What Would You Do With an Online Circuit Simulator?

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shutterstock_1257989998Should you use a desktop or online circuit simulator?

Remember the days when you had to download an open-source SPICE package for circuit simulations? Me too… I still like to implement SPICE simulations in Matlab, but there are plenty of tools for SPICE simulations that include a user interface and that automatically import data from your schematic as inputs.

With the right online circuit simulator, you won’t have to rebuild your circuit as lines of code Some online circuit simulators will force you to send your schematic from your design software to a separate simulator module, but the best browser-based software will have these capabilities integrated into a single interface.

Who Needs an Online Circuit Simulator?

If you’re designing a new product, at some point you may need to validate your circuit design to ensure it functions as you intended. This is not so simple a task as checking against your design rules in a desktop application. Sure, your design rules are important, but they can’t tell you exactly how a circuit will function.

If you already have some simulation capabilities built into your desktop application, then great! But not everyone is so fortunate to have these capabilities. Not all desktop applications have simulation capabilities built in, and those that do may only be limited to certain analyses. Some circuit simulators are offered as addon programs for desktop design platforms, meaning they can carry a hefty price tag, depending on the capabilities you need.

If you’re using online hardware design tools to collaborate with a remote team of designers, then your online schematics and layouts will still need to be simulated. Not all online circuit simulators include the capabilities to go much farther than to create a simple layout from a very short list of components. Other online circuit simulators can only interact with certain desktop applications, meaning that distributed design teams will be unable to collaborate on a design and simulation simultaneously.

Any distributed team of hardware designers can see major productivity gains when they use an online circuit simulator. Individual designers can also see the same benefits as these online tools typically carry a lower price tag. Some have a decent user interface and will accept schematic file formats from several different desktop PCB design applications.

Individuals and distributed teams that plan to use an online circuit simulator need to carefully plan their design workflow. SPICE has been a very popular circuit simulation tool for decades, and SPICE-based or Verilog-based online circuit simulators can take a schematic and netlist and use these data to generate a complete simulation. You should start running simulations to verify your circuit design before you start your PCB layout. If you complete your layout before running circuit simulations, you put yourself at risk of an unnecessary redesign.

What You’ll Need to Verify in Simulations

Your design rules are there to make sure that you’ve properly placed components, vias, and traces so that your board is manufacturable and obeys important design standards. However, your design rules can’t guarantee your circuit will work as you intended. With simulations, you can get a direct view of how your circuit will operate in different situations without having to completely analyze your circuit on paper.

As an example, analog simulations are useful for filter and amplifier design. This allows you to see exactly how your circuit will respond to different driving frequencies and make changes as necessary. With a mixed signal simulation, you can examine how devices with pulse-shaping or signal processing capabilities will operate and how they 

Simulating a circuit driven with a series of pulses or spiked with an impulse is useful for examining the transient behavior of a circuit. This is very important when selecting bypass capacitors, designing decoupling networks, and impedance matching networks. If you want to simulate a purely digital circuit, then you need to make sure your component library includes logic models for your components.

upverter schematicA portion of Ben Jordan’s Sausage Factory schematic. This is one of many designs that could be brought into an online circuit simulator.

In the event you find your circuit behaves differently than you envisioned and you need to do a redesign, be sure to pay attention to the supply chain and replace any parts with those that are currently available. Once you go to manufacture your board, you might find yourself waiting many weeks for parts to arrive if you don’t select sourceable components.

An In-Editor Online Circuit Simulator

Not all schematic editors and circuit simulation tools are integrated. Those that offer an integrated online circuit simulator can immediately translate your schematic and netlist into a SPICE-based, Verilog-based, or other type of simulation without sending design data between different programs. This is a much better option than exporting between desktop programs, or exporting between browser-based programs. Best of all, you won’t have to rebuild a circuit schematic in a separate program or manually write out your netlist and circuit elements before running your simulation.

Online design software with a built-in circuit simulator provides plenty of other benefits. These tools will save your design in an online repository, allowing it to be easily shared or downloaded. The best design software will actually offer live collaboration and version control in a Google Docs-style interface. This greatly speeds up circuit design and allows you to run simulations instantly. You won’t have to devise an odd collaboration strategy just to perform important verification tasks. Any online circuit simulator that interfaces with an optional desktop application will allow users to access their online design tools alongside other desktop design applications.

The flexibility offered by browser-based design software with an online circuit simulator is something that other design platforms just can’t match The browser-based PCB design platform from Upverter® provides new design teams and established organizations with the tools they need to take any new idea all the way to a complete prototyping run. Upverter wants you to stay engaged and continues to update the platform with new features that are demanded by the community.

