Finding Your Inner EE

Michael Alba | Comments | December 20, 2017

Screenshot of SOLIDWORKS PCB. (Image courtesy of SOLIDWORKS.)

The worlds of mechanical computer-aided design (MCAD) and electrical computer-aided design (ECAD) are drifting closer and closer together. Their convergence reflects not only an increasing number of connected devices—the so-called Internet of Things, or IoT, but also a trend away from engineering specialization. Gone are the days when mechanical and electrical engineers could develop a product in relative isolation from one another. Today, mechanical form and electrical function are so tightly entwined that the combined field even has its own name: mechatronics.

“The idea of mechatronics is just coming up,” said Louis Feinstein, product portfolio manager for SOLIDWORKS PCB and Electrical. While mechanical and electrical design have coexisted for some time, it’s really only recently that they’ve become so highly correlated. To illustrate that point, Feinstein brings up the example of a smartphone.

“Look at an iPhone or something like that,” he said. “Look at how beautiful it looks and feels. There’s a lot of work that went into that in the mechanical side. Oh, but by the way, there are electronics in there that make it work. So, when we talk about mechatronics, it’s really about knowing both disciplines.”

To help enable efficient and optimized mechatronic design, Feinstein and the SOLIDWORKS team have been fleshing out their ECAD portfolio to complement their MCAD products seamlessly. SOLIDWORKS PCB and SOLIDWORKS Electrical are two tools working towards this goal.

“SOLIDWORKS PCB and SOLIDWORKS Electrical are really designed for the ECAD community,” said Feinstein. “And what we mean by uniting the two is we’re really building a mechatronics solution. In this day of design products designed with electrical and mechanical systems, SOLIDWORKS PCB is really the electronic and mechanical integration. And SOLIDWORKS Electrical is really the system of systems, when you have cabling and harnessing solutions. And it’s really the idea of mechatronics.”

SOLIDWORKS PCB

Though both tools aim to enable seamless mechatronic design, PCB and Electrical serve distinct purposes. SOLIDWORKS PCB is powered by Altium, one of the most powerful electronics design tools available, to ensure engineers need not compromise on the “tronics” side of their “mechatronics” designs.

“SOLIDWORKS PCB is a truly from-the-ground-up mechatronics tool,” Feinstein said. “It’s designed for the customers that are building IoT products, mechatronics products. It’s really designed for products with complex shapes, complex geometries and really small geometries and tight packaging. It has an Altium engine inside of it, and it collaborates between SOLIDWORKS very seamlessly and naturally.”

For SOLIDWORKS users who have already invested in Altium software, there’s a way to obtain the same level of ECAD integration with SOLIDWORKS as users of SOLIDWORKS PCB. SOLIDWORKS PCB Connector is an extension for Altium Designer that was designed to give Altium users the same functionality as PCB users.

SOLIDWORKS PCB Connector gives Altium Designer users the same seamless integration with SOLIDWORKS as SOLDIWORKS PCB. (Image courtesy of SOLIDWORKS.)

So how does SOLIDWORKS PCB work in tandem with SOLIDWORKS? As Feinstein explained, PCB is an on-demand, push-pull collaboration system.

“SOLIDWORKS PCB allows you to synchronize your design anytime you want bi-directionally,” he explained. “And it’s really to make it easier to push and pull design data and collaborate in a controlled environment. There are no files here. In a traditional methodology, you would hand over some sort of CAD file and translate it back and forth. What we’re doing in SOLIDWORKS PCB is moving it back and forth, but we’re moving the information. It’s really the delta information moving back and forth between products in an ECO [Engineering Change Order]-controlled environment, and you can see the change you’re going to make before you make the change. So it’s a different world.”

SOLIDWORKS PCB incorporates both schematic design and PCB layout in a planar format (as most electrical engineers will be used to). However, to emphasize the importance of mechatronics, SOLIDWORKS PCB also offers 3D PCB layout (although most electrical engineers reject this, according to Feinstein, the option is there).

“It also has simulation capabilities and capabilities to do the things that every other electronics design package has,” said Feinstein. “Except it has an integrated interface to SOLIDWORKS, and in SOLIDWORKS, there’s an add-on that you use to integrate to PCB.”

One useful feature of SOLIDWORKS PCB is the IPC Compliant Footprint Wizard, which allows engineers to easily create footprints and 3D models of standard electronic components. The Wizard makes use of the Parasolid engine inside PCB to translate components into a 3D representation. If there’s no true geometry available, the Wizard will create an envelope based on the IPC standards.

The IPC Compliant Footprint Wizard in SOLIDWORKS PCB. (Image courtesy of SOLIDWORKS.)

SOLIDWORKS Electrical

While SOLIDWORKS PCB offers the tools to ensure the function and fit of electronics are correct, SOLIDWORKS Electrical is ideal for handling cables and wires.

“In SOLIDWORKS Electrical, if you want to put an interconnect between items, it’s schematically based and it’s done in real time,” Feinstein explained. “So if I had a part inside an electrical schematic, it shows up in the 3D world to be installed into the product. And conversely, inside of SOLIDWORKS, if you have an electrical device and you want to have the electrical engineers associate the electrical model, it’ll show up in SOLIDWORKS Electrical to be wired up—or to be electrically integrated. And it’s done in real time.”

SOLIDWORKS Electrical provides bi-directional, real-time integration with SOLIDWORKS. (Image courtesy of SOLIDWORKS.)

SOLIDWORKS Electrical comes in a number of flavors, according to Feinstein. These include SOLIDWORKS Electrical Schematic Standard, an entry-level tool targeted at small companies who need point-to-point wiring solutions; SOLIDWORKS Electrical Schematic Professional, a schematic definition tool with more automation and tools than the standard version; and SOLIDWORKS Electrical 3D, a separate module that provides the interface between SOLIDWORKS and SOLIDWORKS Electrical Schematic.

“We know that designing electronics is different than designing cables and wire solutions, so we fit our collaboration style based on both of our customers,” explained Feinstein. “But we did it very simply. There are no files or anything to exchange.”

The Future of Mechatronics Design

While SOLIDWORKS’ goal of bringing harmony to the discord between electrical and mechanical design is a noble one, it can’t be a singular effort. The truth is that mechatronic design is a paradigm shift that the entire industry will need to embrace together.\

Roland Schwarz, senior product design engineer at SurfaceInk and long-time SOLIDWORKS user, commented on this problem. He works with many different clients, and each has its own preferred tools. “Our working environment tends to be more of a pot luck,” Schwarz said. “Everybody brings something and we use what’s there. I’ve never been in a position to take full advantage of an integrated suite [like SOLIDWORKS PCB and Electrical].”

Even if SOLIDWORKS PCB and Electrical offered impeccable mechatronics integration, they’d still suffer from this rather obvious drawback: You can’t take advantage of integration unless you’re collaborating with engineers using the same software. Some engineers will be able to do this, and will be better off for it; others, like Schwarz, will still have to suffer the silos separating ECAD and MCAD.

Nonetheless, SOLIDWORKS PCB and Electrical are doing their best to embrace mechatronic design, and according to Feinstein, they’re only getting started.

“SOLIDWORKS is committed to the mechatronics world,” he said. “Buckle up. IoT stuff is coming next.”


About the Author

Michael Alba is a lead contributor of the IoT section for ENGINEERING.com. Michael has a degree in engineering physics from the University of Alberta. He has also conducted research in wireless beamforming and Doppler radar.

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