Pulsonix 10.5 Development Driven by Customer Demand
I recently spoke with Bob Williams, the managing director of Pulsonix, about the release of the EDA tool’s version 10.5. Bob explained how the company had made the tool more intuitive based on user input, and he discussed some of the more cutting-edge functionality not normally found in competitively priced tools.
Barry Matties: Bob, let’s start with your background.
Bob Williams: I started in 1979 as an apprentice. Yes, I was 16 years old and came straight out of school into a real job. It was one of the Racal companies that did specialist military communications. The whole system has evolved so much from there. It’s just absolutely mind-blowing.
Matties: This is a lifetime career for you in the electronics industry.
Williams: Yes. When I was at school, I built a radio-controlled car and all the radio controls for it, and then that gave me the job there.
Matties: Radio-controlled cars have come such a long way.
Williams: Absolutely. I see them pop up on Instagram, and I think, “Wow.”
Matties: Of course, we’re seeing more and more of 3D printing coming into prototyping in this sector.
Williams: Definitely. There are two types of users. One type doesn’t care about 3D, usually because they don’t have space constraints. They say, “We have a board.” Its enclosure type isn’t 3D, so they say, “This is the size of the board. We have a box that’s 10” x 4”, so it will fit.” The second type of user says, “It has to fit this very intricate enclosure for a vehicle, medical machine, etc.”
And quite a few people are surprised that we have such a high sophistication level of 3D inside Pulsonix because the process of taking a PCB, exporting it to something that can go into SolidWorks, etc., and possibly in another department, is quite a big process. But if it’s all done within the product, it makes more sense. You can see through the semi-transparent enclosure to visualize the clashes and make changes. Those changes are then back-annotated to the PCB automatically.
Matties: And grab through it as well.
Williams: Right, and that’s fundamental; otherwise, you can’t get to the item that’s in clash with it because you only see the outside. We also add clash markers to make it easy to find small or hidden clashes. The 10.5 release has introduced clash markers and measurements and lots of other things.
Matties: So, 10.5 sounds like a very important release with substantial enhancements.
Williams: Yes, it is. We did a lot of the groundwork for 10.5 at version 10, which followed from version 9.1 with the new rule sets and version 10 with the 3D improvements that we made. That was a significant change in the engine, and 10.5 is a continuation of that, which is why it’s not version 11. Then, we introduced other rule sets as well to make it more sophisticated, so 3D was the general profile for the release. After that, we said, “We do areas in schematics.” Then, you can put a room into the schematic and define parameters for the PCB within the schematic.” You could do that already, but by adding an area, we could say, “This is an area that encompasses nets and components. Anything inside this area has this attribute attached to it, so it will automatically populate it.”
Matties: The changes that you came out with are driven from user input. How do you go about collecting that data?
Williams: We are very well-connected with our users, so we talked to a lot of them, and we work through a distribution network because that works better for us. The distributors in the local regions speak the language—especially somewhere like Germany where a lot of traditional engineers don’t speak or speak very limited English. They talk to the users, and we go to user groups. We have regular user meetings, and we see them at shows; we have a very personal connection with our users. We’ve been talking to some of our biggest customers daily for many months. We also have an advisory set of users.
Matties: When a new customer is looking at a toolset, what are their primary concerns?
Williams: It depends on what they do and what they’re designing, but they often like the fact that they can get up and running very quickly—especially users who may not have any PCB layout background, and we see that still. Users come in and say, “I haven’t used a PCB design tool, but I have an electronics background.” It’s rare, but they can be productive with the product quickly because it’s very easy to learn. And I know other EDA companies say that, but we encourage them to just try Pulsonix and see the difference.
Matties: And you offer a free, unlimited trial.
Williams: Right. And we also offer free training with new products as well. We do an introductory half-day of free training. The product is very intuitive and logical to use. There aren’t a lot of prerequisites to get it going; you can start with nothing, so it’s very easy.
Matties: And from a technical capability, what are they looking at? We talked about 3D, and that’s a big area, but what’s driving change in the design community?
Williams: The number of rules that people want. Designers want more control over the rules that they can assign to items. For instance, they want thermal relief on copper pour areas, but then they want thermal relief by an area, within an area, within a net, and within an item on the net. Pulsonix does that very easily.
Matties: So, they can start building a rule on top of a rule?
Williams: Yes. You can do rules on everything. For spacings, you can do it on items of length matching, thermal rules, test point rules, footprint rules, or placement rules. It’s all hierarchal, so the user can set one rule and say, “I want another rule that’s more dominant than that for a particular type of item.” For instance, I can say, “All of these items are in a keep-out area.” From the schematic, I can define an area and say, “This all needs to be within the area.”
Matties: We just did an issue on rules, and it was interesting talking about how people use or don’t use rules, in some cases. Talk about that a little bit.
Williams: What we tend to do is define a default set of rules for them, so they can take a technology file—which is effectively a startup file that will give you basic rules that will be manufacturable, such as standard pad and track sizes. Somebody can just jump in and say, “Add a track, a pad, and some components,” and start right away. It will also be manufacturable with online DRC switched on. They can’t make mistakes because they can see the spacing clearances. And we see people who have electronics experience but no manufacturing experience, so we’ve brought in rules that will help them manufacture the board. It’s all part of creating a great user experience.