You can sign up for free and get access to the best browser-based PCB editor, schematic editor, and component database. Visit Upverter today to learn more.

Best Practices for Collaborating with a Circuit Maker Online

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shutterstock_422665894Now is the time for cloud collaboration

No one knows the absolute importance of collaboration better than remote teams. More and more startups are being formed as a collaboration of people from around the world, established companies are becoming comfortable moving development teams online, and new technologies are coming to market that enable this transition. This is happening in both hardware and software design in every industry vertical.

Even design teams that are clustered in offices can benefit from these same technologies and the collaboration they provide. When it comes to hardware design, the tools used to collaborate on a project resemble those used in software development. This allows similar processes to be implemented throughout the design process. Let’s take a look at some best collaboration practices for hardware design teams:

Live Collaboration, Forking, and Revision Tracking

Online hardware design tools are excellent for live collaboration, where two or more designers can work on the same project in real time. When two or more team members are collaborating on any project in real time, it is always best to keep some line of live communication open, either by phone or a chat application. Designers will be able to understand what changes are being made and why they are being made, and they will be able to check that any change was applied correctly during the design session. Keeping live communication open during collaboration ensures that everyone is fully aware of all changes as they occur, and designers can discuss changes to a PCB as they are implemented.

For those in the hardware realm that are not familiar with forking, it is important to distinguish it from revision tracking. In short, revision tracking keeps a list of edits to an existing project and tracks who made the edits. The idea behind forking is to replicate an existing project, allowing it to be modified as a new project under a new name. The right circuit maker online will enforce revision tracking for forked projects.

If someone finds an error in the design or a large number of edits need to be undone, then you can quickly revert the project to a previous version. This is preferable to going back and undoing every single edit manually. The best revision tracking features will everything right down to the exact changes made to a PCB, as well as which team member made those changes. In the event that a team member made a mistake, a project manager knows who to address to ensure that the mistake is not repeated.

In contrast, suppose that you currently have a hardware project to the point where all the bugs have been addressed, the intended functionality has been checked against design rules, and your team is ready to start adding new features. This is where forking becomes useful. Forks allow teams to create and control their own variations of an existing project without compromising a working version of a project.

When Should You Fork a Project?

Forking is useful whenever you want to make changes while keeping a copy of the original, unmodified data. Any time someone on a design team wants to experiment with adding a feature to a working design, the project should be forked so that it can be modified as needed. Another time to fork a project is when a product reaches the end of its lifecycle and will form the basis of an entirely new product. This allows you to create a new project and modify in any way you can imagine without changing the old design data.

Using forking to experiment with new designs or new features from existing designs is a much better option than relying on revision tracking. With revision tracking, you only have a single copy of the project, and you will need to track changes throughout this single project. Forking a project provides any designer much greater freedom compared to working with tracked revisions.

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Gettings started with a forked project in Upverter

What About Enterprise Teams?

What if some or all of your design team is clustered in an office space? Are any of these features useful in this setting? When you use a circuit maker online that provides these collaboration features, the answer is an unequivocal “yes.” Even teams in an office need version control, revision tracking, forking, live collaboration, and automatic backup features.

Compared to large software projects, the only portion of a hardware project that can be broken out into different sections is hierarchical schematics. This makes it difficult to collaborate on a single project using legacy desktop applications for PCB design. With these old platforms, only one designer can work on a board at any time, and most do not offer any features like revision tracking/version control. Forking and revision tracking both require manually making copies of design files and working on the copies, and you won’t be able to merge changes in the same way you would with a platform like GitHub.

Online design software with live collaboration features allows multiple designers to work on all parts of a PCB project without being clustered around a single computer screen. When your design software automatically backs up revisions and forks to the cloud, designers anywhere on the planet can access their portion of the project instantly. Any circuit maker online that interfaces with an optional desktop application allows users to access their online design tools alongside other desktop design applications.

Online PCB design software is here to help your design teams collaborate and design the best new hardware projects quickly and easily. The browser-based PCB design platform from Upverter provides all the tools you need to design new electronics from anywhere. Upverter also continuously updates the platform with new features and capabilities that are demanded by the community.

You can sign up for free and get access to the best browser-based PCB editor, schematic editor, and component database. Visit Upverter today to learn more.

Agile Hardware Design with Online Circuit Builder Software

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Upverter Expert Makers10 (1).pngNeed to speed up NPI? Try agile development with online circuit builder tools

If you’ve ever paid attention to software developers, then you’ve probably seen the word “agile” thrown around a time or two. Anyone that confines themselves to hardware or software design likely views someone in the other camp as rather odd. Each group uses different tools, design methodologies, and workflows. With agile methodologies having proven themselves in software development, should they also be applied to hardware development?

