What is your usage model?

Given that SOLIDWORKS PCB is based upon the look and feel of Altium Designer, it is natural to wonder whether SOLIDWORKS PCB nothing more than a stripped-down version of Altium Designer or if Altium Designer is nothing more than SOLIDWORKS PCB with more bells and whistles than you know what to with it.

It is neither one. It comes down to your usage model, which can be answered by considering both questions:

  • How does the tool fit into your design flow?
  • Does the tool do what you need it to do?

We at Nine Dot Connects want you to purchase and own an EDA tool that provides the best bang for the buck. It does not make sense to purchase a tool that does not have the desired features nor does it make sense to purchase a tool for a feature set that goes unused.

Letís explore both questions in more detail.

How does the tool fit into your design flow?

No two engineering companies are the same. Size of the company, product focus, the number of projects, the physical size of the project and many other factors play a role in the companyís design processes. As a result, there are companies that make available dozens of licenses of a software tool while other companies purchase a single license for the one employee who needs it.

Letís talk about the individual for a moment. EDA tools can set up to be self-contained, meaning that everything that needs to be done to create the PCB can be handled within the tool. The tool allows the user to make library components, schematic drawings, physical layouts and the generation of manufacturing documentation. Historically, most of the EDA tools started out in this fashion of catering to the individual.

When two or more individuals are using the same tool, configuration management issues arise. Unlike the individual user who creates libraries, templates, and designs to his or her own liking, a group needs some level uniformity and more importantly, reuse. Uniformity is critical for libraries. If everyone creates their own libraries based on their personal preferences or whims, it is impossible to combine the libraries together to form a uniform library.

There is an expectation that all projects will follow the same format with its sheet templates, the mechanical layers used in the physical layout, and the presentation of the manufacturing documentation. There is a need for version control to ensure that if multiple people are working on the project, the lead revision is known at all times. Many tools, such as Altium Designer, have evolved to handle configuration management.

SOLIDWORKS PCB might be right for you if:

  • You are looking for a tool that can read Altium Designer without tying up an Altium Designer license.
  • You are in the exploratory stages of PCB design and just need to have easy to learn software with mainstream capabilities.

Altium Designer might be right for you if:

  • You need a centralized component database library
  • You need the ability to makes schematic designs reuseable for other projects

Note: Altium Designer (and every other EDA tool) does not automatically do these things for you. They facilitate the ability for configuration management. The configuring is done by those in the company given the authority to do so.

Does the tool do what you need it to do?

When we are not familiar with a particular tool set, it is difficult to know the difference between a critical feature, a desired feature that greatly assists in the design process, and a feature that may never be used.

Features that are critical include the ability to create symbols, footprints, schematics, a physical layout and the necessary design documentation. Without these capabilities, the tool (and the user) is extremely limited. It should be noted that both SOLIDWORKS PCB and Altium Designer provide the necessary tools to get the PCB designed and documented for manufacturing.

There are features which are not critical, but they make the design process more efficient. For example, interactive routing in which the tool provides a physical path by simply moving the cursor to the desired location isnít necessary, but is certainly much easier than clicking several times to create the same path.

And of course, 3D design is another great example. EDA tools have been able to produce PCBs without 3D component representations for decades. However, this capability has made the integration between the EDA tools and the mechanical world much easier to perform.

And then there are features that may be more than necessary. This is where one needs to know which capabilities will be required to successfully design the PCB.

Think of lawn mowers for example. For a 10 by 10 foot area of grass, does it make sense to buy a riding mower? Conversely, does it make sense to buy a push mover if you have to mow 2 acres of land? Obviously, there's a large gray area between the two examples given. (Or in this case, a green area...) EDA tools have a similar trade off and a large gray area. Does it make sense to buy a higher end tool for high speed design or flex-rigid if you don't even know what such designs entail? Or more so, if you have never made one and would not know where to start if you wanted to make one?

Grady Booch, a noted software engineer who has published many books on the topic of software engineering is credited with saying that Ďa fool with a tool is still a fool.í The PCB design tool is only as good as the person using it. RF, high speed, flex-rigid and the like are not trivial designs. Though high-end tools like Altium Designer provide features for these types of boards, one has to know when and why to use them. In fact, many experienced users will tell you that they were designing these types of boards long before such whizzbang features were added to make their lives easier. A good number of these features were added were to make the process easier for those who already know how to do it.

SOLIDWORKS PCB might be right for you if:

  • You need to create boards who sole purpose is to provide connectivity between component A and B.
  • You are able to create the copper structures desired without wizards or functions to assist.

Altium Designer might be right for you if:

You are putting together a high-speed design board and require a precision match length tuning of the differential pairs and other critical signals.

  • You are creating flex rigid boards.
  • You are adding RF to the design
  • You are going to make use of capacitive touch
  • You are going attach die directly onto the board
  • You are going to embed components into the board (^)
  • You are printing passives

Note: All of the above can be done in SOLIDWORKS PCB; however, Altium Designer has capabilities to better facilitate these types of boards.

^ Such capabilities are considered bleeding edge technologies which may be costly and are still being proven. They are currently uncommon in the industry.

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