ECAD Marches in Step with MCAD

17 Oct, 2006 By: Jeffrey Rowe

Electronic computer-aided design becomes an integral part of mechanical design

About a year ago, two companies -- PTC and UGS -- made important announcements. Although they shared a common thread, I dismissed it at the time. However, in the past year, the potential impact and implications of the announcements have brought this thread front and center -- namely, the continued merging of ECAD (electronic computer-aided design) and MCAD (mechanical computer-aided design), and how the combination is influencing both design and manufacturing.

Windchill Takes On ECAD

Last year, PTC announced new Windchill capabilities designed to optimize the development of products that mix mechanical, electrical and software components. The extension of PLM to include software development was what I found compelling about the announcement, because they are so different and complex.

Many companies that develop mechanical or electronic products with embedded software struggle to ensure that the correct source code is delivered with the right version of the finished product. Windchill 8.0 introduced a process to handle this by interfacing with SCM (Software Configuration Management) systems that manage software source code and related software artifacts.

The Windchill Integration for Rational ClearCase integrated IBM Rational ClearCase, an SCM system, with Windchill. This module enables the synchronization of data generated by software developers with the appropriate versions of the corresponding mechanical and electrical designs, all within a single system.

On another level, the ability to identify PCB (printed circuit board) design changes has always been a difficult challenge for electronics manufacturers. Windchill integrates Windchill PDMLink and InterComm EDAcompare, a PTC application for comparing different versions of an ECAD and PCB design. Now, when changes occur, Windchill automatically identifies the disparity between the two ECAD designs based on attributes, bills of materials and graphical series of comparisons. When combined with the change management processes supported by Windchill PDMLink, this provides early PCB change identification and management -- a vital capability for products containing PCBs and a key missing piece in most PLM systems.

UGS’s View of ECAD

In parallel with PTC’s announcement, UGS announced Tecnomatix for Electronics software, the company’s first integrated suite of digital manufacturing software solutions custom-designed for the electronics industry. The Tecnomatix for Electronics suite combined several digital manufacturing software products previously offered by UGS as individual solutions for PCB assembly, final assembly and manufacturing execution.

By combining multiple software products into an integrated suite, Tecnomatix for Electronics provides electronics manufacturers with a tool set for planning and executing manufacturing processes, such as RoHS (lead-free) compliance support, stockroom-to-ship traceability, real-time production control, optimized line setup for high-mix production and enhanced test engineering with testability to the board level.

What Is ECAD, Anyway?

It’s no secret that not only is mechanical CAD becoming more closely entwined with CAM and CAE, it’s also getting cozier with the electrical and electronic, or ECAD, side of things. Of course, PTC and UGS aren’t the first or the only companies to realize this and attempt to capitalize on ECAD. Not only do CATIA, Pro/ENGINEER and NX have some fairly sophisticated ECAD capabilities, Inventor and SolidWorks can also handle ECAD, albeit at a different level.

So, exactly what is ECAD?

Like many terms in the technical world, ECAD has different meanings for different companies. Depending on which company you talk to, ECAD can mean anything from laying out layered printed circuit boards, to designing the integrated circuits that are mounted on the circuit boards, to routing wires and cables on paths through space and terminating them with harnesses and connectors. More commonly, though, the technologies used for PCBs and ICs are referred to as EDA (electronic design automation). Whatever you call it, it’s a complicated proposition -- for both design and manufacturing.

It gets even more complicated when you add configuration management, ERP, MRP, MES and other systems to the mix. For our purposes here, though, we’ll consider routing wires and cables with their associated connectors and harnesses as our definition of ECAD. Just imagine the complexity of specifying, routing and tracking hundreds or thousands of wires found in a typical car or truck with entertainment, navigation and safety systems. Then, imagine the magnitude of that job in an aircraft. As the electrical wiring systems in the transportation industry become increasingly complex, so does the need for design software to manage this complexity. Change management for these mechanical and electrical systems also becomes important because a change in one will probably effect a change in the other.

Partners in ECAD/MCAD

We’ve briefly discussed MCAD vendors embracing ECAD. What about the converse? As it turns out, a very prominent company in EDA, Mentor Graphics, is doing just that -- supporting an initiative that integrates the design and engineering of mechanical and electrical systems. It has partnered with some of the big MCAD companies, such as Dassault, UGS and PTC, to tackle the enormous challenges of integrating MCAD and ECAD into a cohesive system. Just about every MCAD vendor is trying to cozy up to the ECAD vendors for a least some degree of integration, and with good reason -- it’s what consumers are demanding.

Mechanical products tend to be electrical, so the integration of the two is becoming increasingly critical, not to mention complicated. This is such an important and growing area that in the coming weeks we will investigate how the integration and complexity management of ECAD and MCAD processes are progressing with specific vendors.

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