Even though hardware designers are supremely innovative and constantly push the limits of technology, there seems to be little to no debate around improving design methodologies. Hardware designers tend to thrive on process-based methodologies, and the hardware development process can be viewed as rather linear. However, rethinking hardware design as a collaborative and creative process has the potential to improve outcomes and productivity.

What is Agile Development Anyways?

Agile development actually encompasses a number of different variations. Within the software industry, these include scrum, lean, Kanban, and feature-driven development. Any of these ideas could be easily adapted to hardware development by simply replacing the word “software” with “hardware” in literature and blogs on agile development.

While hardware development and PCB design are often viewed as a purely linear processes that progress from schematic design to PCB layout, verification, and production planning, changes are often required at different points in the design process. No product development process is purely linear as issues surrounding signal integrity, sourcing components, manufacturability, and changes in customer requirements may require changes to earlier portions of the design. Agile development stresses adaptation and responsivity to changes in order to deliver the best possible product to the customer.

Agile processes break a larger project into smaller pieces that can be developed in successive iterations. Each iteration lasts a specific amount of time and is developed through collaboration among members of a project team, and even with the customer. The goal is to prioritize what needs to be addressed during the current iteration and get it working properly. By reducing the size of each portion of a project and stitching it together as the design phase progresses, each portion of the final product can be brought to production level in succession. These iterations are repeated until a working design or product is finished and ready for manufacturing.

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You can take your Kanban tasks off a whiteboard with online circuit builder tools

Agile Methods in PCB Design

Agile methods can be easily adapted to PCB design by breaking up each design phase into its respective components and addressing them in successive iterations. While there is no universal way to break up every project, an agile approach to PCB design might break up a project as follows:

 

  • Schematic design: This lays the foundation for your PCB. If you are working on a complicated design that includes multiple functional blocks, each block could be considered its own sub-project and placed in its own hierarchical schematic. These schematics can be linked together into a top-level schematic.
  • PCB layout: This phase is usually separated from the schematic design phase, but working with design software that synchronizes changes in each document is ideal for agile design. This allows you to quickly implement product changes in each iteration of the agile process as necessary.
  • Verification: Once each sub-project is completed, it should be checked against your design rules and constraints to ensure it will meet your customer or industry requirements. Simulations also come in handy when verifying the functionality of your new product.
  • Production planning: With PCB design, this is obviously the final step in the product development process. However, as you start to work on sourcing components for your board, you may find that some components are obsolete or unsourceable, and you will need to choose replacements. This then forms another iteration of the project, where the layout and schematic are updated with the appropriate replacement components. Note that you can avoid changes by checking sourcing information during schematic design iterations.

 

Throughout the process, you’ll want to take advantage of the verification features in your PCB design software to ensure that each portion of your design obeys your design rules and constraints. Whenever an individual sub-project does not pass muster, it should be included in the next iteration. Sometimes, portions of a design may need to be triaged based on changes in customer requirements, depending on the dependencies between each aspect of a design.

Agile Hardware Development with Online Circuit Builder Tools

Online collaboration tools have been a boon to software developers. They provide real-time collaboration, revision control, access control, automated backup, and sharing features that improve efficiency and productivity. In contrast, hardware developers have lacked the same tools, and these features have normally been integrated into desktop-based software. Data management and sharing features often require a central server and plenty of oversight from an IT team in order to provide network uptime, data integrity, and access control.

When one looks at the benefits seen by software developers, particularly in agile development, hardware designers can see a big productivity boost when it comes to implementing a design workflow that requires collaboration on a complex design. Placing these tools online provides additional benefits, including storage on the cloud, sharing and release management, and access control.

After a quick scan of search engine results, one quickly finds that the online PCB design landscape is fragmented, and most online software only contains subsets of the features required under agile hardware development. Teams are forced to use multiple online and desktop tools, rather than working on an entire product in a single platform. Instead, the right online circuit builder platform will help you take a design to completion and onwards to manufacturing.

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The online circuit builder software from Upverter® provides distributed teams all the tools they need to design new electronics for any application. The design features in Upverter are flexible enough that they can be adapted to any development methodology, including agile hardware development. Your design teams can have access to design features that allow collaboration, provide revision control, and allow forking and sharing directly from your browser. Upverter continuously updates the platform with new features and capabilities that are demanded by the community.

You can sign up for free and get access to the best browser-based PCB editor, schematic editor, and component database. Visit Upverter today to learn more.

Going Remote? Here’s How Online PCB Design Software Can Help

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shutterstock_173535041Who wouldn’t love to design new electronics from an island beach?

The idea of remote teams used to be anathema to tech giants that were committed to office life. How do teams collaborate? How can you possibly motivate and supervise people on your team? How do you manage projects, data, access to tools, and communicate with team members on-the-fly?

