! That’s exactly the sort of situation Pulsonix 10 is handling and correcting. It brings the design process further forward and definitely saves costly mistakes and time.
Haag: What are your customers saying about this?
Stephens: They're really excited. I think they can now see the benefit of bringing this functionality into one fully unified environment. What we're trying to do is reduce the amount of time spent unnecessarily waiting, especially for those who aren't as multidisciplined. So, if you're purely ECAD centric, you don’t need to wait for your mechanical colleague to come back with positional changes. This is going to save them a lot of time. We're quite excited. The initial response from our current and prospective customers has been very positive, which is encouraging for us.
Haag: What would you say sets apart Pulsonix from the rest of your competition?
Stephens: Mainly, it's about us as a company. The whole company is customer-focused—and I know every EDA vendor says that—but we really are, which makes my job exciting. When we work with customers, we service their needs and address their issues. As a dynamic company, we put a high emphasis on listening and reacting to our customers, which flows through the whole company—not just the customer-facing teams, but also the backroom staff and developers.
Tim, you might know this from when you were in the field. If you had a question that needed answering from support or you found a bug in the software, how long could it take for you to get a response from your local support channel? Days, weeks, or months? With us, it doesn’t take weeks or months! We aim to respond immediately to customer reported issues. Typically, critical fixes are issued within 24 hours or less and even less than that Europe where the time zones are closer to that of the U.K. Our fixes are tested and delivered back to the customer in the field so that they can continue designing with minimum interruption. Imagine waiting for a critical fix that takes weeks. How could you even use that product?
Haag: A 24-hour turnaround time is excellent. You mentioned that you are coming out with version 10. Your current stable release is version 9, but is there anything about version 10 that you would like to tell people that will grab them?
Stephens: Version 10 concentrates extensively on our 3D environment, integrating enclosures and component positional changes that are automatically mimicked in the 2D PCB as well. Clash detection, reporting, and visual references complement the enclosure and component placement. We’ve also made the 3D preview more photorealistic for premanufacturing visualisation. In addition to the 3D changes, there are a number of other features that have made V10 exciting, such as naming rules, which amongst other style types, can be used for naming pads styles.
For example, where pads should use the IPC naming convention or a company standard name, this can be applied automatically using predefined naming rules based on shape and size criteria that the user inputs. We have also enhanced our copper pouring algorithm so that the moving of objects in or into an existing poured area are automatically healed. By making this zonal aware, the healing is handled in real time extremely fast. A new selection mask tool enables our users to make intelligent selections within a design based on predefined selection criteria of items types. That means much more selective picking in a design where items are and are not required.
For Pulsonix PCB, additional design for manufacture (DFM) rules have been added to bring manufacturing checking further forward in the design process by checking for acid traps and track backoff, for example. Another significant change was to our interactive high-speed engine. Differential pair routes can now be made using any angle start and finish points on component pads. We’ve also added the ability to route differential pairs using filleted corners for smooth routing across the design.
Barry Matties: How long have you been working on this new release?
Stephens: The new release itself has been in the background for just over two years and what we see now is just the start of it; there's a lot more to come. We've put the building blocks in place for moving forward and this first release is coming slightly earlier than we anticipated, but that's because we're further ahead with our development. There's a lot more to come from our 3D engine and other areas we’ve been looking at that we’re excited about.
Matties: How much customer input do you get when you're putting together a release?
Stephens: An awful lot. Customers use our product daily, and they help us drive our development in terms of content. Like I said earlier, we listen and react to our customers; it’s more of a partnership than a vendor-customer relationship.
Matties: A lot of customer input, but are they in your studio working with you? Do they come in and work with your engineers?
Stephens: That's a good question. Yes, they do come in and work with us in-house and meet the development team. We work with customers who have a real sort of closeness to us; they help define critical functionality. We specify it with them to ensure it's what they want. Also, when we're doing the development phase, we have them look at the software early in the process. We have people visit our head office to see what's coming, and they have an input. This is critical to our success and ensuring the product is created to be usable.
To give you an example, we were writing our high-speed engine a couple of years ago. We actually rewrote it halfway through the development to accommodate a lot more functionality when we realized there was a lot more that was needed. That was all based on customer feedback. So, rather than releasing it and not having usable functionality, we rewrote the whole engine. It took a little bit longer, but that was a classic example of how we involve our customers.
Matties: In any case, bringing in the 3D feature was a market driver. Now, it’s how do you tune it to meet their specific requirements best?
