Previously, in Part 1, I outlined why the need for collaborative design is growing and the main areas of concern. In this blog post I'll attempt to put some flesh on those bones and explain what I believe needs to happen to bring design closer together.
Design is a process that requires creative input from, ideally, as many people as possible. This presents the first challenge; making sure all those involved are aware of what others are doing in a timely and relevant way. It may be that the engineers involved are working in different locations and time zones, they may even be using different tools or have different preferences selected in tools that offer a level of automation. These issues suggest a solution that offers real-time visibility at a suitable level of abstraction, such that all relevant details can be seen and influenced. A challenge indeed!
Resolving differences in the designs
The implications of this highlight the next challenge, which is resolving any differences in the designs to a point where the overall project can move forward. Today, this is largely done manually, which requires a person or team of people to evaluate any and all differences before they can be accepted or rejected; this clearly has its own implications on productivity.
The final stage is bringing all accepted changes together into a 'new' version of the design file.
Again, if the tools used require this to be a manual process, the whole concept of collaborative design is compromised. It is, perhaps, the most advanced phase in today's collaborative landscape, however.
Product Lifecycle Management
Most organisations will have some form of version control in place, often as part of a PLM (Product Lifecycle Management) solution and definitely if they are involved in software development; it allows different versions or releases of a software build to be maintained for both development and production purposes, and as such adapting it to fit the design phase is less challenging than creating a reliable tool chain suitable for the former two phases.
However, standard version control systems aren't intended to span the complete value chain, and while a PLM tool provides excellent visibility into a manufacturing process, it isn't the right environment to manage collaborative design, where there is a high degree of reiteration and alteration.
In a typical design flow, the level of detail is fine-grained, right down to the component, its PCB symbol, schematic footprint and electromechanical characteristics. There is a high degree of interdependency between the data behind each element in the design process, and for this reason it is the design release process — and not the production process — that is best placed to drive collaborative design.
At least, that's the theory; in the next part of this blog series I'll look at how this can be achieved in practice.
Ben Jordan got his start in electronics as an 8 year old, when his big brother got him his first soldering iron with a multivibrator LED flasher kit. Ben holds a Bachelor of Engineering with First Class Honors from the University of Southern Queensland, and has worked as an AE, FAE and in Marketing and management roles at Altium since 2004. Ben has more than 20 years experience designing electronics, PCBs, and embedded computing and FPGA hardware and software, and has research interests in signal processing, audio electronics, and PCB design.