With new cloud-based technologies coming online every day, more and more businesses are allowing team members to work from afar. Some businesses are creating entirely remote teams in an effort to attract younger workers and broaden their talent base. Other companies are even transitioning all their business operations to a remote model.

Radical Change in PCB Design

With such change occurring in software-driven industries worldwide, one should pose the question: will the PCB design industry be able to keep pace with this level of change? Printed circuit design and manufacturing represent something of a paradox in high tech industries. While PCBs are responsible for facilitating many of the technological advances that make modern life possible, many PCB design tools have lagged behind software in other verticals that emphasize collaboration, open-source sharing, and access from anywhere on any device. PCB manufacturing has generally lagged behind all other industries in terms of automation and transformational innovation, and it is only now catching up to the rest of Industry 4.0.

The number of employees working remotely increased by 115% since 2005. 37% of U.S. workers were telecommuting at least part time in 2015, and these numbers have only risen over the last 4 years. Information technology was by far the industry with the greatest number of remote jobs in a recent survey. However, electronics design and the PCB design industry were not even a blip on the radar. This goes to show how such an important high tech industry has continued to lag other software-driven verticals, primarily due to the lack of collaborative tools.

Collaboration with Online PCB Design Software

Now cloud-based design platforms for PCB design will need to emphasize a number of important design, collaboration, and version control features in order for remote design teams to work successfully and create the best new electronics. Hardware startups and larger enterprises can greatly benefit from these design capabilities as it allows them to expand their talent base, provide designers with greater work-life balance, and reduce overhead.

First, design teams and entire organizations can benefit from a design platform that combines GitHub-esque sharing and forking features with a collaborative interface that mimics the capabilities of Google Docs. Bringing these capabilities into an optional desktop application allows users to tailor their experience and access online design tools alongside other desktop design applications.

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With online PCB design software, you won’t have to work on a chalkboard

Just as Google Docs and GitHub allow users to download their data to a personal device, an online PCB design platform should provide the same capabilities. This allows any designer to take their data and bring it into their favorite desktop-based PCB design application. This also allows data to be shared with other members of an organization that may not be part of the design team. You’ll also need these files as deliverables for your manufacturer once you plan on producing your design.

Staying Synchronized During Online PCB Design

Currently, the online PCB design platforms you’ll find with a search engine query contain only a subset of the features required to take a design to production. This forces you to use multiple tools rather than working in a single interface. Instead, a great online PCB design platform will let you take a design completely through to completion and help generate your manufacturer deliverables.

Your schematic editor needs to integrate directly with your PCB layout editor using a schematic capture tool. You should also be able to designate netlists in your editor, as this helps you trace out connections as schematics and layouts become more advanced. This also helps you track which components appear in a given signal net, or vice versa. All of this should happen directly in the cloud as this allows instant collaboration on a single design; you shouldn’t need a desktop application to act as an intermediary.

Your layout and schematic need to stay in sync, meaning changes in one document should be reflected in the other document. Changes can include component replacement, switching connections between components, defining new nets, or any other change you can think of. Keeping schematic and PCB editing on the cloud in a single platform ensures that the two documents can be quickly synchronized and checked as you design. This also allows your routing and layout choices to be checked against your design rules before you finalize and release your project.

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Online PCB design in 3D with Upverter

With online collaborative tools becoming more important as more workers go remote, PCB design software will inevitably catch up to this trend. Online design tools are now on the market that allow designers to undertake a number of important design tasks from anywhere. However, a complete browser-based design interface that allows users to take a design straight from an idea to a manufacturable layout has been lacking until only recently.

Now your design teams can have access to remote tools that emphasize collaboration, version control, and universal access when you use the right online PCB design software. If you’re a founder at a startup or you work for an established organization, the browser-based PCB design platform from Upverter provides all the tools you need to design new electronics. Upverter® continuously updates the platform with new features and capabilities that are demanded by the community.

You can sign up for free and get access to the best browser-based PCB editor, schematic editor, and component database. Visit Upverter today to learn more.

Circuit Drawing Online: Moving to the Cloud

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Everywhere you look on the internet, it seems that every legacy company is transitioning their services to the could. Programs that used to be relegated to desktop computers have gone mobile, are redesigned for collaboration, and have a mobile version that is accessible from your smartphone. Finally, and thankfully, circuit design software is starting to catch up.

Online software has progressed far beyond file sharing, data sharing, and chat programs. With greater computing power becoming accessible from the cloud, more enterprises are moving critical business platforms online, with 69% of enterprises moving enterprise resource planning capabilities online. Plenty of other cloud-based applications and capabilities are sure to follow.

