Young, vibrant designers and engineers brought passion to Altium’s second annual user conference in October.
Empathy isn’t a word I’ve ever associated with PCB design during my 12 years covering the industry, but after attending AltiumLive, it now makes the short list.
The three-day event featured veteran heavy-hitters still passionate about their fields, including Eric Bogatin, Rick Hartley and Susy Webb, with a special happy hour book signing with Happy Holden.
What stood out, however, was the refreshing, youthful exuberance I haven’t witnessed in quite some time. For the past several years, we’ve anticipated a wave of retirements, and widespread concern about who will fill well-worn shoes in PCB design has been an ongoing topic everywhere I go.
AltiumLive gave me hope.
The conference attracted 21 students from five universities, Lawrence Romine, Altium’s VP of marketing, said, but they weren’t the only minds under 30 whom Altium highlighted. Leading the charge was keynote speaker Jeremy Blum, director of hardware at Shaper.
Blum’s resume is impressive for any electrical engineer, but for someone still in his 20s, it’s astounding. Amid several other roles, he previously worked on advanced prototyping for the Google Glass team and received a 2017 Forbes 30 under 30 designation.
In his keynote, Blum shared the origins of Origin, Shaper’s flagship precision robot, a high-end handheld power tool used primarily for woodworking but with unlimited surface-cutting possibilities, including PCBs. Origin scans taped surfaces and creates a map. It cuts surfaces flawlessly. The blade retracts when it’s off track. It also acts as a drawing tool and can be used to create designs without the aid of a computer.
“It’s the world’s first handheld CNC,” Blum said. “It makes creation accessible for people.”
After watching a video of Origin in action, I thought even I might be able to use it, and I broke several jigsaw blades in seventh grade shop class trying to make a cutting board shaped like a pig.
Blum was down-to-earth, sharing Shaper’s unofficial company motto: GSD (get sh*t done).
And, boy, do they.
“We see a problem, and we fix it,” Blum said. “Traditional thinking doesn’t quite hold up anymore.”
He outlined his continuous creation process:
1. Empathize electronics. Find a balance between what people want, how they want it to work, and what’s possible. (“When is the last time you heard ‘empathy’ in an engineering talk?” he added. “Literally never.”)
2. Define the product. Find the market fit and narrow down the product. This stage requires the involvement of several people to receive substantial input. Answer these questions: How are people going to use the product? During this stage, Blum said, “Disconnect with what’s technically possible.”
3. Ideate the product. In this phase, “go crazy.” Don’t constrain yourself. How will this product look? Build several models, knowing some of them won’t work. Don’t worry about how they look. “In this stage, whatever you have to do to get it working,” Blum said. He added, “I hate making things that don’t look perfect.” Blum joked that he’ll make a product that fits in a certain case, just “so I can carry it around with me for no reason.”
4. Prototype. “This is a tough one,” Blum said. Engineers are apt to go with the safest product. This stage is where designers eliminate products from the ideation phase. “Origin looked like a blender for a really long time,” he said. This stage includes testing and certification – anything to do with safety. “See what fails. Test early and often.” Finding “millions of bugs” makes the product better.
5. Implement. Narrow down the prototypes and calibrate them. “Make the electronics manufacturer more flexible than they want to be.” In this stage, “designers don’t get to walk away. Physically go to the manufacturer of PCBAs. Empathize with the nine people you email the most. Sit down next to each other, instead of throwing CAD files back and forth. “Understand the product as a whole.” In other words, how is this PCB being used as part of a car? And, “for the love of God, go to the factory,” he urged.
Also, “don’t force linearity,” and “be open-minded.”
Open-mindedness didn’t end with Blum’s inspiring talk. At the subsequent dinner reception that Romine joked was “mandatory,” another twentysomething stole the show. Romine brought Mary Elizabeth McCulloch to the stage to share her story, one that involved growing up with a designer father as a fun mentor, a degree in bioengineering and biomedical engineering, and a life-changing trip to South America, where she developed a method to communicate with people who were unable to speak. Upon her return to the states, McCulloch, founder of Project Vive, created the Voz Box, an assistive speech device that gives voice to the voiceless. She reached out to Altium to ask for a discount on software, and when they learned what she was doing, they sponsored Project Vive and gave them the Altium Designer license for free.
When she showed us a video of the joyful faces of people whose lives had been drastically altered by Voz Box, my eyes teared up, something that doesn’t happen at these shows.
Robot challenge. And that’s when the robot challenge began, the reason Romine said dinner was a “do not miss” opportunity.
Imagine a full ballroom with five people to each roundtable. Their mission: beat Altium’s record for robot building, which currently stands at 23 minutes and change. Large plastic tubs are brought to each table. A timer is set. The bins are opened, and out come various metal parts, a plethora of screws, a remote-control device not unlike the one my dad and his brother used to fly miniature airplanes off the bluff overlooking the ocean in the ’80s, and laminated instructions to complete the assembly of a functioning robot. My first thought: “Good luck, guys. I’m out.”
Immediately, the competitive nature of the designers and engineers exploded, and just over 22 minutes later – and with no help from me – the winning team beat the record. Soon, the ballroom was pandemonium, with Wall-E-like robots cruising the floors in head-to-head battles. The goal: popping the opponents’ balloons.
After snapping several photos, I stood in the center of the room, observing a mostly under-40 crowd of genius innovators having a blast playing with sophisticated toys that didn’t exist 30 minutes ago. I smiled and quietly slipped out to get some sleep.
The next morning, Romine said, “[The robot challenge] sure went sideways fast.” An attendee remarked, “Well, nerds and alcohol.”
