In my time, I’ve designed everything from silicon chips and circuit boards and brainwave amplifiers to Steampunk Prognostication Engines (don't ask). Sad to relate, I don’t tend to design too much these days. Instead, I seem to spend an increasing amount of time waffling on about how the young designers of today have things so easy and how much harder everything used to be in the days of yore when I was coming up.
Having said this, I do build a lot of hobby projects, as part of which, it seems like I’m constantly running across new design tools. For example, I was just introduced to the Component Search Engine, which provides designers with free access to hundreds of thousands of ECAD and MCAD models in the form of schematic symbols, PCB footprints, and 3D models. Even better, if you need a device they haven’t already got, they will build the models for you, typically within just six short hours, which is amazingly impressive when you learn what they do to guarantee accuracy and quality, but I fear we are getting ahead of ourselves.
Before we proceed, let me reiterate that all of this is free to us as users, irrespective as to what combination of schematic capture, PCB layout, and mechanical design tools we use. As stated on the Component Search Engine website, "There are no fees or any sort of payment requirements for a Component Search Engine account. Footprints, symbols, and 3D model downloads are all FREE."
Also, just to avoid any future confusion, the awesome tool that is the Component Search Engine was created by the clever guys and gals at SamacSys, a global leader in providing schematic symbols, PCB footprints, and 3D CAD models. This explains why you may see me mention either "Component Search Engine" or "SamacSys" in the tools and/or on the websites. Furthermore, just for giggles and grins, a little over a year ago at the time of this writing, SamacSys became part of Supplyframe, which provides access to the world’s largest collection of electronic component search engines, advanced supply chain tools, and online communities to over seven million engineering professionals globally. But we digress...
Seeing the power of the Component Search Engine in action really made me think about how far things have come since I commenced my career. The first time I personally came into contact with a PCB CAD system was in the early 1980s. That really isn’t so long ago in the overall scheme of things, but eons have passed in terms of EDA.
I no longer recall which vendor created this beast, but it really was a monster that came in the form of a desk with an inbuilt computer the size of a filing cabinet and two monitors, which I thought were huge at that time, but were probably no more than 20-inch screens with a 4:3 aspect ratio. The first monitor was black-and-white. This was where you entered command-line instructions along the lines (no pun intended) of "Draw a line from (x1,y1) to (x2,y2)." The second monitor was in color. This is the one that displayed a visual representation of the power, ground, and signal layers forming the board along with things like the outline of the board, the silkscreen, and so forth. I remember gasping in astonishment when I discovered how to turn the display of different layers off and on again.
On the one hand, this was a giant leap forward from creating board layouts by sticking pieces of tape on plastic sheets. On the other hand, it was horribly unintuitive to use and you pretty much had to create everything for yourself, like the PCB footprints for the components, for example.
Even worse was the problem of actually gaining access to any necessary data for the various components themselves—it’s hard to build a PCB footprint if you don’t have access to any appropriate information with regard to things like pad sizes and locations. Many young designers cannot remember a time before the internet we know and love today. Although the precursor to the internet—the Advanced Research Projects Agency Network (ARPANET)—first went live in 1969, it wasn’t until the highly publicized release of the MOSAIC web browser in 1993 that the general public first became aware of the existence of the internet and the concept of the World Wide Web. Even in the mid-1990s, it was still common for TV news programs to explain the meaning of the hosts’ email addresses and/or that channel’s web address shown at the bottom of the screen. Also, at that time, there was virtually no (useful) information on the internet that was relevant to the developers of electronic systems.
As a result, each engineer used to maintain his or her small “library” of data books in their office, and they were constantly loaning books back and forth between themselves. In the case of larger companies, there was typically a corporate “library” (a large room somewhere onsite) that was made available to the design team. If the required data was not available, it would be necessary to contact the manufacturer by phone or by snail mail requesting the desired information, all of which could easily take a couple of weeks. Alternatively, if you were located in a big city, you might be able to contact a local distributor and arrange for a representative to come and visit sometime later in the week (if you were lucky), or the following week (if your luck was running dry).
Recently, I was working on a new hobby project. When it came to one of the components, I wasn’t initially sure which variant to use. Happily, it took only a few moments of searching on the internet to track down the various datasheets and make the appropriate decision.
Suppose you find yourself in a similar situation. As an example, let’s say you decide to use a G125-FS10605F1P connector from Harwin as part of your design, but you don’t have the appropriate schematic symbol, PCB footprint, or 3D model in your libraries—what are you going to do?
Well, now that I’ve discovered the Component Search Engine, I know how I would handle this situation. Let’s assume that you are a new user, in which case the first thing you do is to register. Next, you download and install the Library Loader. The first time you use this you launch it from your desktop. After that, it runs in the background, and any downloads automatically go directly to whichever ECAD tool you select. Speaking of which, the Component Search Engine supports all the usual suspects.
