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We are the automation nation. We are the high-speed demons, the low-frequency artists, the mixed-signal designers that make up the electronic design automation industry. We spend most of our working lives behind software, delivered to our fingertips with the promise of making things easier, faster, better, and getting us to our deadlines ever faster.
As a dedicated software product manager and a hands-on marketing director, I’ve seen trends in the efforts of software vendors to deliver automated portions of the design cycle. Some areas have been a great success, some areas have been a partial success, and some have just flopped all together.
There is an increase, year-over-year, in resources spent on the software vendors’ side to help end-users reach success on a per-project basis. There is a greater cry for freedom from designers who feel hampered by their very constrained, overly populated boards. Automation is a big part of the picture in these cases, and the growing complexity of PCB designs begs the question of where we begin to see diminishing returns on these efforts to make design “simpler” to accomplish. So often, a software tool promises a miraculous boost in productivity, only to leave users spending the same or more time correcting the automated processes that simply can’t complete an area of design that needs fine tuning from an experienced hand.
The Automatic Stackup Builder
As PCB design software has matured, more and more of the processes outside the actual design have become incorporated into the design cycle. One such error-prone area is the PCB designs and the actual substrate onto which they will be manufactured. Basic CAD systems tend to only define the number of routing layers, which is a gross simplification. A typical FR-4 board is layer upon layer of core and prepreg materials that have specific heights and requirements. Even the typical copper route has a height that should be taken into account. As designs are becoming denser and more complex, greater attention is given to how to design a stackup with the best materials and configuration that satisfy both cost and the design requirements.
To aid designers and engineers in this area of greater attention, there is a movement toward pre-layout, software driven, stackup builders which help predict the board characteristics more accurately, and with greater signal integrity, which reduces the need for as many design changes throughout the layout process. Engineers and designers can more closely examine a board stackup, with visual cues for dielectric (prepreg) layers in between metal layers, blind and buried vias, as well as trace widths and heights within the stack. They can also attempt to prevent unexpected manufacturing flaws because many of these stackup builders include the manufacturer’s specs or allow companies to build their own proven specs into the system for reliable re-use.
To read this entire article, which appeared in the May 2016 issue of The PCB Design Magazine, click here.