Electronics have undergone massive changes in recent decades, transforming the profile, skills, and expertise required of engineers. Today’s products, such as electric or autonomous cars, incorporate a variety of electronics and microprocessors, necessitating expertise in multiple domains. As a result, outsourcing and development services have become more prevalent. Hardware developers must adapt to different tools and practices for each customer’s requirements. At RT-RK, a leading provider of engineering and development services, PCB design tools are crucial to success. In this article, we will explore the most popular PCB design tools used by RT-RK and how they enable the company to meet the diverse needs of its clients.
The changes in the electronics industry we have witnessed over the decades have had a significant impact on the profiles, knowledge, and areas of expertise of engineers. This is not only because the industry in terms of production facilities has been digitalized on the road to the fourth industrial revolution (Industry 4.0), but also because the products themselves have become more complex, covering and including several different aspects such as embedded computers, power electronics, drivers, mechanical parts, etc., even if their primary purpose is not related to the electronic world.
A great example that illustrates this idea is an electric, semi or fully autonomous car with safety functionalities, connectivity features, built-in enhanced infotainment systems, and more, where the final product is intended for transportation and mobility. However, it incorporates a lot of electronics and microprocessors, requiring development processes and knowledge areas that go beyond basic car manufacturing.
Such changes in product concepts and building blocks can have a significant impact on the product lifecycle by displacing parts, phases, or even the entire development process out of the plants that physically produce, own the product solutions, or bring them to market.
In contrast to the past when complete knowledge, technology, development, and production processes were centralized and organized within the same business chains and entities, outsourcing and development services have become a common and dominant approach in the present day.
Today, electronics product development companies and engineering teams specializing in certain market domains play a major role in providing state-of-the-art technology and best-in-class development services outside of the final product owning entities. They typically carry at least a large percentage of the development process.
On the other hand, project deliveries must be reusable, with readable documents and complete “hands-on” development results, meaning all the data must be prepared and presented using formats and tools defined by the customer’s practices.
Usually, many different software tools are integrated into the company’s quality management and other business processes, from the hardware design tools themselves to components databases and logistics systems. These tools provide the basis for aftermarket support, long-term components availability, obsolescence management, and many other topics one could imagine.
Since these tools are deeply integrated into each customer company’s workflow, they become practically unchangeable between separate projects. This puts specific demands on development service providers such as RT-RK, where hardware developers cannot rely on a single or limited set of tools over a longer period of time. In most cases, the tools used in specific projects are entirely dependent on the customer’s practices rather than those of the service provider.
Over the last 20 years at RT-RK we have used a variety of different development tools that it could take several articles to list them all. Even if we exclude basic office and collaboration tools, communication apps, and requirement engineering platforms, and focus only on the tools related to PCB design, the variety is still notable.
As of today, the major tools we use in our day-to-day practices at RT-RK are Altium Designer, Pulsonix, and Siemens Xpedition.
Altium Designer is our preferred tool, as we believe it strikes the best balance between advanced features, ease of use, product development process coverage, and availability of productivity support, all while being priced competitively.
Pulsonix is another powerful PCB design tool that offers a range of advanced features, including integrated schematic capture, PCB layout, and library management. It also offers support for a wide range of file formats, making it easy to import and export designs from other CAD tools.
Siemens Xpedition, on the other hand, is a more comprehensive tool that provides a complete system design solution, including schematic capture, PCB layout, and simulation capabilities. It offers many advanced features such as hierarchical design and constraint management, making it ideal for complex, high-speed designs.
At RT-RK, we understand that each customer may have their own preferences and requirements when it comes to PCB design tools. Therefore, we strive to stay up-to-date with the latest tools and technologies and are always willing to work with our customers to select the most appropriate tools for their specific needs.
At RT-RK we have also gained experience with many more other tools that have been or still are available on the market, such as OrCad, PADS, Allegro, Zuken, Eagle, etc. Each of these tools has its unique features and capabilities which can be tailored to specific project requirements. For instance, OrCad is a popular PCB design tool known for its integrated schematic capture and PCB layout functionalities. PADS, on the other hand, is widely used for its intuitive user interface and efficient design rule checks. Allegro, developed by Cadence, is a high-end tool often used in complex PCB designs, while Zuken focuses on the entire design process from schematic to manufacturing. Finally, Eagle is a popular choice among hobbyists and small businesses due to its low cost and easy-to-use interface. Despite the variety of options available, RT-RK is always ready to explore and adopt new tools based on client needs and project requirements.
Is this enough? Not quite.
In addition to the advanced features available in the latest software versions, developing cutting-edge electronics requires the use of best-in-class specialized tools for signal and power integrity, PCB layer stack-up calculations, novel design techniques, and simulations. For these purposes, at RT-RK we utilize a number of tools, including:
- Polar: PCB stackup, signal integrity and controlled impedance calculations tool
- Hyperlynx: A suite of simulation tools that includes signal integrity (SI), power integrity (PI) and board level thermal analysis capabilities
- LT Spice: A SPICE-based circuit simulation tool that allows for accurate analysis of analog circuits
- Silicon vendors’ tools: Various tools provided by silicon vendors such as TI WEBENCH and Xilinx Power Estimator that provide solutions for their products
For mechanical design, additional tools are needed, as it is an inseparable part of the hardware development process. At RT-RK we primarily use SolidWorks and Fusion 360 for mechanical design purposes. SolidWorks is a powerful 3D CAD software used for mechanical design and system level thermal engineering while Fusion 360 is a cost-effective 3D CAD, CAM, and CAE alternative.
Again, is it enough? No.
In addition to the software listed above, we also develop special libraries, knowledge databases, and other resources to keep up-to-date with evolving components and ensure long-term availability of our designs. This includes integrating paid services and apps from distribution chains, such as Silicon Expert, which helps us resolve supply issues and manage obsolescence. These resources also help us navigate market disruptions caused by events like earthquakes, pandemics, and wars. By staying ahead of the curve, we can deliver the highest quality designs that are future-proof and built to last.
As the world of electronics continues to evolve, the list of necessary tools and services grows exponentially. Having experience with a variety of tools and adapting to different customer practices is undoubtedly an advantage when starting a new project or cooperation. However, to execute projects correctly and achieve optimal results, it is crucial to possess a strong foundation of the electronics domain knowledge, which becomes increasingly important as projects progress. A combination of these factors is essential for achieving high performance and ensuring long-term customer satisfaction. At RT-RK we pride ourselves on our extensive experience with a wide range of cutting-edge tools and our deep understanding of electronics fundamentals enabling us to deliver outstanding results to our clients.