Figure 1: The Component Search Engine supports all the usual suspects, from Allegro to Zuken.
When you select and download a new device, in addition to adding the various elements to the appropriate libraries, the system automatically attaches the schematic symbol to your cursor in anticipation of you placing it in your schematic.
And where do you go to track down the device of interest? Well, remember that for the purpose of this example, we are talking about using a G125-FS10605F1P connector from Harwin. One obvious option would be to use the search field located "front and center" on the Component Search Engine home page.
Figure 2: Using Component Search Engine to find a component.
This takes you to a page that provides links to data sheets, the ability to check prices and stocking levels from various component distributors (including direct links to the relevant pages in those distributors’ online catalogs), and a button that will automatically download and install the symbol, PCB footprint, and 3D model to your system as discussed earlier.
As an aside, I LOVE the direct links to the appropriate pages on the distributor websites. Maybe it’s just me, but I can spend inordinate and frustrating amounts of time on component distributor websites without ever managing to track down the exact component (or variation thereof) I was aiming for.
Alternatively, you may have decided to employ a particular component based on your exploration of the manufacturer’s website. Let’s take a look at the G125-FS10605F1P page on the Harwin site. In addition to all the technical details and the buttons to "Check Availability" and "Request Samples," there’s a button to access the “CAD Models.” Clicking this button results in a pop-up window that presents you with the option of performing a "Harwin Download" of the 3D model on its own, or a "SamacSys Download" of the schematic symbol, PCB footprint, and 3D Model.
Figure 3: The download pop-up window on the Harwin website.
Yet another option is that you came across this particular component while roaming around a component distributor’s online catalog. The following screenshot was taken after performing a search for the G125-FS10605F2 on the Mouser website.
Figure 4: The results from a search on the Mouser website.
Observe the ECAD Model column on the right-hand-side of the above image. Clicking these symbols, which are the same as on the Harwin site, brings up a pop-up window that provides the ability to download the models as discussed earlier.
But what if the schematic symbol, PCB footprint, and 3D model aren’t available for the device you so desperately wish to use (sad face)? In this case, the Component Search Engine presents you with a “Build or Request” button (happy face). In turn, this presents you with the option of using a Wizard to build your own or requesting the folks at Supplyframe to build it for you for free (remember, I told you that everything is free).
This is where things get really clever, because I contacted the folks as Supplyframe and they were kind enough to provide me with an online behind-the-scenes tour. First, they showed me a list of the build requests that were currently in the queue and we selected one of the parts to look at in more detail later. Next, they explained their process, which involves multiple groups that are active 24/7 around the world, so at least two groups are covering every time zone at the same time, if you see what I mean. The reason for having at least two groups active simultaneously is that—in order to ensure extreme quality—each model request is automatically assigned to different builders in the two groups. Both builders create the same models, which are then automatically compared. It’s only when both models are in 100% agreement that they are formally incorporated into the library and the original requester is informed as to that model’s availability.
The folks at Supplyframe tell me that the typical turnaround time from original request to model availability is around only six hours, which is pretty amazing as far as I’m concerned. Do you remember earlier when I said that we selected a part to look at later? Well, by the time we returned to the user-facing portion of the Component Search Engine and we searched on this part, it had already been built and was available for anyone to use.
Actually, this made me think about a new device called the DBM10 from the DSP Group that was only introduced to the market a few days ago as I pen these words. This is a teeny-tiny AI/ML SoC that boasts an ultra-low-power neural network (NN) inference processor.
I started cogitating and ruminating on what I would need to do if I wished to start working on a prototype based on this device. Obviously, I would need a schematic symbol and a PCB footprint; also, a 3D model would be nice. So, I put in a request on the Component Search Engine before I set off for home yesterday. When I arrived in the office this morning, everything I needed for the three versions of this component were already waiting for me. Now, that’s what I call service!
Figure 5: Search results for DBM10 on Component Search Engine.
Of course, the discussions above provide only a high-level introduction to the features, functions, and capabilities provided by the Component Search Engine. For example, we haven’t even mentioned the fact that the engine is tightly integrated in some tools, like Altium Designer, in which case you don’t need to use the aforementioned Library Loader because this capability is already accessible from within the design tool itself.
Now, I have a few more components I want to track down for use in a new project of my own, so I will have to bid you adieu. As usual, of course, I welcome any comments and questions, and if you use Component Search Engine yourself, I’d love to hear any thoughts you would care to share.
Clive “Max” Maxfield is the founder of Maxfield High-Tech Consulting. Max has been at the forefront of EDA technology for over 30 years. He is the author of seven books, including “Designus Maximus Unleashed!” and “Bebop to the Boolean Boogie.”