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“Good morning, Europe!” Altium VP of Marketing Lawrence Romine said as he introduced the European edition of Altium’s PCB design conference—established as an annual must-attend event, but for 2020 presented in a virtual format. Bright-eyed, energetic, clean-shaven, and speaking from the U.S., Romine was proud to affirm that he was “staying up through the night to bring it to you live.”
As ever articulate and eloquent, with a dry sense of humour, he recounted a philosophical story from last year’s AltiumLive U.S., when he had casually asked an attendee how he had become an Altium Designer user. The response had been, “I called all the vendors, and you were the only ones who called me back,” which Romine considered foundational to Altium’s success—the company had added a further 9,000 users in the fiscal year just ended.
Where did it all start? In Hobart, Tasmania, in 1988, the days when wealthy designers could afford expensive EDA tools on high-end workstations and hard-up designers had no alternative but to work with Mylar and tape. Protel Autotrax, which subsequently evolved into Altium Designer, was the first professional PCB CAD application designed to run on a personal computer.
Romine reviewed several of the milestones along the road, through features like the first 3D PCB design software in 2006 and the first flex-rigid capability in Altium 14, to the present day. He wanted to put into perspective the features that users had asked for, as well as the features that Altium was adding to continue the trend of transforming the market with industry firsts.
He gave an example from 2006, shortly after he joined the company when the latest iteration was Altium Designer 6. One feature that really grabbed people’s attention was the “flip board” upgrade, allowing the design to be flipped in X or Y and viewed from the other side, which was a precursor to the 3D capability. Romine made the point that Altium had to strike a balance between what was needed immediately and what was seen as a future enhancement.
His concept of “leading” was taking people where they might not want to go, but once they were there, they would never want to come back. Altium always strove to push the limits but without losing focus on the user. Romine also discussed the accelerating design cycle and expanding the influence of the PCB designer into the supply chain, fabrication, and manufacture.
Reflecting on his early days in PCB design in the mid-to-late 1990s, Romine remembered it taking a full year to design a power amplifier. And later, in semiconductors, the design cycle was two years. Looking at the current situation, there was a significant increase in the “velocity” of the design cycle; people were designing multiple PCBs every month.
With increasing design complexity and the need for PCB designers to be “all-purpose,” Gigahertz data rates were commonplace, and there was more sophistication added to the design process, resulting in more of the designers’ responsibilities being absorbed by electrical engineers. Consequently, PCB designers were effectively becoming engineers. And Altium’s success was built on directing its attention to the users of its software, what Romine defined as the “user imperative,” where effectively Altium had more to lose than to gain in maintaining its leading position. Currently, Altium had 130 agents—the whole of the customer-facing workforce—available on its website round the clock for help and support.
What’s coming in 2021? Where was Altium Designer headed for the future? Romine talked about investments—short term and long term. His graph showed a strong upward trend overall and indicated the magnitude of investment per functional area, all with the goal of offering the highest performance in the industry, regardless of the scope of the design.
The star feature of 2019 had been interactive routing. A star feature for 2021 was “dynamic polygons,” which—had this AltiumLive been physically live—would surely have attracted excited applause. But that was not the only new tool in the toolbox. New interactive routing functionalities were being introduced and more high-speed capability. There was definite progress into the domain of signal integrity with accessible technologies, and “in-design SI” analogous to online design-rule-checking with a solver working in the background to flag potential signal integrity issues.
Among the new interactive routing features were “Trombone” and “Sawtooth” tools for net-length matching. There were improvements in schematic capture, constraint management and SPICE simulation, and in stack-up and selective bonding in rigid-flex design.
What about Altium 365, the cloud-based infrastructure platform enabling collaboration between all the key disciplines, from electronics design to mechanical design to parts procurement to fabrication and assembly and helping to bridge the growing gap between design and manufacture?
Romine was joined by Altium's chief software architect Leigh Gawne, who commented that the uptake of Altium 365 had been phenomenal, particularly as coronavirus had forced so many designers to work in isolation. In 2019, the system was demonstrated on the basis of what it was capable of doing. What was now being described was what it had actually achieved and was continuing to achieve.
Gawne had invited members of the team involved in the Open Source Ventilator (OSV) Project to participate in a panel discussion on how the power of Altium 365 had been leveraged to enable the completion of the project from idea to realisation in 30 days. The OSV Project was a global coalition formed entirely of volunteer engineers, corporations, manufacturers, and hospital systems, which helped alleviate worldwide ventilator shortages at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. His panelists were design engineer Dugan Karnazes of Velocity Research, board fabrication expert Rob Cooke of Calumet Electronics, and EMS expert Chris Denney of Worthington Assembly.
Altium 365 had been key to holding the collaborative team together. It interfaced seamlessly with Altium Designer and facilitated the smooth flow of data between domains as the design evolved. Geography was beginning to matter less and less, especially when it came to collaboration. Altium 365 effectively enabled design sharing and collaboration with anyone, wherever they were, in whatever time zone, at any company. And its record of the full design history allowed individual collaborators to visualise what had happened, and by whom, at every step.
Romine thanked the team for the sneak peek behind the scenes and remarked again that he had seen the divide between engineering and manufacturing growing. And 85–90% of Altium’s customers were now electrical engineers, and he believed that as that trend increased, the divide would also tend to increase. One of the major goals behind Altium 365 with Altium Designer was to connect the engineering and the designing communities with the manufacturing community and to realise the benefits that had been discussed in this keynote session.