AltiumLive Munich: Day 2 Keynotes
Having enjoyed the conference dinner and robot battles of the previous evening, a good night’s sleep, and a hearty breakfast, Altium’s family of over 220 electronics engineers and designers eagerly returned to the conference room. Many jostled to secure the best seats for the second day of the European AltiumLive design summit in Munich, keen to make the most of the “learn, connect, and get inspired” opportunity it offered.
Judy Warner, Altium’s director of community engagement, welcomed everyone and began the morning’s proceedings with a surprise item not published in the agenda, showing an example of Altium’s policy of supporting startup companies. She introduced Nikita Rodichenko, CTO of Tsuru Robotics. His company was founded in 2015 in Moscow. Currently, a team of 13 people are engaged in full-cycle R&D on robotic designs and specialising in designing and building unmanned aerial vehicles—effectively aerial robots. From tiny drones for drone shows to larger drones for security and surveillance and huge drones capable of carrying a 50-kilogram payload, Tsuru had been working with Altium to produce the first drone-reference design for Altium Designer.
The objective was to create a smart, compact design, which was modular and scalable, accessible to developers, supported open-source software, and had computer-vision capabilities. Tsuru has been a beta user of Altium Designer 19 since June 2018 and had utilised Altium Design Workspaces to enable a group of mechanical and PCB engineers and designers to work collaboratively on the project together with Altium’s cooperation in supporting component and footprint information. Extensive use had been made of rigid-flex PCB designs to mitigate vibrational problems. The project had been carried out on a tight timescale, and the product had worked the first time.
What was next? A famous graffiti artist was commissioned by a multinational soft-drinks corporation and collaborated with Tsuru Robotics to develop a fully programmable graffiti drone and paint a 50-metre advertising graphic on the side of a building in the centre of Kiev! Rodichenko showed a video of the graffiti being created, which was a nice illustration of an unconventional drone application.
Following this excellent example of real-life user-experience came a real-time demonstration of Altium Designer 19 PCB capabilities presented by Altium product marketing engineer David Haboud with his colleague, David Marrakchi, technical marketing manager, with Marrakchi’s laptop hooked up to the big screens.
After engaging the audience with deep-breathing exercises, Haboud stressed the importance of Altium communicating at the engineer level with their users to obtain the feedback needed to guide their programme of continuous improvement. They had learned that only 8% of users had no mechanical constraints, 83% designed multiboard systems, and 85% were responsible for their own libraries. The importance of library management functions was rated seven out of 10, the importance of routing functions rated eight out of 10, and the importance of performance nine out of 10.
Current AD19 functional development areas fell into four main groups: impedance solver and differential pair enhancements in the high-speed area; a new 3D kernel and rigid-flex support in the 3D multi-board area; friendly component move, follow mode, stacked microvia, and pushed trace glossing in the routing area; and faster part search, unified components panel, and faceted searching in the library management area.
Marrakchi demonstrated the features and enhancements of Designer 19 in response to prompts from Haboud and many questions from the audience. There were many new automated routines, and some interesting 3D functions including design rules for printed electronics where the layer order was built up from the bottom and dielectric was automatically placed at crossover points between successive conductor layers. The two Davids could have spent many hours answering specific questions and demonstrating the detailed operation of Designer 19, but time was limited, and the audience was encouraged to find out more by registering on Altium’s website for a series of live online or on-demand webinars.
The PCB Doctor
By popular request, the PCB doctor made a return visit to AltiumLive. Thomas Wischnack made it clear that he had not assumed that title himself; it had been bestowed upon him by Judy Warner as an appropriate designation recognising his expertise in curing PCB problems, especially those related to EMC. “Remember that the PCB doctor doesn’t help developers to cure PCBs; he helps the PCBs and cures the developers!”
Wischnack, senior expert for hardware development at Porsche Engineering, had compiled a list of the top-10 common design pitfalls of 2018 and reviewed them one by one beginning at the bottom and working upwards. Case grounding was the tenth pitfall, and his advice was not to make DC connections to ground, to avoid unpredictable ground loops and currents, and instead make RF connections with suitably chosen resistors and capacitors.
Number nine was to resist the temptation to copy and paste from other designs unless they were fully understood or risk a high probability of problems. Number eight was to rationalise the placement of connectors, ideally all on one edge, to avoid unpredictable cross-currents and unpredictable behaviour of filters. Number seven was to avoid the over-use of common-mode chokes, as the disadvantages generally outweighed the benefits. Number six was to understand the return path for signals clearly and avoid unnecessary alternative grounds.
Number five concerned the intelligent placement and routing of filters to ensure that they actually did something useful. Number four was to get the layer stackup right to enable impedance-matched routing—even if it made the PCB more expensive—and to seek the assistance of the PCB fabricator in defining the optimum stackup. Number three was to make sure that high-speed signals were routed with matched impedance to avoid EMC problems and to use common ground planes as reference planes in high-speed systems.
Number two was to avoid ground flooding, a hot topic, and one on which Wischnak held very strong views. Ground flooding resulted in unpredictable ground currents, reference for high-speed signals, reference for voltage sensitive applications, and filter behaviour, and gave the “foggy hills” effect in the EMC spectrum.
The switching voltage regulator was at the top of Wischnack’s list, which in his opinion, is the primary cause of EMC issues and could cause trouble up to 1 GHz. He listed the main design failures, which included switch nodes being too big, poor ground layout, unshielded inductors, and wrong filter applications. However, he believed that manufacturers had responded to user feedback and that the performance of newer parts was improved.
Wischnack had made it clear from the start that he was happy to take questions as they arose, and this keynote session soon became an interactive workshop. In particular, the debate about the perceived benefits and disadvantages of ground flooding could have justified a separate conference session of its own. His next topic concerned the avoidance of bad experience in designing for automotive, his long-term area of speciality. Wischnack emphasised that automotive was not bad, just a bit different!