Who Needs Cloud Applications Anyways?

Now cloud capabilities and distributed computing offer everyone from data scientists to circuit designers advanced simulation capabilities. Whether you’re a hobbyist designer, part of a hardware startup, or part of an established organization, you too can take advantage of the greater collaboration afforded by online design.

With more organizations going fully remote, everyone from hardware startups to larger enterprises need to seriously consider the benefits of using applications for circuit drawing online. Research from Gartner shows that businesses in every vertical are becoming more open to allowing employees to work remotely. Hardware companies are no exception, and collaborative tools for PCB design will continue being invaluable for collaboration on new products.

Developing Online PCB Design Platforms

Without a doubt, more applications will continue to move online, and developers in this area are a hot commodity. According to Crunchbase, at least 236 companies that produce cloud-based applications have received investor funding since May 2019. Developers and founders looking to create new browser-based design software hardware design capabilities are sure to have their platforms be well-received by the market as long as they include the right features.

Developers planning to create online circuit drawing applications should keep a number of points in mind when designing new applications for these platforms. The best online circuit drawing features integrate a number of capabilities from other cloud-based platforms like Google Docs and GitHub. This allows collaboration, provides version control, and enables control over sharing or privacy. With this in mind, let’s take a look at the essential features that should be included in any cloud-based hardware and PCB design platform.

  • Sharing and forking: This GitHub-style feature allows designers to create new versions of someone else’s project and start modifying it immediately. Designers can choose to share their designs so that others can fork them and create new versions or entirely different products.
  • Live collaboration: Startup teams aren’t always clustered in a single office. With more teams going fully remote, collaboration tools are a necessity rather than an option. Live collaboration mimics the capability of Google Docs, where multiple authors can work on a single project in real-time.
  • Integration with component tools: Designers need instant access to a broad range of components, and they shouldn’t have to import models from their desktop just to include them in their designs. A great cloud-based design platform should include component search, creation, and management tools.
  • Data export: Just as Google Docs and other online platforms allow data to be downloaded to a personal device, so should an online circuit design platform. This allows any designer to take their data and bring it into their favorite desktop-based design application.

Data Export Capabilities

This ability to export design data is about more than just importing data into a desktop-based design application. You’ll need these files if you want to plan for production and create a working prototype or finished product.

The important design data formats any designer needs to plan for production are Gerber files, XYRS data for pick-and-place machines, a bill of materials, Excellon files for CNC drills and a drill chart, and assembly drawings. A complete netlist and a collection of component models allows you to import your design into SPICE-based circuit simulators for verification during design.

Getting Started with Applications for Circuit Drawing Online

Working in an online design environment should make collaboration on new designs painless and while providing the tools you need to move from idea to full-scale production. All of this should happen directly in the cloud; you shouldn’t need a desktop application to act as an intermediary. Instead, an optional desktop application allows users to tailor their experience.

This all starts with schematic design, where your components and electrical connections are defined. Netlists that designate specific connections in your device need to be defined in your schematic editor, and your PCB layout can begin with a schematic capture tool in your application.

Once you’ve located your components and you’ve created your initial layout, you’ll need to check your design against standard design rules and verify its manufacturability. Once you’ve verified your design against standard design rules and through simulations, it’s time to start thinking about creating a prototype from your design. After several design, build, and test iterations, you just might be ready for full-scale production.

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You can design PCBs like this with Upverter

Now you can create high-quality designs quickly when you use the right online design software. If you’re a founder at a startup or you work as part of a remote organization, the browser-based design interface from Upverter provides all the tools you need to design new electronic products, and all in a browser-based design environment. Upverter® continuously updates the platform with new features and capabilities that are demanded by the community.

You can sign up for free and get access to the best browser-based PCB editor, schematic editor, and component database. Visit Upverter today to learn more.

What to Look for in Software for Circuit Design Online

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Upverter Expert Makers6 Copy 2 (1)

Even though I work in a highly technical industry, I can still be skeptical of new technology, especially when it is a new app or collaboration tool. I sometimes take the “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” approach when viewing new software or the newest smartphone. Even after browser-based design tools started becoming popular, I was skeptical of their usefulness and functionality.

Eventually, most online tools wind up finding their place in the market and prove their usefulness for a number of tasks, and online PCB design software is no exception. With this in mind, it helps to understand the features you need to look for when you want to undertake circuit design online. If you’re a hobbyist, you work as part of a team with a startup, or you are just getting started and are still learning about PCB design, working with a browser-based design tool can offer some real benefits over desktop-based software.

