For Manufacturers & Designers
Optimizing a PCB design prior to manufacture speeds time to market and reduces time consuming, costly rework cycles -this we already know. However, the advents of Cloud computing and ‘Pre-CAM’ solutions converge to provide the easiest and most cost-effective way to ensure designs are ready for manufacture.
Leveraging the Cloud for Automated DFM
At this year’s PCB West event I attended a seminar titled “A CAM Engineer's Perspective on Improving the CAD to CAM Flow”. The presenter made a sincere effort to educate the audience on making the CAD-to-CAM (or Design-to-Manufacturing you could say) flow smoother, quicker and with minimal errors. A significant portion of the seminar was dedicated to the topic of Design for Manufacturability or DFM. The speaker offered numerous tips and advice on typical DFM issues that caused delays prior to manufacture. These issues would require the job to be put on hold while the issues were resolved and often required some design rework. While listening, I reflected that these were the same issues I dealt with as a PCB CAM engineer 20 years ago, in short nothing has changed. That begs the question – If it’s to everyone’s advantage to have the DFM ‘bugs’ ironed out first, how come we, as an industry, haven’t solved the problem?
Certainly there are numerous DFM products available to use today. Most are very good at what they do. They range from affordable, downloadable desktop applications to high-end, sophisticated (but expensive) solutions integrated with CAD tools. I’m not 100% sure why these tools don’t solve our industries problem but I think there are several possible issues with this implicit approach of designers running DFM tools:
The fabricators need to ‘get-the-design-files-loaded-and-checked-as-quickly-as-possible’ has driven CAM vendors to develop a dedicated solution – ‘Pre-CAM’. You’ve likely heard of CAM but these tools offer the following key features:
Fabricators can use these types of tools right up front at the quotation process. It’s hugely advantageous for them to know the critical manufacturing criteria: layer & drilling structure; minimum lines, spaces, annular ring; SMD pad density…these are the factors that drive the cost of the PCB and/or determine the required tooling and manufacturing processes. If the quote is won, a significant amount of the front-end work is already done, reducing the load on the engineering team, total engineering time required thus getting the board into manufacturing quicker.
“Where can I get my hands on one of these things?” I hear you say. You may have noticed the work ‘Automated’ in my bullet list above. These tools are highly sophisticated, incorporating years, decades even, of industry knowledge translated into algorithms and computing processes. This kind of technology doesn’t come cheap. Further, these tools required processing power – a high end workstation or server = $$$.
Certainly those that can afford it will buy it. But what about light-to-medium users, smaller fabricators, designers even? The traditional model for business or engineering solution of buying the software and hardware is not a good fit for Pre-CAM or other sophisticated (read expensive) solutions. Here’s why:
So, what to do? Let’s look to the skies…
The ubiquitous ‘Cloud’ is the software industry’s latest big thing. In software, anyone who is anyone is heading there or wants to (because they need to). If not, well someone’s going to take their place. Ultimately business computing will move to the Cloud. I think in around 10 years’ time, we’ll be looking back and saying ‘remember when we used to buy servers & workstations?’. Cloud computing offers a financially compelling model for access to computing power, software applications and data storage. There are many well established companies offering pure cloud offerings today. You’ve likely heard of ‘Salesforce.com’ who initially provided a cloud CRM offering (notably, their slogan is “No Software!”) but have gone on to expand into services, marketing, social networking and HR. They also offer a platform where you can build your own custom applications to ensure a good fit into your particular market. There are many other companies offering Cloud solutions: SAP, Oracle, Google, Microsoft to name but a few. Perhaps surprisingly is that Amazon.com is considered the world’s most important Cloud company today.
Companies who currently only offer the ‘traditional model’ solutions are desperate to get to the Cloud. If you ask them if it’s on their roadmap, most will assure you it is. Or if it’s not in the roadmap then they will likely espouse ‘security concerns’ (more on that later) or some other excuse. Here’s a question to consider: “Do organizations want to spend any time, money and resources maintaining software, hardware & networks to support the business critical applications you run, or just have users access them with a browser?”
So what is Cloud Computing exactly? I’ll start by saying it’s not 1: The Internet & 2: A website. Certainly ‘cloud’ is being bandied about all over the place. Many companies are misusing the term by slapping “Cloud” onto their internet product offering. But OK, I can see why it’s not and I suppose it doesn’t really matter for all intents and purposes – it’s the catchword of the day and for most end users, they don’t really care. Wikipedia describes is as follows: “Cloud computing is the use of computing resources (hardware and software) that are delivered as a service over a network (typically the Internet)”. Scroll down their page for all of the details. I’d like to add the word ‘virtual’ into that description. It’s kind of important when it comes to the hardware aspect.
Virtual computing is not new of course. Companies like VMWare have enjoyed considerable success is the last 10-15 years. The dynamic need for computing power (driven by resource hungry business applications) drove the broad adoption of computer virtualization – a cheaper and more efficient solution as opposed to ‘buying a new computer’ every time you needed new application server or workstation. However the virtualization happened within a fixed set of hardware. You could add to the hardware of course but this is where Cloud computing really differentiates – the virtual hardware is instantly available, on-demand. Click on a few buttons, voila! 16 more Gigs of RAM; a whole new 64-bit Windows 2008R2 with SQL server…the possibilities are endless.
Before VMWare et al, hosted solutions gained popularity for a while. Typically, the software would be hosted on a server in a datacenter. But the hardware was not dynamic in any way, it was a physical machine sitting on a rack. Upgrading the server required new physical computer components to be installed.
So why are business software companies so eager to migrate their traditional, on-premise product to the cloud? Here’s 3 key items:
A very common reaction to a discussion on Cloud Computing is: ‘Is it secure?’ My, perhaps trite, response is usually: “It’s a least as secure as your email server or ftp site, but likely several orders of magnitude greater”. Cloud providers are of course extremely conscious of this concern. It’s fundamental to their success. There’s been quite a few news stories over the last few years of companies suffering from data breaches – often, user info is stolen, names addresses passwords etc. However the vast majority have been attacks on specific websites (Remember that a website is not the Cloud) . The Cloud is not a single entity that can be breached in entirety by one hacker. It’s up to Cloud providers and companies utilizing the Cloud to provide adequate security for their users. I think it’s safe to assume that the vast majority of us access our financial accounts on-line these days. Banks use one key strategy for security – An encrypted secure website connection. Logins are given various levels of checks to deter someone trying to login to your account. These same strategies are used by good Cloud companies. Many go beyond these steps. Amazon.com AWS outlines its multi-point security strategy here http://aws.amazon.com/security/ and have a special ‘zone’ that meets the applicable requirement for ITAR controlled data – more info on this can be found here: http://aws.amazon.com/govcloud-us/faqs/#What_are_the_ITAR_requirements.
Significant advances in new PCB Pre-CAM with Automated DFM solutions now offer unprecedented levels automation and advanced features. Cloud computing is an enabling technology and offers a new way for users to access business critical software applications and new markets are opening up for software vendors who can offer ‘On-Demand’ usage of their sophisticated and expensive products to those who can’t afford to buy them or only need ad-hoc or light-medium usage. There are in fact cloud-based Pre-CAM applications available today, go check them out. Stick around another 10 years and you will likely be accessing most if not all of your business critical applications on your browser via a Cloud based provider.
This article was written by Iain Wilson & Alessandro Federici in October 2013 and was published in the November edition of the PCB Design Magazine.
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