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Guest Editor Kelly Dack sat down with Nolan Johnson, EDA product marketing manager for Sunstone Circuits, to discuss some big changes to the PCB123 design tool. One new feature: PCB123 will now allow user to download a Gerber file. But Johnson explains why Sunstone isn’t too worried about PCB designers taking their Gerbers to rival fabricators.
Kelly Dack: Nolan, why don’t you start by giving us an overview of PCB123?
Nolan Johnson: For those who are new to PCB123, it is a PCB design tool that we provide to our customers free of charge; you can download it from our website at sunstone.com. It is an integrated schematic editor, bill of materials manager for parts and components, and a physical layout tool with an autorouter and an autoplacer. This particular tool works on an integrated C++ database, so customers can work in this environment and layout their schematic, design to their schematic, and then automatically have the footprints show up on the layout side. Through all of that, once they've got their design underway, they can get real-time feedback on what it's going to cost to manufacture the board they’re designing. They can also go to the bill of materials page and they can get real-time estimates and availability for parts from Digi-Key to understand what the pricing is going to be for their components, the board fab, and all the pieces going together there. This is a free tool.
Dack: What is required to use this free tool, other than a desire to have a PC board built?
Johnson: A Windows machine.
Dack: That's it?
Johnson: That's pretty much it. We're really going back to the roots with this tool; we have since the beginning. We’re trying to approach this like an open-source type of community. We have skin in the game with our customers: We get paid when they successfully complete a design and place an order with us. Other than that, there's no price barrier to entry for customers, which means that we're serving a very valuable part of the overall user community. There certainly are professional engineers out there working for companies who can afford to buy software licenses from Altium, Mentor or Cadence--and those are fantastic tools. We build boards at Sunstone for those tools all the time.
Dack: What can the designer expect as far as familiarity and learning curve with PCB123?
Johnson: A lot of our users tell us that if they come to this with a background from, say, OrCAD, or that sort of a tool, it feels very familiar to them. In fact, one of the engineers that helped architect the tool in the early days is a former OrCAD engineer. There's a lot of familiarity in that environment. A lot of customers say that it feels very familiar.
Dack: What's the sweet spot for your design customers?
Johnson: It's interesting to take a look at our customers and see the sweet spot; it's not necessarily in the complexity of the design. We have a lot high-speed designers: we have a lot of people out of the auto industry, for example, and we have a lot of educational and simple boards going on as well. It seems that the sweet spot is that barrier to entry to getting a tool that otherwise has a license.
We produced a case study recently that looks at one particular group. It's a group of engineers that are building robotic drones, and they were trying to simplify the design and shrink it so that it would be easier to fly the prototype drones that they'd been making. PCB123 was a big part of that. They were to take these multiple component prototype designs, start putting those components onto a circuit board to get a smaller, easier-to-fly vehicle out of that. That was a reasonably well-funded, educational environment with some professional-level engineers, and they're using our tool.
One high school in San Jose, Valley Christian High School, is involved in putting those microsatellites up into space for NASA, and they've been standardizing a bus and a packaging that other high schools could put their experiments into to set up the standard package. Valley Christian High School has been using PCB123 to design those printed circuit boards.
Sometimes I talk to customers and it's an automotive engineer from a major U.S. auto manufacturer. He has an enterprise system that they're supposed to use, and this project engineer goes to the enterprise system; he's got to have his design done in the next six weeks in order to get on the car he's designing for. He does the schematic, turns it over to the layouts at the corporate office, he hear, "Sure, we'll have that for you in 14 weeks." At which point he has to do something else to finish his design. With that, he finds PCB123 and gets his job done. It's that fit where it's a matter of, "I need to do something. I've got a project I need to do. I don't want to speed a lot of money on a tool, but I know how to use a good tool."
Dack: What I'm hearing is an engineer will come with a need to get a project done. Classically, a lot of engineers are very skilled in engineering and schematics, but maybe lacking a little bit in design for manufacturability; this crosses over into the designer realm, the engineer versus designer relationship.
Johnson: PCB123 does have a very capable DRC rule set built into it, so it runs interactively. If you're creating trace and space violations, while you're laying down traces, for example, it will flag that for you as you're laying down the trace, and it'll run a batch job to make sure that it reports all the violations you may have in your design.
Dack: You get automatic conformance to Sunstone's fabrication specifications.
Dack: OK. What can a user expect as far as output? Once the design is complete, DRC is run, and it’s submitted for fabrication, what are the deliverables besides, obviously, a board?
Johnson: Right. There are a couple of things that are also just changing as of the beginning of 2015. To walk you through the process, Kelly, users can start to place their order when their design is complete from inside the tool. They just click the order button inside the tool. As they've been designing, right next to that order button is a price, and that price is giving them a real time quote for the manufacture of their boards, for the order they would want as they go. If they make a design change that’s going to cost them more or less, we tell them, in real time, inside the CAD tool.