Working with Software for Circuit Design Online

If you head over to your favorite search engine and start searching for online PCB design software, you’ll find plenty of options to choose from. No one has time to evaluate every single platform, especially if you’re a new designer or if you’re trying to get your new company off the ground. Much like other types of online design software, and platform for circuit design online should include features that are a suitable replacement for desktop software while remaining competitive on price.\

Most online design programs will only interface with a limited number of desktop programs if at all, and most will not provide much more functionality than creating a schematic or a simple layout. Most will not contain the tools required to quickly prepare for production, and you will likely be limited in terms of component selection.

The best browser-based design software will include the features to move through the entire design process and take a board all the way to production. This means you’ll need schematic editing tools, a PCB layout editor, and a constraints manager for enforcing specific design requirements. Along the way, you’ll likely need to collaborate with other designers on your new board in order to include the functionality you need.

Collaboration is Key

These days, teams at startups aren’t always clustered in a single office. People are spread across the globe, and each person has a role to play in designing a new electronic product. There are several issues to consider, including basic functionality defined in a schematic, the overall layout of your board, how you will go about sourcing components, and finalizing deliverables for a manufacturer.

My favorite aspect of using online design software is the collaboration it enables with other people on my design team. I’m in the US and I work with designers in Europe, and I’ll often stay up until the wee hours of the morning working with my colleagues on our designs. The GitHub-style interface gives us full control over successive versions of our designs and helps us stay organized. It also allows us to access projects from other designers and draw some inspiration for our new designs.

PCB layout in Upverter for circuit design onlineJust one of many open-source projects you can access with browser-based design software. Thanks to gigneal for releasing this project.

Larger companies need to seriously consider the benefits of online collaborative tools as more organizations adopt remote teams. According to Gartner, more businesses are becoming open to allowing employees to work from anywhere, and hardware companies are no exception. This is where collaborative tools for circuit design online become invaluable as critical team members can collaborate on new prototypes from anywhere.

Preparing for Production

Eventually, you’ll need to produce prototypes of your board and prepare your designs for manufacturing. There are several issues to consider here. First, you’ll need to find a short run manufacturer that specializes in rapid prototyping and can satisfy your design requirements. You’ll want to be sure you understand their capabilities and requirements on your board. It is good to do this ahead of time in order to avoid a time-consuming redesign of your board.

One important step you can take to increase your board yield during a manufacturing run is to make a panelized PCB from your board. This involves laying copies of your board in a specific arrangement on a larger panel. This allows your manufacturer to produce multiple copies of your board in a single run and help you get the highest yield for your costs.

shutterstock_406551418Panelized boards for manufacturing

Your manufacturer will need a number of other deliverables before they can start producing your board. This includes Gerber files, Excellon files, NC drill files, and a complete bill of materials. Many online design tools force you to download design files and open them in a different application before you can create these deliverables. Worse yet, you might be forced to search component distributor databases and compile a bill of materials in word processing software by hand. The best browser-based design software will generate these directly from your design data within your browser, saving you time and enabling the type of collaboration that makes design teams successful.

If you’re a hobbyist, a new designer, or you are trying to get your startup off the ground, you can get started creating high-quality designs quickly when you use the right online design software. The browser-based design interface from Upverter® provides all the tools you need to design new electronic products.

You can sign up for free and get access to the best browser-based PCB editor, schematic editor, and component database. Visit Upverter today to learn more.

A Guide to Starting a New Project

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Upverter Expert Makers6 Copy 2

I have been an Altium user for more than a decade, and I’ve just signed up with Upverter to work on some new projects for a friend. While the Upverter is new to me, my initial planning process is exactly the same, no matter what the software.

Determining Requirements

The first step of successfully starting a new project is turning your idea (or someone else’s) into a set of requirements, or a specification. You have to do this before you get started on selecting any components or doing anything else. For example, when I’m working on a complex project, this would involve developing a couple of Agile Methodology personas which I can refer back to during each step of the way. For a simpler project however, this could be just a quick Google document which identifies what inputs and outputs the device will have, and perhaps how I want to approach some of what goes on between the input and output. 

Even when working on a fairly simple device, the process of writing this requirements document will likely give you inspiration for scope creep – wait, I mean additional functionality! It’s much easier to deal with the additional functionality when converting the idea into a requirements document than it is to deal with as you’re halfway through the PCB layout. 

If you’re working as a freelancer or developing the project for someone else, this is a really great time to share your ideas with the client, as sharing your ideas shows your interest to the client and may spark even more ideas from the client. This can help give you a better project to tell future clients about, save you a lot of effort later in reworking the design, and potentially result in additional work, and pay, to integrate the new features and functionality you thought up, all whilst impressing the client.