Matties: One of the things that we commonly hear is that designers need to learn the manufacturing process. I also hear the other side say, “They don’t need to understand the manufacturing process; they need to understand the feedback from the process that’s meaningful to them as well as the DFM rules of that particular fabricator.” Often, they don’t know who the fabricator is going to be.
Williams: Exactly. We encourage users to work with manufacturers or have an idea of manufacturing. I came across someone the other day who was talking about panelization in the product, which Pulsonix can do. They mentioned routing the edge of the board for the milling machine and adding tabs. I said, “You need to talk to your manufacturer to understand what their rules are.” They said, “Right. I’ve already done that because I use the production manufacturer rather than a prototype manufacturer, and then switch. I learn the production manufacturer’s rules, adhere to them, and do it all upfront,” which is quite clever. They continued, “It costs us more money, but then we panelize our prototypes. We get more prototypes, but then it maximizes our panel usage. The panels are ready to go once the design is finished and finalized using the same manufacturer.”
Matties: That’s a great piece of advice. In a recent interview, we talked with some designers who said, “You have to design for mass production.”
Williams: A lot of users don’t do that because they like the quick turnaround on the prototypes. But by spending a bit more time getting it into the production environment as a prototype, they save time later on. And as you know, the process is more expensive every time you go through an iteration; it’s 10 times the cost at each iteration.
Matties: DFM can be more about building it and then rebuilding it again, whereas if you take predictive engineering, model it, and then predict it, you can eliminate a lot of those iterations and lower the cost. It may be a little more time upfront, but in the long run, you’re going to save quite a bit.
Williams: Absolutely. One of our customers is doing one million boards a year of one product, and they say, “It has to be right.”
Matties: We frequently hear acronyms such as DFM, DFT, DFA, etc. The one that I like the most is DFP—design for profitability. In another recent issue, we focused on the fact that it all starts with design.
Williams: Yes. We’ve concentrated on the things specific to getting the board through the system very quickly. Everything is very easy and very accessible. There aren’t separate constraints or DFM managers; it’s all built into Pulsonix as rule sets.
Matties: If somebody came in and said, “I want to design a board for testability,” would they then come to your package and be able to tune and look at it that way?
Williams: Absolutely. In our design, we have DFM and DFT toolsets as well as net testability checking. We have automated test point insertion based on rules, and then we can check against that, such as the probe side, number of test points, and items that can be probed. For instance, you wouldn’t want to probe a very small surface-mount device because if it’s in-circuit test, you can’t get to it. If it’s bare board, you can get to it, but it wouldn’t be ideal to probe a very small BGA. There are a lot of rules we can add within Pulsonix that we can test against. Again, working with the manufacturer is paramount.
We can also do footprint rules, which is a technology where you say, “When I do this type of manufacturing, I want to use this rotation on the footprint. And if I’m using this type of footprint, I can’t swap it out for another one,” because you’ve set the pattern. And if you swap to the other side of the board, then that footprint automatically becomes a different style of footprint, so there are a lot of footprint rules that we can apply to the product as well.
Matties: Design for automated assembly is an important one too. How did you address that?
Williams: It’s the same with the footprint rule. We can apply those rules to the assembly as well. When something is really important, and we export the file that produces the pick-and-place assembly data, that’s optimized as well. Thus, you can optimize it based on your criteria: component positions, types, and heights.
Matties: Manufacturability is profitability, and if you’re designing for profitability, then you’re going to take advantage of every one of these rules to make sure that it’s the right orientation and the right testability.
Williams: The right package is essential. We do a lot of work with the rule sets within that, and they’re all in one place as well. Then, that rule set can be saved and used on the next design, which can be done iteratively, so you can add to a particular rule and improve or refine it.
Matties: How do you address reliability in your rules?
Williams: We’ve worked with customers doing MTBF (mean time between failure) analysis on the boards. They extract data from the product, and with our scripting language, they write scripts that have the rules and calculations within them because there are different standards for MTBF. Then, they write it so that it’s in the company standard with the rules in the software. The results come out of the back end of it.
Matties: One of the other areas that we see is when a designer hands a bare board fabricator the package, it’s not always accurate or complete, and there are a lot of back-and-forth exchanges and wastefulness.
Williams: Many core rules that they test against should be built into the CAD product, which is what we’ve done. We’ve built things like acid trap checks, acute angle checking, and whether items can be drilled and manufactured. We’ve put basic manufacturing rules into Pulsonix so that they can be checked by the user. They don’t necessarily need an understanding as long as they know what the rule is checking, which the default will be a certain rule that they can check against. After that, they can interpret the rules.
Matties: In some cases, manufacturers spend hours and hours preparing, and that isn’t even to do the job. Just to prepare a quote, they have to do a lot of work, and they’re not necessarily awarded the job.
Williams: You’re right. But they run it through their own tool and give you back a set of results, which you must then interpret yourself, or they’ll make recommendations on it. They’ll say, “This rule doesn’t meet these criteria.” Then, you’ll have to work out what the rule is, which is why it’s important to work with the manufacturer and consistently work with the same person.
