AltiumLive Summit—Munich, Germany, Part 1


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Altium held a very successful AltiumLive PCB Design Summit in San Diego, California at the beginning of October for the benefit of their North American design community, and followed it three weeks later with a counterpart European event in Munich, to which I was delighted to be invited. And what an eye-opener it proved to be—literally hundreds of delegates, a superbly organised and managed programme, billed as a completely immersive two-day interactive design experience on a theme of learning, connecting and getting inspired. And to Altium’s great credit, although they used the event as a vehicle to introduce the latest enhancements to their design tools, the agenda was definitely not primarily sales-orientated but focused on the realities of overcoming current and future PCB design challenges and sharing practical experiences. An intensive two-day schedule combined world-class keynote presentations with professional development workshops and technical breakout sessions, and a team challenge contest provided some constructive after-dinner diversion.

Ted_Pawela.jpgIn his welcome and opening remarks, Altium Chief Marketing Officer Ted Pawela was delighted to announce that the number of Altium subscribers had grown to 34,522, making it the world’s largest PCB EDA product user group. Altium recognised that not all PCB designers had the same requirements, therefore a series of four unique PCB solutions had been developed to suit every usage profile and the AltiumLive Summit had been created to bring users closer together as a PCB and electronics design community.  He ended his introduction by quoting American civil rights activist Cesar Chavez: “We cannot seek achievement for ourselves and forget about progress and prosperity for our community. Our ambitions must be broad enough to include the aspirations and needs of others, for their sakes and for our own.”

Daniel_Fernsebner.jpgAltium’s Global Head of Technical Marketing, Dan Fersebner, took centre stage to introduce Altium’s latest revision of their mainstream product—Designer 18—which now featured a modernised user interface, multi-board editing, and 64-bit architecture. Many of the enhancements had been based on feedback and suggestions from the design community, although Fersebner referred to Steve Jobs: “You can’t just ask customers what they want and try to give them that. By the time you get it built, they’ll want something new,” adding, “I knew a few of those customers!” The new package included 20 major features, 100 minor improvements and 600 bug fixes. He was joined by colleagues Ben Jordan and David Marrachki, each at a workstation with a big screen overhead, who did a live side-by-side comparison of Designer 18 with Designer 17, to demonstrate the improvements in speed, functionality and user-friendliness.

BenJordanDanFersebnerDavidMarrakchi.JPG

I never before got to meet Lee Ritchey face-to-face, nor to sit in on his presentations. The AltiumLive event gave me the memorable opportunity to experience both. Acknowledged as one of the industry’s premier authorities on high-speed PCB and system design, Ritchey explored the paradigm shift of PCB design over the last 30 years, and blew out some of the misapprehensions as to causes of the dramatic LeeRitchey.jpgreduction in the numbers of PCB designers and fabricators in the USA. Whereas there had been over 1200 board shops and the PCB West show had attracted 5000 engineers, there were now only about 200 shops and fewer than 1000 engineers attending PCB West. And the number of laminate suppliers had fallen from 10 to three. What happened? Did everything go off-shore? No!

He explained the trend in terms of innovation and integration, the transition from TTL to CMOS and the evolution of integrated circuits, from devices with 2000 transistors in 1970 to microprocessors with more than 10 billion transistors in 2017, reducing the number of PCBs required to design a computer to one or two.

Taking internet routers as an example, he described the first terabit router, introduced in 2002, which required 51 PCBs and consumed 7kW of power. By 2007, as a result of high levels of integration in ICs, the equivalent router was reduced to a single PCB and consumed one tenth of the power—all of this in five years. In 2013, routers with two and a half times this performance, with 32 ports each operating at 100 Gb/S, were the norm.

“What’s inside a cellphone?” he asked, “One PCB as big as your thumb—that’s where the jobs have gone; we integrated them out of existence!”

What of the future? Would the trend continue? Would more designers lose their jobs? Would the fabricator base continue to shrink? Ritchey thought not; electronics technology had entered an era where almost all products could be designed using a single PCB. But each PCB had more functionality, operated at much higher data rates, and often had more than a dozen different power supply voltages, many of which had dropped to below one volt with currents sometimes exceeding 100 amps. He made the point that technology was changing so rapidly that it was not safe to carry old design rules to new designs, and emphasised the need for advanced training to enable designers to upgrade their skills to ensure that these single-board systems performed properly and safely.

Ritchey’s presentation sparked some energetic discussion about analogue versus digital: “It’s all analogue!” and whether Moore’s Law would come to an end because of limitations in IC fabrication technology. He was asked for recommendations for high-speed materials: “Don’t rely on a single source—design for at least two suppliers!” and whether advances in PCB fabrication would make impedance control tighter: “10% is good enough—any more is a waste of money!” Whatever the problem, he believed that if there was enough money in it, then someone would solve it. He closed with a smile and the simple throwaway: “I’m going to retire, then you can worry about it!”

The trouble with parallel sessions is that you can’t attend them all! The first technical breakout session gave a choice of applications experiences shared by three industry experts: Tor-Anders Lunder, senior hardware engineer at Staaker, makers of the autonomous tracker drone, reviewed some complex geometrical PCB design considerations and explained how the 3D modelling features in Altium designer enabled “right-first-time” multi-PCB product development. Martin O’Hara, senior technical manager at Victory Lighting discussed component selection for best EMC performance, how to identify critical parameters and how to reduce the overall BOM. Richard Marshall, CEO of Xitex addressed the challenges of moving a hardware product into production and onto the market, and how Altium Designer could aid the transition and reduce the workload. These workshops were very well-attended and generated plenty of high-level interactive dialogue.

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