My requirements document will give a brief overview of the concept of the product, which is typically just a paragraph or two detailing the original idea. Then, it will have a section on what the product will do. Following that, each input will get it’s own section, as will each output. Buttons, screens, and other user interface elements count as inputs and outputs, not just the connectors. If the system is battery-powered, the battery requirements will also be listed, such as expected battery runtime, current draw,  and any environmental constraints that might exist. Finally, I will add a section on the form factor and any size constraints. The form factor section will have some rough ideas of how big I want the device to be, if it will have an enclosure, and how the buttons or inputs might be grouped.

If you have budget constraints per unit for the device beyond “as cheap as possible”, you should also include this in your requirements document. If the budget is $10 and you need a microcontroller, it’s going to limit your choices. The volume this constraint applies to is critical too. If you think your production volume is only going to be 10 units, each component in the device is going to be significantly more expensive to purchase than if you are making 1000 units at a time.

If the device has firmware or software, these should be detailed as well. You might feel this is something you can leave until a later time, but by adding it now, you might find you need an extra button, LED, or connector, which can be a lot harder to add in later.

Determining Regulatory Requirements

If the device you are creating will be offered for sale, now is a good time to look into what certifications it might require. If you are selling a device with electronics in it, you will need to have it certified for compliance with regulations no matter how many you are going to sell. Functionality such as radio communications, battery charging, or AC power all require compliance with regulations. The markets in which you are going to offer your device for sale will also determine which regulations you need to comply with. I examine regulatory requirements early on, as these requirements coupled with the sales volume may heavily influence component choices. 

For example, if I’m building a device that will talk to a phone over bluetooth, but I’m only going to build 100 of them, I will be using a pre-certified radio module despite the higher cost and additional board space compared to using a bluetooth IC. This is because the cost of certifying the device as compliant with intentional radiator regulations doesn’t make sense for the volume of devices I’m building. Likewise, if I have a small volume, I might choose not to build charging circuitry into a battery powered device because the safety testing for a charging circuit is too expensive.

Choosing Parts

Now that I have my requirements, I’ll start another document where I choose high level components based on the required functionality. This is one of the parts I enjoy the most, digging through supplier websites to find all the possible parts that could meet my requirements, then digging through datasheets to determine the most optimal one among them. I’m sure some people loathe this step, but I get real satisfaction out of it. The parts we’re interested in are very high level blocks, not each individual capacitor or resistor.

As an example, if I am building a wireless temperature sensor, you might have the following blocks based on your requirements:

  • Microcontroller to take readings and log them
  • Memory for storing readings if the wireless link is down
  • Real-time clock to determine when a reading was taken
  • Wireless device to communicate readings
  • Battery
  • Voltage regulator
  • Temperature sensor
  • Humidity sensor

Some of these requirements could possibly be put together for a single device to take care of. Many ARM controllers have built-in real-time clocks that are as good as external ICs for example. Digital temperature sensors often only cost a little more with a humidity sensor built-in as well.

Because I know from our requirements that this device will be battery-powered, I can make good choices for low power components with low quiescent currents. I’d probably be looking at a microcontroller which has the deepest, lowest power sleep cycle if the requirements said this would be installed remotely and be running on primary batteries rather than something that gets charged every day. If I had more power to play with, I might be more inclined to look at an RF system on chip (SoC) that integrates the wireless unit and the microcontroller together. Depending on the radio frequency required, I might still do that. This is where the requirements document really comes into play – if the radio was a sub-1GHz unit, I know I would be going straight for an RF SoC from Silicon Labs in their Gecko series. If it needed to be WiFi, I’d probably go for an SiLabs Gecko microcontroller and a separate WiFi radio which I can switch off when I don’t need it. If the power wasn’t a problem, and this was to be a WiFi device that was always plugged in, I would likely be looking at an ESP32 RF SoC instead.

Because I have a requirements document, I can start in the relevant category of components on my preferred supplier’s website and start filtering down specifications that are most critical to my requirements until I have a very shortlist. After looking through the datasheets for parts in this shortlist, I can create an even shorter list with just a couple of highly relevant options.

Creating a High-Level Bill of Materials

It might seem too early to build a bill of materials, since I haven’t even started on the schematic yet, but this is not a BOM you would manufacture from. We’re simply looking at our part selections from above, so we can check our major components and connectors are going to fit within our budget. By making a very simple spreadsheet with each of our most likely candidates for each component, we can fill in pricing data at different volumes. This is when I typically go to a website such as Octopart and make sure the component I want to use is available in volumes at distributors that will allow me to make enough boards. If I know that the first run of boards is likely to be for 1000 devices, but globally, there are only 261 of that part at suppliers, it’s probably a poor choice of component. By using a price comparison website this early on, I can also check to ensure that the cheapest supplier has sufficient stock. By checking each component on the shortlist against stock and pricing comparisons, we can narrow our selection down to a single component that makes it to our ‘bill of materials’. 