Matties: My suggestion to a fabricator recently was to create an incentive and say, “We’ll give you X% discount if your data package comes in 100% correct,” because that’s a lot of time saved.
Williams: Yes. Or they have a package online that you can drop your design into and it does the DFM for you. It says, “You’ve passed 100%,” or not, as is pretty normal.
Matties: We have to streamline this process. With this new discipline, there’s also a new generation of designers coming into the marketplace.
Williams: Who are not necessarily savvy to manufacturing processes. They’ll be savvy to what they know, which is usually the core electronics; after that, that they have to learn how the boards are made, how to design it, and then the manufacturing process afterward.
Matties: Now, we’re seeing the move to smart factories. How are you playing into that?
Williams: We can write any format that’s needed. At the moment, we can write specific drivers, so if there’s a pick-and-place machine, we can write that. We write generic formats like the older GenCAD format as well as IPC-356, JTAG, and IPC-2581, which is one of the new standards for which we’re one of the consortium members. For anything else, we can write through our report maker facility, which is fully customizable for the user; you can write whatever you want from it.
Matties: When someone comes up with the design, the bill of materials is created. Is Pulsonix checking parts inventory for availability so the user can design with current parts?
Williams: We can do that. We don’t have direct inventory checks at the moment, but the bill of materials can be written out in formats that can be checked online. We also have the database connection utility which connects Pulsonix to a company’s inventory system. From here, a user can select and use current stock or preferred items from preferred suppliers. These would have been preselected by the buyer who would source based on rates and availability.
Matties: And also to ensure that you’re utilizing components that are long in supply because there a lot of them that are in short supply right now.
Williams: Our users can also browse the web-based component search engine. Once they search for a part, it will deliver them an EDA part that’s in Pulsonix format. They can drop the part into Pulsonix from the website, and it will drag in the relevant supply information with it as well. Once in Pulsonix, it also drops it automatically into the user’s library for use in another design.
Matties: They’re getting all of the drawings of the parts and everything.
Williams: Yes, as well as the attributes with it. The cost, availability, lead time, and obsolescence are all dragged in with it in real time. When they produce that bill of materials, it will already be checked. Then, that also goes into our library or vault and could be re-used without having to go back to the search engine.
Matties: It sounds like the vault is a big deal in your process,
Williams: It can be. Again, it’s one of those items that not everybody uses or wants to use. It’s something where bigger companies would say, “We’ll use the vault because it gives us a level of control over who’s doing what to the libraries and designs.” Other companies will ignore it completely, focused only on the current PCB design iteration.
Matties: Talk about the advantage of the vault.
Williams: The vault is a managed repository for parts, technologies, designs, and all sorts of information that you can book in and out. It has an audit trail, and ours shows you the differences. If you change a footprint, for instance, and you’ve changed a pad size, it will show you before and after. It snapshots the two different versions and shows you which is the latest. It will also show you who’s changed it and the date it was changed. Only certain people can edit the vault or items within the vault; everybody else is a user. We have that as a top-level process for our users supplied free of charge.
Matties: It seems like a resource like that would be highly valued in many companies. Why would a company choose not to use it?
Williams: I think they see it as an overhead to slow them down—something that’s perhaps not manageable for them at the particular time—but they can do it at a later time anyway. A new user can use the libraries, and drop the libraries and designs into the vault afterward and start using from that point in time. It provides them a mechanism that can be called on once they have grasped the Pulsonix fundamentals.
Matties: It comes down to what kind of company and who you want to work with.
Williams: Sometimes, it’s who you’re allowed to work with because a lot of companies will say, “You can only use XYZ.” But we tend to find that users break those rules as well. They’ll say, “Corporate told to use this tool, but we find it hard to use, so we’ll take yours and use it for prototyping.”
Matties: So, the attributes or decision points that they have to make must be related to ease of use, which you highlighted. It has to be logical and capable and meet the requirements of HDI and high-speed design, etc.—whatever the latest trends are. It sounds like you’re meeting all of that.
Williams: We do.
Matties: And then the price point. Yours is a license, so how does that work?
Williams: Customers pay a one-time fee for the product, and then they can pay for an annual subscription if they want to take support following the first 12 months. They can take support and the new product, and we encourage people to do that because we’ve set our price point and maintenance very low. The cost of ownership is very good.
Matties: The new release is coming out. Is that built into version 10.5?
Williams: All of our new users will get 10.5 as well as anybody with maintenance.
Matties: If you’re not on the maintenance side, then you have to come in and add maintenance?
Williams: You have to add the maintenance package, but we have about 75% coverage of maintenance uptake because we’ve made it so that it’s a workable value for users. It’s not painful like a re-ownership of the product; it’s not even an add-on. It’s more like something they’ll do as routine. It’s comparable to Microsoft or other software companies.
Matties: And everything is secure. Is this a cloud-based service, or is this local?
Williams: It’s a local service with the licensing. That’s the way we do it at the moment.
Matties: Thank you, Bob.
Williams: Thanks, Barry. It has been a pleasure.
Pulsonix Version 10.5 New Features