How the ECAD giant’s integration into Siemens is shaping up.
As a telecommuter who has favorable, nostalgic feelings about her leafy university campus, visiting Mentor Graphics near Portland in June elicited office envy. A forest surrounds the peaceful Mentor property, which contains several large buildings encircling a park – reminiscent of Aldrich Park at the University of California, Irvine, where I attended a different lifetime ago.
At its US headquarters, Mentor has a highly rated daycare center, a hair salon, a masseuse (!), a gym, a basketball court, hiking trails, and a café. Lest we not forget, it also offers electronic design automation software.
Larry Toda, senior marketing communications manager and a Mentor alum of two decades, gave me a tour of the campus, while Dave Wiens, product marketing manager, who has been with the firm more than three decades (including acquisitions), kindly invited me into his office for a lengthy interview.
As most in the industry are aware, since March 2017, Mentor has been part of Siemens. For now, the branding concession was to drop “Graphics” from the Mentor name, replaced with “A Siemens Business.” Eventually, Wiens said, Mentor will just be “Siemens.”
Integrating two billion-dollar MNCs takes time, of course. Product lines, distribution, staffing and cultures must be aligned. But two years on, managers remain bullish the merger holds tremendous potential for synergy.
“A large company acquiring another large company is hard because of things like healthcare benefits and compensation,” Wiens allowed. “The reality right now is Mentor is still a separate company with separate sales channels, but there’s a huge opportunity across domains. We grow by getting customers to adopt more technology.”
More technology, in this case, means moving up the ladder to design software with greater functionality, and adopting cutting-edge tools, in particular those that perform upfront “virtual” product development – the simulation process known as the “digital twin.”
The Siemens deal expanded Mentor’s scope well beyond its traditional ECAD and assembly process suites. Customers now have access to tools for mechanical builds, software, cabling and the tie-off to manufacturing. Mentor says customers find that “enticing,” as it reduces the number of partners to one.
On paper, Siemens didn’t need much help. It’s among the 75 largest companies in the world, based on annual revenues. Its electronics and related businesses make up more than $33 billion in annual sales and have more than 140,000 employees. It paid $4.4 billion to nab Mentor – an amount some analysts found excessive – and yet just over a month later its stock hit an all-time high.
But from Siemens' perspective, it had a “electronics hole” in its offerings. For its part, Mentor had some product lines of interest – from IC design through PCB systems – to complete the digital twin Siemens is betting on. This includes the design-to-manufacturing suite Mentor acquired as part of its purchase of Valor.
The new Mentor is all about getting from ideation to realization to utilization. As Wiens puts it, “Maintaining a path of data is a key thing. How does that impact the next step?” The ideal is a digital thread that simulates the product – virtually, of course. Those data are also used to shape actual automated and manual manufacturing processes. Then the digital twin is looped back to the creators, where it is analyzed and refined as needed. Physical prototype costs are reduced or eliminated. Brute-forcing a product gives way to a much more refined, faster, and cheaper methodology.
This is where Valor comes in. The longtime data transfer standard known as ODB++ is another digital thread story, Wiens says, that solved a critical need by keeping all the data together.
The biggest technology concern for Mentor’s customers revolves around increased design complexity. In their parlance, this means “doing more in less space for cheaper and faster with better quality.” Mentor is trying to enable continuous automation and improve design abstraction by streamlining the processes. Or as Wiens puts it, “In EDA, the key word is automation.”
The solution, Mentor feels, is to perform thorough analysis of the complete system before production begins. Says Wiens: “A complete digital twin enables engineering teams to design, optimize and verify a product before it ever hits manufacturing. Within the electronics domain, that means a friction-free transfer of information from system architecture into manufacturing, possibly encompassing multiple boards, ICs and their packages. To verify electronics, accurate digital models are critical and must scale from silicon-level through entire systems. Of course, electronics are just one domain in a system. Mechanical structures must be modeled within the electronics – rigid-flex, for example – as well as multiple levels of enclosures and moving parts. Software and electrical connectivity via cables and harnesses must also be considered.”