Stephens: Yes, exactly that. We’re focused very heavily on customer input and overall customer satisfaction; fine-tuning is critical to the success of a release.
Matties: What is the greatest challenge in bringing out a new piece of software like that?
Stephens: I think it's all about getting it right and finding the correct feel of the product. Introducing new functionality is great, but does it feel right to the user? That's where we involve them because it's all good from a development side or from a management side to say, “This is what we want. How are we going to get there?” But the users are the ones who are going to use it every day, so it has to feel right; that's where their input really helps us. It’s also the biggest challenge because we have to involve lots of different people and get a variety of ideas to succeed. There’s always a balance of getting the functionality finished and the release quality too. Having a quality product first time at release is important for us.
Matties: The other thing you mentioned was regions. You're now making a stronger presence here in North America. Tell us about that. What was the motivation, and what opportunities do you see?
Stephens: We know the size of North America as a market, and there is huge potential for us. We are very successful in Europe and Germany in particular, so we know that the market is available. We also know that in Europe and Germany, the product is positioned correctly based on its capabilities and unbeatable price. For us, it’s all about exposing this great product to North America. We can see there is potential from being here at the PCB West show today. We've had a good response already, which is pleasing. It seems to be a positive time for investment at the moment, so we have to make the most of it.
Matties: Here in North America, there's a lot of adopted technology already in place. When do people decide to make a switch; what's the trigger for them even to consider looking? And how do you fit into that mix since they have so many known suppliers?
Stephens: Right now, we are seeing a lot of disgruntled users in the market who are fed up with paying extortionate prices for outdated and overcomplicated software that has notoriously poor support and customer service. For us, a customer-centric company that offers advanced PCB design tools at a fraction of the purchase price of our competitors is a real advantage. Our ongoing maintenance costs are a lot lower too, so the overall cost of ownership is lower for the customer.
Furthermore, it's about being the right fit for that company. Is your software right for them? Does it offer more than what they're already using? It may come down to a cost-related purchase, such as do we meet all the requirements and provide cost savings at the same time?
Matties: Is there any advice you would give to the design community about the tools or approach?
Stephens: The important part of it is just trying to stress that you are listening to them and their needs. It’s about trying to differentiate ourselves from the other players already here in the market who are much larger than us. They can often seem disconnected from the end users. We’re all about being there for the users and listening to them.
Matties: Do you have any advice about how designers should go about choosing a new ECAD tool?
Stephens: I think they have to use a tool that is intuitive and easy to learn, and that's based on personal choice. My advice would be to make sure that the tool they use—whichever it is—meets their requirements, whether it’s design capability or budgetary. Secondly, how intuitive is it? How many hours do they have to spend reading the documentation or contacting technical support? If they can spend a minimal amount of time and be as productive as possible, then I think that's the right choice for them.
Matties: That's great advice for anybody using software—not just designers.
Haag: You mentioned migrating people over to your software. Do you have translation facilities within your software?
Stephens: Absolutely. We have the largest set of translation tools in the market so we can import data very accurately from many different EDA providers. Again, listening to customers, they told us they needed to import their intellectual properties, designs, and libraries, which is important, but so is the accuracy of the imported designs. We’ve put a lot of emphasis on the quality of the imports so that there is no reworking once the design has been imported.
Haag: Here's a geeky layout question for you. When are we going to be able to start routing in 3D?
Stephens: Great question. Some very expensive high-end tools already route in 3D on a 3D-structured surface, but it is leading-edge technology and not mainstream yet. The process is typically referred to as a mechatronic integrated device (MID).
Haag: Not the mainstream tools.
Stephens: No, for mainstream tools, I think we're probably a few years away from that. It depends where we go in terms of market drivers. MID is becoming available, but the cost of manufacturing has made it prohibitive as a mass production alternative at the moment. It’s also quite specialized, but if our customers demand it, we’ll look at it.
Haag: I know when 3D routing starts, the layout guys are going to be wandering around with a giant bottle of aspirin. That's going to be a headache.
Stephens: Yes, it will. There are all sorts of issues involved with this technology. The physical manufacturing and reliability will play an important part too.
Haag: Do you have any last-minute things you want to tell us about this show and how it's going for you?
Stephens: The show has been excellent. The market seems to be changing in North America with an air of positivity. We’ve had a great response from potential customers, and our existing users are very encouraging too. Pulsonix has had success when it has been exposed, and we’re hoping to capitalize on that going forward.
Haag: Thank you very much for your time, Ty.
Stephens: Thank you so much.
- Download Pulsonix
- New functionality in Pulsonix 10.0