Software updates. In all the excitement, we can’t forget the core purpose behind AltiumLive: to provide users with tips, best practices and updates on Altium’s offerings, specifically the launch of Altium 365 and upcoming launch of Altium Designer 19.
Included in an Altium Designer subscription, Altium 365 is a convenient way to collaborate that doesn’t involve changing tools. It’s a cloud-based platform with a 3-D viewer of finished boards that connects design to the manufacturing floor.
About Altium 365, I repeatedly heard, “It’s just there. It just works.” It was even called magic.
It can be accessed with any browser any time with no downloads. “You don’t have to understand Altium Designer to use it,” said Leigh Gawne, Altium’s director of Ciiva, cloud applications and platform, and “it has the ability to trace a part.”
On the righthand side of the screen, users can make comments that then show up in the design. It’s a single application on multiple platforms. Users can connect various MCAD tools and keep ECAD synchronized with MCAD.
The end game, Romine and Ted Pawela, Altium’s COO, pointed out, is to eliminate re-spins and connect design, parts and procurement. Altium’s goal is to enable better bidirectional communication between designers and manufacturers. According to Romine, eight percent of Altium users have no mechanical constraints, while 83% design multi-board systems, and 85% are responsible for their own libraries.
“I actually think this is an industry first,” Pawela said, and “the beauty of it is we’re not doing anything special.”
Romine and Altium director, community tools and content Ben Jordan then introduced Altium Designer 19, currently in beta.
With Altium Designer 19, new features have been added, but old ones haven’t been removed. “We don’t tell you which ones are better,” Romine said. That said, “Vault Explorer is still in Designer 19, but we’re consolidating,” and the “library panel is going away.”
New features include categorizing by footprint and a “significant streamline” of the product. “People are interested in routing,” said Romine.
“Routing in Designer 18 is okay,” added Jordan. “It does the job. In Designer 19, differential routing coupling is much cleaner.”
Automatic reroute and glosses are time-savers, and rigid-flex is now supported in multi-board. Also introduced in the latest rev are “proper mates,” Jordan continued. Cross-sectional views at any angle of a model are now “perfect.
"Collision check is a hundred times faster,” now taking about 40 seconds instead of 40 minutes, and there’s a “proper 3-D export” of Parasolid.
“The new layer stack manager is pretty significant,” said Jordan, “a proud moment for the R&D guys.” Designer 19 also adds tabs for stack-ups, impedance and via types, plus a “very accurate” field-solver.
“This business is now a winner-takes-all proposition,” Romine said. “We plan to be the winner. There has never been a better time to be an Altium Designer user.”
Wisdom from the gurus. The industry’s bread and butter, with decades of experience, also had plenty of important advice. Take Eric Bogatin’s lively keynote, Living in the White Space Where SI/PI/EMI Lurk, in which he explained most of what designers do is for risk reduction.
“Schematics say nothing about interconnects. Schematic and layout design information is not enough. We have to think about electrical properties of interconnects before design.”
The goal: “Engineer for better signal quality,” he said.
“Layouts matter when interconnects aren’t transparent,” and “assuming connectivity is correct, everything else about layout is about controlling noise.”
It’s not just about signals, Bogatin said. It’s about the return path. The challenge is “all these problems live in the white space. They live in the wires.”
Most important is to find the root cause of noise problems, Bogatin said. “You have to have a debug strategy” because “if you have the wrong root cause, fixing the problem is pure luck.
“All interconnects are transmission lines. There is a return path, (and) it’s important to engineer it.” No matter what, “signals propagate.”
One suggestion: “Never overlap return paths,” Bogatin said. This is “one solution that kills many problems. Always use the continuous return plane under the signal line. If there’s a gap, route around the gap, or cross the gap, but add adjacent return straps.”
The problem, he said, is “we’re taught bad habits. Many designs work just fine when we don’t use best practices. Sometimes designs work in spite of the layout.”
Follow design best practices, he urged. “Risk reduction is key to the design process. Think about all the things that could go wrong before” starting a design.
“Sometimes it’s worth paying more for insurance.”
In Rick Hartley’s keynote on the importance of PCB stack-up, he reiterated what Bogatin said, adding, “It all comes down to rise and fall time of signal relative to transmission line.
“Everything happens during rise and fall time,” he said, including EMI and cross-talk. “If you keep field volume low, you’ll keep inductance low. High inertia leads to high inductance. The tighter you can contain fields, the lower the inductance.”
He stressed, “Transmission line behavior has nothing to do with voltage and current.”
The energy in a circuit is in the fields, and those fields travel in space between the trace and plane. “It’s all about the space,” Hartley said.
In addition, “all traces on a board relative to return path form a waveguide.”
Rule number one? “Never route across the split plane. Never, ever, ever, ever, ever…”
Hartley concluded, “It’s all about field containment,” and every company needs a field solver.
Positively affect the world. AltiumLive’s entertaining master of ceremonies Romine shared a firsthand story that reminded the crowd why the company is so pivotal in people’s lives, yet another example of empathy that permeated the show.
He once met a man who had a cochlear implant aided by Altium, and when the man discovered Romine worked for Altium, he cried and hugged Romine. Romine was touched.
“How do we get someone to make something that positively affects the world?” Romine questions.
That’s Altium’s spirit.
“This is a job people don’t accidentally get; they are attracted to it.”
“Young, creative, innovative minds don’t have to learn to push paperwork around,” added Judy Warner, Altium’s director of community engagement.
“Something has to give,” and “Altium is the absolute tool of choice.”
It’s modern, and it “sparks passion,” she said.
At AltiumLive, I saw this with my own eyes.