For anyone who has ever turned a PCB it is an obvious thing to ask for but we have all just stopped asking because one might die before it ever occurred: Integration between part manufacturer, distributor, PCB house, and PCB design tools into a development environment for the engineer. The esoteric electronic design automation (EDA) tools for the printed circuit boards of today could use some help. And that is putting it nicely.
In 2007, Sunstone Circuits resolved to pursue higher levels of integration within EDA to better serve their customers. But to do so would require collaboration within the traditionally fractious and competitive world of electronics. They invited the then-unlikely cast of characters to the table and made the pitch to integrate their tools and services for the engineer. 4 years later, in 2011, on my way to ESC Boston I attended a press briefing with Sunstone and partners on their collaborative Circuit Design ECOsystem (CDE), the integrated environment for the PCB developer.
The members of this fellowship are currently Digi-Key, NXP, National Instruments, Screaming Circuits, and Sunstone Circuits.
Roles of each member of the CDE are as follows.
Digi-Key provides real-time pricing and availability for components of the design.
NXP provides access to manufacturer-verified library definitions, datasheets, and simulation models, with the goal that the parts are fully specified within the design before it leaves the CAD tool.
National Instruments provides circuit simulation through NI Multisim while the engineers who use NI’s circuit development environment will benefit from the integration of the PCB development cycle.
Screaming Circuits provides quick-turn PCB fabrication and assembly.
Sunstone provides PCB fabrication, 24/7/365 live support, and the founding leadership behind the CDE.
Throughout the press briefing each member described the company performance, role in the ECOsystem, and next steps. Everyone indicated that business was going well, profits were healthy, and interest in the CDE remained firm. As the meeting progressed, the ramifications emerged and I asked: How can we get this to work?
We discussed the challenges that come with integration of engineering tools, particularly communication, standardization, and scaling.
I could see the Circuit Design ECOsystem approach mature into an intuitive process so that engineers can focus more on what they want to do as opposed to how they need to do it. For instance, “I want to have a switch to control this indicator” as opposed to “wondering whether or not the 3-pin FET package I chose has the right pinout for the 3-pin FETs I ordered in bulk, did I lay this part out on the top or the bottom, am I looking at the top or bottom layer, from which direction am I looking at what layer, which pin is the gate again?” It should not be possible to layout the wrong part after choosing what you wanted in the schematic, which should then guarantee its availability and cost through a distributor such as Digi-Key. This requires communication between the EDA tools and the manufacturer to mine the metadata of the part, which may be accomplished through a distributor that aggregates the data or through all the manufacturers that want their parts to get used in 21st+ century designs. Either way, it behooves everyone to build and agree upon a set of standards before running in N directions and never quite solving any problem better than the pencil and paper equivalent.
As it is now, Sunstone Circuits’ PCB123 is fairly well integrated with Digi-Key. You may select parts that exist in Digi-Key’s inventory, refresh live pricing, build the BOM, and actually place the order from within the program. The Circuit Design ECOsystem website is a bit bare, though it contains some useful links to the partner sites for the relevant step in the design process. For instance, under Part Research you will see NXP with a link to their product selector and Digi-Key with a link to buy parts; Circuit Design you will see PCB123 and NI MultiSim; Fabrication & Assembly you will see Sunstone Circuits for board quotes and Screaming Circuits for prototype assembly; and so on. Walking through the design and order process on CDE, it does not yet automatically populate the Digi-Key order page from your BOM or design files.
Exciting but difficult work ahead for the prototype ECOsystem crew as they look ahead to future-proof the system and prepare for scaling up when they engage more partners into the ECOsystem. I am looking forward to what they do next.
Circuit Design ECOsystem