That’s not all, he says. The digital twin reflects the actual lines themselves. And that means working with a large set of tools, often from other suppliers, including competitors.
“Entire lines can be modeled and optimized, leveraging the digital twin of the product,” Wiens says. “Finally, a digital twin can be used once a product hits the market for servicing and analysis of field failures. Enabling collaboration across multiple disciplines requires multiple software tools to recognize a common digital model. This is most often done with industry standard formats but can be streamlined when the teams designing the tools work together closely. This is the case at Siemens, where we have the largest portfolio of tools for electronics system design, covering IC, package and PCB, as well as mechanical, cabling and software design and verification, all within the framework of a PLM system. The synergies we’ve been able to achieve are industry-unique, but to support our customers, we also continue to maintain openness with competitive tools. Significant steps have been taken to achieve this digitalization, but it’s a journey that’s far from complete. I’d recommend every engineering team review their current design processes and collaboration platforms to identify optimization opportunities leveraging a digital twin.”
Siemens and Mentor are excited about artificial intelligence and what it portends. “With Siemens, AI, machine learning and additive manufacturing are near at hand,” Wiens says, although he was not at liberty to disclose details. He did allow that Mentor is “heavily invested” in making technology more accessible by integrating in the design space. Through machine learning, designs can be optimized, and analysis tools are integrated into the flow earlier and earlier in the process to provide design recommendations.
“The age of IoT is certainly increasing the volume of edge-node products, which are smaller and, on the surface, simpler. In reality, they are anything but simple, requiring tight alignment with the mechanical enclosure, and in some cases merging into one electro-mechanical structure (e.g., flexible hybrid electronics). At the same time, these products exist within an ecosystem of other devices and information-processing hubs that all must work seamlessly together. I do see a need to simplify design, but that is common across all complexities. It will drive IP reuse, automation (of design and verification), definition of higher levels of abstraction (a close cousin to automation), and potentially even generative design.”
The Designer as a Specialist
With so many design-to-manufacturing tools now available all under one (enormous) roof, what does this mean for today’s users? “There’s a demographic shift at play that’s been happening as long as electronics have been digital,” Wiens explained, pointing to the ongoing crossover in domain expertise. “Users have to learn more and more things. Layout is smarter about manufacturing. Layout has to know mechanical. Schematic knows layout. Everyone’s knowledge base has to grow to know more about adjacent domains.”
Still, he notes, there is a dichotomy at play in PCB design and engineering. To wit, while engineers are learning layout, and place-and-routers are learning physics, the specialist might prevail in the end.
“People say layout designers are dying off,” Wiens said. “Going from tape to CAD was a big leap.” But while new technology can be easier to use, it often lacks the functionality of more capable systems. What Wiens refers to as “old and complex tools” often represent a tradeoff in that they offer more capability but also take more time to learn. An analogy, Wiens says, is the functionality and complexity of professional cameras compared to the point-and-click modules on cellphones.
Training such as the IPC Certified Interconnect Designer program is keeping layout designers more relevant, Wiens asserts, adding that in some ways, they are more up to date than engineers. Still, he says, the “ubiquitous person who knows all is unlikely.” As such, “to excel, you have to become a specialist.”
A domain has the opportunity to create excitement, but “you don’t just get people interested. They have to be interested.” This issue is “not distinctly North American. It’s also Europe. But not Pac Rim. In China, most come out of school with an EE, and assume jobs across the design process. But at some point, they may also specialize.”
As our time came to an end, Wiens listed four areas Mentor is most known for, including managing complexity: “enabling designs larger than anyone else can do,” which has led to program wins; enabling collaboration: managing across different domains; validating designs with virtual prototyping: they can simulate verification of physical prototypes, which shrinks design time and produces an optimized product; and managing IP: reuse of designs and IP blocks and managing entire designs/libraries/common data.
Before I let Wiens get back to work in his Zen office, I looked out his giant window at the gorgeous green trees of the Pacific Northwest and made a mental note to get a standing desk like his, even if the only view I have at home are a few measly trees in my backyard. At Mentor, one can literally see a forest outside; inside, each minute detail doesn’t obscure the important big picture: the digital factory, where data never have to be recreated.