Cloud-based PCB tool cuts board re-spins

Cloud-based PCB tool cuts board re-spins

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By Nick Flaherty

Siemens has launched a cloud-based software service that bridges the gap between the electronics design and printed circuit board (PCB) manufacturing.

PCBflow extends Siemens’ Xcelerator portfolio with a secure environment for PCB design teams to interact with a variety of manufacturers. By rapidly performing a range of design-for-manufacturing (DFM) analyses in the context of each manufacturers’ process capabilities, which helps customers accelerate design-to-production handoff.

The tool uses Siemens’ Valor NPI software engine, which performs over 1000 DFM checks and so enables PCB design teams to rapidly identify manufacturability violations. These violations are then sorted and prioritized according to level of severity, guiding users through images and locations on the design for easy identification and immediate correction. 

Siemens says PCBflow is its first step towards automating the design-to-manufacturing handoff process. The company says it is the first to offer a marketplace featuring online, fully automated design for manufacturing (DFM) analysis technology, which can help optimize designs, reduce front-end engineering cycles, and streamline communication between board makers and designers. 

Design for manufacturing boost

This is key for New Product Introduction (NPI) with prototyping as well as revisions, product variants, different BoM, corrections or enhancements on the design side and getting a board into production. Siemens calculate that there are at least 1m new product introductions every year and this has been growing exponentially for the last couple of years as new product launches have moved from a yearly event to quarterly and now weekly.

One of the key challenges is ensuring board designs can be manufactured. Designers use generic design rule checking (DRC) and design for manufacturing (DFM) with generic process constraints so when they run the actual analysis that matches the specific PCB flow they find issues and this can take two to three weeks on average to fix with 2.5 iterations of a board to get it into production. More accurate DFM can eliminate these iterations, but this needs the detailed constraints from the manufacturers but this is key IP. This is a significant market failure in electronics manufacturing, says Siemens. 

“The challenge is IP sharing for both the manufacture and the customer and collaborating in real time,” said the company. “We want to make this lower cost with pay as you go models. You can think of PCBflow as escrow.”  

Storing the constraint files on the cloud allows board designers to run up to 20 different files simultaneously or just two. This means a board design can be built with quality by a particular supplier and go straight into manufacturing, download a PDF report for compliance and process control.

PCBflow provides board designers with a comprehensive source of knowledge, which can streamline customer/manufacturer collaboration. The tool allows manufacturer board capabilities to be shared electronically, either publicly or privately.

“PCBflow saves time and costs in the design-to-manufacturing handoff process by addressing manufacturability violations during the design phase,” said Evgeny Makhline, chief technology officer for Nistec, a PCB design house that is using PCBflow. “With PCBflow, producing and reviewing a DFM analysis report takes just minutes instead of hours.” This saves up to 125 engineer hours a month, says Siemens.

Low code interface

PCBflow works with the Mendix low-code application development platform. This allows PCBflow to be used without training nor prerequisites, and it is accessible from virtually any location, including mobile phones and tablets. Additionally, PCBflow provides designers with images, tool-tips, measurements and precise locations of solderability issues and other PCB design violations. Reports are available online and in a downloadable PDF format for easy sharing. PCBflow supports the ODB++ language design file format and support for additional formats is planned in 2021. 

“PCBflow is the ultimate product-design tool, because it supports comprehensive designer/manufacturer collaboration with a closed-loop feedback mechanism that drives continuous improvement,” said Dan Hoz, general manager of the Valor Division at Siemens Digital Industries Software. “Because customer designs are in sync with the fab’s capabilities, respins can be reduced, time-to-market can be shortened, board quality can be optimized, and yield can be enhanced.”

The constraint sets are fully encrypted and cannot be viewed or changed and accessed though a ValorNPI plug in for PCB design tools such as Altium and Eagle. Around 12 suppliers that have shared their constraint sets in different ways and there are 100 designers in the programme testing out the constraints. It will be free for the manufacturers to load a profile and publish their constraints. Designers pay for the service, with a single DFM analysis costing a couple of hundred of dollars or an annual substription with cess to 20 to 50 constraints a year.

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