This high-level bill of materials allows you to give stakeholders in the project a ballpark idea of how much the device will cost early on. This can really help keep expectations in check, and ensure everyone is on the same page as far as the budget goes.

Prototyping

Now that I have a pretty good idea of which parts to use, it’s time to order some breakout boards, or build them if they do not exist.

Despite the fact I just ‘committed’ to a component in our high-level bill of materials, I’ll typically prototype each component in my shortlist. Why you might ask? Well, specifications lie or might be lacking some detail. In a previous project, I committed to a specific radio module for communications because its datasheet made claims of a certain bitrate over the air. On that project, we ended up testing over ten radio modules to find one that could actually meet our requirements for data transfer, despite what the specifications in the datasheet claimed. If you’re working with a very tight power budget, it can be hard to understand from a datasheet how much power a device will consume in the real world. Not to mention, a table of minimum/typical and maximum values can be quite broad, so testing each device in your specific use case can quickly lead to selecting one component over another due to its power usage. In another project I worked on, I tried five different microcontrollers to determine their current draw in sleep. While some could get to incredibly low sleep values on paper, from a programming point of view, this was very tedious and difficult to achieve and required a lot of code. This made them a risk not worth taking. I ended up going with the SiLabs Gecko mentioned previously, because it was so easy to get it in and out of a very low power sleep mode that exceeded our requirements using only needed one line of code, rather than over a hundred for some others.

It pays off to prototype each major component. Even the components you expect to be a very straightforward choice might turn out to be less than optimal once you start talking to it with a microcontroller. If you are not building a high volume of devices, a slightly more expensive and perhaps less ‘perfect’ choice might have a nice library for your microcontroller, where the optimal choice does not. Being able to use someone else’s proven code to talk to that device could save sufficient time to justify using it over your optimal choice.

This prototyping stage can save you a significant amount of pain down the road if you find out that the component you chose to implement the design with can’t do what you expect it to be based on the datasheet, or that it is very difficult to make it do what the datasheet claims outside a lab. The small investment in time upfront to test your choices may save you days of work revising your design later on.

Writing Code

Having followed this guide,  you should now have breakout boards for each major component in your project, allowing you to build it on a breadboard and start developing code. I moved into electronics from a software development background because I was getting bored of software, so I’ll admit I am always itching to get to schematic capture and PCB layout now that I know which parts I’m going to use. Every time I do, however, it comes back to bite me. Get at least the rudiments of your code worked out on a breadboard or some other configuration that allows you to make changes as needed before committing to a circuit board. I’ve jumped the gun on numerous board spins, moving straight to a PCB only to find I need some additional hardware feature to optimize the firmware, or that perhaps the pin on a microcontroller has some caveat to its function, buried away in the manual, that means I can’t do what I wanted to with it. 

Simulation

If you have analog electronics or logic components beyond a microcontroller on the board, it can pay to quickly build the circuit in a basic SPICE simulator to check that your calculated values function as you expect. Likewise, with logic components, it’s worth making sure the circuit functions as you expect, before you commit to a circuit board only to find you goofed and swapped two inputs and only found out by testing a finished prototype with your oscilloscope.

Schematic Capture and Board Layout

Now that you’ve built your requirements document, chosen parts, and tested them both individually and as part of your entire project, you can enjoy building up the schematic and laying out the board. You’ve put in the effort to get to this point, and you can be fairly certain that the board you build will meet your or your client’s specifications at this point, and that this first revision will have a pretty good chance of working correctly right after assembly. If it doesn’t work, it should be fairly easy to track down the issue and fix the problem, as you have your breadboard to refer back to, allowing you to compare specific points of the schematic with an oscilloscope or logic analyzer to find the fault, and add little wires to the board to fix your mistakes. You probably won’t need to go and make major changes to components after finding them inadequate for the task, as you would if you had skipped the testing.

It might seem a little over the top, a waste of time, or a waste of money to go through all these steps even for very basic devices, but experienced engineers will know that it pays off in the end. The additional effort and seemingly slow progress early on make the rest of the process both much faster and much more risk-free.

I’m a big fan of reducing risk when it comes to design. This doesn’t necessarily mean simplifying the project to remove complexity, or taking the easy route, but rather means exploring complexities or challenges prior to committing to hardware. If you are a beginner just stepping into the world of developing your own hardware, you are likely to consider any circuit board to be a high risk until you have acquired more experience. If you are a seasoned professional, the threshold for high-risk designs is likely significantly elevated, and will allow you to prototype larger blocks of a project at a time, though proper documentation of your requirements would be every bit as indispensable.

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