Happenings at Orcad, Altium, and Sunstone, plus free DesignSpark
Paul Rako - September 23, 2011
I really like Altium, I recommended that the whole company should use it when I worked at National Semiconductor (now a Texas Instruments division). What has happened since then is that Altium makes and sells their own FPGA demo boards. This has had a great benefit, since it puts real live board designers right next to the programmers making the CAD tool. So Altium has really adopted a lot of those “would be nice” suggestions since they have board guys that can walk two cubicles down and demonstrate to the software folks why we all want a certain feature. The other cool thing about Altium is that they really jumped the competition with their 3-D view of the PCB. My buddy Paul Grohe at Texas Instruments told me that he caught an error he made because he could just sail around the board and look at the layer stack in 3-D.
So the Altium news is that they have a nice webcast about designing with Atmel touch sensor chips. I like Atmel, I always have since designing a few products with their micro-controllers. They are fast, and you have to love a company that sold a $49 “butterfly” prototype card and a $200 ICE (in-circuit-emulator).
OK, Altium’s nice, but I have been an Orcad guy since when it ran or DOS. Everybody knows there is just one way for a schematic entry tool to work, and that is the way Orcad Capture works. When I ask the Altium guys why I can’t drag components with the wires attached, they point out you can, you just hold down some alt ctlr goofy keys and it acts exactly like Orcad. But that is not exactly like Orcad since you don’t have to hold down hotkeys. Yeah, I guess zooming with <ctrl>scrollwheel is a Windows standard, but I still like zooming about the cursor just by pressing the “I” key and the “O” key. You can program Altium hotkeys to do this.
And that is just the Orcad schematic program. Although baroque, I learned to love the Orcad Layout program; the one they just killed and forced everyone into a stripper Allegro. Hitting backspace and having the screen clear is great. Then you hit the number keys to turn on each layer. Want to see layer 1 and 2 with one on top? Just hit “2″ and “1″. Want to see top and bottom with 2 on top? Hit “1″ and “2″. Yeah, you can make macros so that Allegro stripper, AKA Orcad Editor works that way, but you would think Cadence would put a giant button in the splash screen asking if you wanted the thing to work like Orcad Layout. I should not gripe since one of the best engineers I know, Robert Ford, just told me that once you suffer with Allegro for two weeks, you will love it to the point you will never ever use another layout package.
Old-timers like me will remember that even Orcad Capture was once “at risk” of being killed, but their value-added distributor EMA Design Automation saved it by adding their own libraries and giving great customer service. Then I am pretty sure it was EMA that architected Capture CIS, where you had real-time libraries and symbols all driven with Digi-Key pricing. It saved Capture, and a good thing too. I recently fired up Capture 9.3 after not using it for 5 years and it’s like a bicycle. Once you do it, you can get back on it and it goes just fine. I have to admit that despite having a brand-new Altium on my computer, I went back to my safe secure Orcad to do a Monte Carlo Spice simulation for my upcoming article about error budgets. I am pretty sure Altium will do it too, and I will try to replicate the work in Altium so I can tell you how that went.
The great Orcad news is that EMA has come out with a handful of applications for Orcad. These apps are part of Orcad’s marketplace, so you have to pay for them, but if EMA’s history is any indication, they will be worth paying for. I am trying to get a new copy of Orcad on my machine to evaluate and report to you, so stay tuned. There are 5 apps available and a sixth one on the way:
- CIP in CIS Instant access to search and download component data for millions of parts inside OrCAD.
- Status Display Avoid errors with fully customizable visual indicators of properties like production status and value.
- CircuitFit Perform early fit studies at the schematic level before you commit to placement.
- Find in Design Quickly search for common values across multiple schematics and projects.
- TestPoint Annotator Sync testpoint placement between OrCAD PCB and Schematic.
- SymbolGen - Coming Soon. Build and verify OrCAD schematic symbols in a fraction of the time right from the component datasheet.
I would like to tell you what these cost, but it is a secret, I will have to get my gratis copy or a demo, install it, go to the store and then there must be a price. I can tell you that the testpoint app alone is a real winner and I doubt they want 500 bucks or anything. I will let you know.
Next up are the great folks as Sunstone, the PCB fabrication house. Thing is, they are way more than a fab house. Sunstone is a way to get you a working prototype fast, as well as the things you need to go into production. Sunstone are the people that make the great PCB123 software for circuit design. It is free, but you have to uses Sunstone to make the resultant board. If you do want to send the Gerbers to a competitor, they let you pay a small fee, 35 bucks or maybe its 50, and then you have all the documentation that you get with 5 or 10,000 dollar CAD packages. I looked at PCB123 a while back and liked it way more than Eagle, another free tool. Since then Eagle was bought by Newark, so that is great news, to have that giant distributor behind the tool. Eagle is one of the few tools that run on Linux.
Anyway, back to Sunstone, they are now giving you a free solder paste stencil with your order, and that goes for their quick turn, full service, and PCB123 line. This is great since you really do need a stencil to solder these modern packages on your board. Better yet, Sunstone will send you board down the road to Screaming Circuits, who will kit your parts and assemble the board on short notice. When I tried to do that down here in Silicon Valley, the contract manufacturer said he needed a meter of tape-and-reel for each part, even if I only wanted 4 boards. Screaming has modified their machines so they can take the cut-tope from Digi-Key and run that. That way you get a real-pick-and-place and IR reflow, further proving out your documentation, while only make a few boards.
As a teaser, I just stumbled across yet another free PCB tool, DesignSpark PCB. Just like the electronics distributor Newark bought Eagle, the giant RS Electronics that owns Allied bought up this PCB tool. I have not checked it out at all but will download it and Eagle and PCB123 and let you folks know what I discover. All I know is that Keith Al Ackermann works at PCB123 and he is the son of Al Ackermann, the founder of Massteck, which became Orcad Layout, and Keith has worked at PADS and other places and really knows his stuff. The DesignSpark PCB is a special version of the Easy-PC tool made by Number One Systems. Since they are in the UK, I would not be surprised if there was some CADStar and Pulsonix DNA in the product. Pulsonix is distributed in the US by that other great fab house, Advanced Circuits. I have always used Proto Express since they are in Silicon Valley, but I hope to use all these fab shops in the coming year to let you know what I learn.
And naturally I would be remiss to mention all these CAD packages without a shout out to my pals at Mentor Graphics. They sell the enterprise-class Expedition tool, but I love their tried-and-true PADS product. There are many many engineers that use Orcad Capture for the schematic and PADS for the layout. PADS was the first mid-range tool that embraced OBD++ file format so you have one file to hold all the design info. I will get PADS up on my computer as well, and let you know how I like it.
Finally, don’t forget Electronics Workbench Multisim from National Instruments. They own the college Spice market and Dr. T at National Instruments has the vision of a CAD tool that works seamlessly with Labview and NI hardware. That way you can simulate the design, lay it out, all the while generating the test vectors for the finished board. Get you board back from Sunstone, who partners with NI, and you can see your simulations overlaid on the actual test results. Dr. T gets it.