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Electronic design process dispenses with physical prototypes

28 November 2011

Brazilian instrument manufacturer, Full Gauge Controls has transformed its hitherto manually intensive and costly product prototyping procedures into a more streamlined affair thanks to a fully integrated EDA package from Altium

Since 1985, the Brazilian company, Full Gauge Controls (www.fullgauge.com) has designed and manufactured digital instruments for control and indication of temperature, humidity, pressure and voltage. The company has more than 80 products to its name – all fully compliant with international standards - including thermometers, thermostats, pressure controllers, voltage monitors and a proprietary remote management software called Sitrad.

Until recently, its development process had been dependent on prototype-based design verification, which put pressure on the design schedule and kept the heat on a design team comprising engineers, electronic design specialists, product designers, programmers, analysts, and lab technicians. On completing a PCB design, the department had traditionally sent it out to a prototype manufacturer. For each new piece, the time for preparation of purchase order, production and shipping was approximately seven days. The cost was very high, and often the need arose for additional prototypes, design iterations and tests.

Several years ago, the company attempted to accelerate the process by acquiring a rapid prototyping machine that worked in a similar fashion to a CNC system to produce the product housings. It did speed development, in that it allowed the design team to verify mechanical assembly. However, the prototype boards, including individual components such as relays, displays, capacitors, and pushbuttons, still had to be assembled manually.

This manual process proved inefficient and rework-prone. Moreover, most Full Gauge products comprise multiple PCBs and it is necessary to validate the clearances of board mounted components in order to avoid spatial conflicts and mechanical conflicts. These manually intensive tasks and the final product assembly cancelled out any time advantages that the in-house rapid prototyping capability might otherwise have achieved. And, of course, there were cost and time considerations relating to the maintenance of the rapid prototyping machine.

Altium Designer
Faced with these time and cost implications, Full Gauge began looking for a better solution to its design process problems. This finally came in the form of Altium Designer, a fully integrated EDA software package for printed circuit board design, simulation and mechanical assembly. The company duly upgraded its electronics design environment from P-CAD to Altium Designer, and then integrated the new system with its SolidWorks mechanical design tool to reduce its prototyping needs to a minimum. The introduction of Altium Designer into Full Gauge’s design process has since reduced the company’s design cycle by as much as 86 percent.

Electronic designer, Mauricio Husken now produces all designs and mechanical files using Altium Designer, while other design specialists in the company use the Altium Designer Viewer to access and query design files and documentation. As far as Mr Husken is concerned, the process of importing the library of P-CAD to Altium Designer was easy and without problems. “Most components came over intact and complete. I then spent time restructuring the library to remove duplicate components and outdated footprints,” he recalls.

During data import, Full Gauge took the critical step of migrating 3D component information held on its SolidWorks platform to the Altium Designer libraries. The company had designed each component in SolidWorks with the maximum possible detail for greatest precision in 3D product designs. With the same data in Altium Designer, Mr Husken could be confident of an accurate component footprint and achieve the most compact design. The process of importing and adjusting the component information took place over the period of a month.

With the benefit of this improved process, the product designer draws up the initial design of the office products and exports a file (usually in DXF format) and dimensional format for the PCB. This file is imported into Altium Designer and the components are positioned and verified in accordance with design criteria. The electronics designer then exports the complete file of the PCB in 3D (STEP format) to be positioned within the cabinet so all mechanical conflicts can be detected and resolved. This cycle continues until the PCB is perfectly aligned, with the cabinet and all conflicts resolved - a process that generally takes three days.

The design team has also gained significantly in terms of accuracy of component footprint information; only on rare occasions has the screen printing been different to that of the actual component, for example. With the addition of 3D design, Mr Husken says he can position the component on the footprint and draw its outline to delimit precisely the area that is actually occupied. Altium Designer has also automated the generation of Gerber manufacturing files, which saves time and results in a significant reduction in manufacturing errors.

Time and cost savings
Full Gauge has now successfully adopted a fully integrated process for designing and verifying electronic and mechanical designs for each of its product developments. “Now we can eliminate the need to fabricate physical prototypes to validate the product design,” says Mr Husken. “We only need one prototype to validate electronic performance. Hardware development time has dropped from 30 to 50 days with the old methods to a maximum of seven days with Altium Designer.”

More accurate component information is driving down margin-of-error production and rework. “The prototype already looks like a finished product, requiring only minor adjustments, Mr Husken adds. “All our costs have decreased with the implementation of Altium Designer.”
From his electronics designer viewpoint, Mr Husken has identified various benefits of the software that have helped him to design better products. Among these, he lists getting a better sense of space and physical design with the 3D simulation, and seeing the layout from different angles and detecting possible problems that might otherwise go unnoticed in 2D views.

With the SolidWorks integration, he is also able to visualise the end product during design, which can speed up client approval. And he has been able to explore new techniques to facilitate the fit between individual PCBs and eliminate the need for male and female connectors that were previously used. The software has also simplified project management with its approaches to simulation, automation and revision control.

As well as it obvious benefits in terms of design, the software has also simplified the testing of complex products in-house, including products such as the PCT-3000, a pressure controller used in refrigeration plants that need control in the suction and discharge stages. This instrument comprises 26 digital outputs, four analogue outputs, five digital inputs, four analogue pressure and six temperature inputs. All fittings were carefully tested and the mechanical design was validated even before the physical part was manufactured.

So, with the help of Altium Designer, the company has not only been able to reduce design time, improve the development cycle of electronic and mechanical designs and reduce rework, but it has also enabled the design team to explore more creative electronic designs. Now Full Gauge can develop more innovative products more efficiently, and turn up the heat on its competition.


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