Automotive companies had their own design rules, and designs were negotiated very hard and tested intensively. Car power systems were never “clean,” and EMC limits were very low. His advice was to seek experienced help before embarking on one’s first automotive design, to recognise the importance of every requirement written into the specification—even if it was not obvious at the beginning of the project—and to do intensive research on OEM design rules. Automotive components were sometimes hard to source and were generally more expensive than industrial grade; although not necessarily better, and long-term availability was essential. “The automotive industry is the mother of process-oriented development. Be prepared for the overhead caused by project management and documentation.”
Anticipating design issues associated with the ongoing development of electric vehicles, his list included noisier power systems, significant voltage, current peaks, and strong magnetic fields. Many new issues would come to light as OEMs learned how to make electric vehicles and customers learned how to use them.
Towards the end of his AltiumLive 2017 presentation, Wischnack had been joined by freelance design expert Rainer Beerhalter for a real-time review of one of his projects, and that initiative had been so popular that we were treated to a repeat performance. The object of critical analysis this time was a six-layer PCB that Beerhalter had designed as part of a modular control system for large LED displays. Again, it proved to form the basis of a lively interactive audience participation session that inevitably ran well over time, although no one seemed overly concerned at missing their coffee break!
Max Seeley on Schematics
The second keynote of the second day was craftily timetabled as the final afternoon session—possibly a way to encourage the audience not to think about creeping away early? It was well worth the wait. Max Seeley, lead electrical engineer for the digital solutions group at 3M’s corporate research laboratories, reviewed some of his early life experiences, particularly ones that had scared him. “What makes me an engineer? It’s not what I know, but how I approach problems.” His definition of success was the ability to work through adversity. And he advocated a systematic and structured approach to a design project. “PCB layout starts in the schematics.”
Seeley reviewed his design objectives such as reducing design cycles, dealing with issues proactively instead of reactively, producing a high-quality PCB layout that would pass regulatory compliance testing, and saving his company time and money. And what were the essential purposes of schematics? They communicated design intent and were effectively blueprints for the entire design including the layout; they promoted design reuse and contributed to robust design analysis and reviews.
He showed a typical “old-school” schematic, which in his view, was confusing, gave little idea as to how the circuit functioned, was extremely difficult to review, and didn’t do much more than help him join the dots. But in many ways the old-school, mentality persists to the present day. What could be done to change it? Was there a better way?
Seeley proposed that a good schematic should start with a title page to give an overview and help people find what they were looking for. This page would include critical information like the project name, variant, date the schematics were created, and date the schematics were released together with the relevant PCB part numbers. He further stressed the importance of also including brief design and layout notes to draw immediate attention to critical features. Good design notes could help avoid costly respins. He suggested that the goals of a top-level schematic should be to show the overall connectivity of the design and the way the design was organised to give insight into functional blocks and how they interfaced to the rest of the design.
A power tree included in the schematic saved a lot of tedious work trying to derive it later in the process, and allowed the dependencies to be seen; similarly, a list of the output voltages and maximum currents of the voltage regulators would be helpful. Another schematic Seeley would include would be the power consumption of the system per power net to enable the maximum power capability and current consumption on a particular rail to be calculated. That information was directly relevant to the pulse-density modulation analysis, and to have it readily accessible saved searching data sheets for individual values. It also helped with doing meaningful simulation.
Likewise, power delivery network analysis was made easier if minimum and maximum input voltages for critical devices were listed. A table showing power sequencing was also extremely useful, and Seeley believed you should include 3D representations post-layout to give a visual reminder of how the board was structured and the positions of key components. He also recommended including copies of suppliers’ I/O multiplexer tables in the schematic.
Seeley always spent time working with the PCB fabricator to optimise the board stackup, and then included it in the schematic as a reference to check against at the end of the design process before sending the design for manufacture. And a useful additional feature of Altium Designer 19 was the ability to generate an impedance table in the output documentation.
Returning to his top-level schematic with a reminder that the goals should be to show the overall connectivity of the design and the way the design was organised, and to give insight into functional blocks and how they interfaced to the rest of the design, he discussed specific functional blocks, power nets, and net names. He had colour-coded the schematic per function and for ease of review. Also, he recommended that the parameters of individual components be clearly shown in the schematic, and that every power rail should be labelled with its actual value rather than just its generic.
Seeley considered connectors to be the weak point of any design and recommended that a dedicated schematic be prepared for each example with particular attention to the adequacy of filtering and ESD protection. He also advocated a table of descriptive net classes, commenting that net classes were what should be driving the PCB layout rules and be an indication of how the rules were created. He went into some depth of discussion of his techniques and processes for pre-layout simulation and checking that he was working within his crosstalk thresholds.
Seeley repeated his objectives that the schematic should communicate design intent, be a blueprint for the entire design including the layout, promote design reuse, and contribute to robust design analysis and reviews. He was not concerned that his schematics were becoming too busy provided that they were readable and reviewable. Along the way, he made several useful suggestions as to additional functions that Altium could include in their later revisions.
Seeley’s account of his principles and practices succeeded in captivating his audience and holding its attention until late in the afternoon. And an extra bonus awaited those who didn’t sneak off when he had finished—the raffle! Attendees had been issued with raffle tickets when they registered, and when they attended the breakout sessions, so there were spectacular prizes to be won including drones and a 3D printer.
Judy Warner wrapped up the proceedings, thanking the sponsors and all those who had attended and presented with particular acknowledgement to Lawrence Romine, Sara Hosley, and the Altium team for their outstanding efforts in organising and managing an enormously successful event that succeeded overwhelmingly in realising its “learn, connect, and get inspired” objective.
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