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Design tools have just made life a lot easier

01 September 2008

There are software tools out there to help you with anything from PCB layout to a complete electrical installation, covering just about everything from schematic layouts to detailed panel configuration - with a full bill of materials thrown in. Les Hunt selects a few of these offerings and finds out what’s new to help you with your electrical design tasks

Anything, from the smallest component of a humble domestic appliance to an entire ocean-going liner can be designed with the aid of modern computer aided design (CAD) tools. And just as mechanical CAD has revolutionised the way mechanical engineering designers go about their daily tasks, so too has the growing number of offerings from the electrical sector improved the way electrical devices and installations are designed and laid out.

On the subject of mechanical CAD, it is interesting to see new software tools emerging that integrate the electrical and mechanical design environments. This is essential if you are designing electronics or an electrical circuit that must be protected from the environment and housed safely and efficiently in an appropriately designed enclosure.

Electronics are generally housed inside a case or enclosure, but getting the electronics to fit the enclosure can be a bit hit-and-miss, usually involving two departments or suppliers working independently from one another. The latest version of Altium’s unified design package for electronics design engineers, however, closes the gap between the ‘ECAD’ and ‘MCAD’ environments.

Altium Designer allows electronics engineers to link to the mechanical CAD world directly and, importantly, in a non-proprietary way. Its existing 3D board design capabilities have been enhanced to allow for direct linking to external ‘STEP’ models, an intelligent 3D file format that is supported by all major MCAD software. This dynamic linking means that board layout can be interactively adjusted to suit a proposed enclosure design - with all clearances, insulation issues, cooling allowances and the like, sorted out on screen before prototyping is allowed to commence.

Avoiding the manual ‘workaround’
Electrical control system designers often rely on generic software applications that require manual layout of electrical schematics – so-called manual ‘workarounds’ – to get the job completed. Resorting to these manual interventions often introduces design errors and makes the sharing of design information that much more difficult. This is where design packages such as AutoCAD Electrical come to the fore.

AutoCAD is a design environment that many mechanical design engineers will recognise, thanks to its huge, worldwide installed base. AutoCAD Electrical ensures that both the electrical and mechanical design teams work collaboratively, rather than in isolation. This is facilitated by easy exchange of design data so that it is possible to share the electrical intent from the controls design in AutoCAD Electrical with many other Autodesk applications, such as the top-end Inventor mechanical design environment. In addition to its real-time error checking capability, AutoCAD Electrical supports international electrical and electronic design and installation standards, and provides a full library of proprietary components. This means that you can design an electrical system comprising components from preferred manufacturers, confident that it will be compliant with all current local and international standards.

And once you have done this, you can share your design and its associated information with teams responsible for ordering the parts, building the panel and laying out the cabling. The shared data are always up-to-date, so any late design changes by the electrical team are immediately available to the purchase office in the form of a current bill of materials, thus avoiding production delays.

Down to the essentials
If it’s something more specific you are after, then ABB’s Panel Design Configurator (PDC) is just the tool you need when specifying and designing mains distribution boards based on the company’s Triline-R enclosure range. Using this software, panel builders simply ‘drag and drop’ components into pre-set templates, using the pre-installed library of low voltage distribution equipment.

Each component has a visual symbol to ensure an accurate and complete parts list; and once the design has been agreed, the software produces a bill of materials for the ABB components, which even calculates any discounts that may be applicable. The PDC software also gives designers the flexibility to export data and parts lists to other Windows programs. It can be used for project planning purposes, by providing a facility whereby customer data can be stored and managed alongside panel build projects.

Earlier this year, Wieland introduced the latest version of its DIN rail terminal assembly software, Wieplan 3.0 to the UK. And like the ABB software, while it is specific to proprietary components, this software nonetheless provides a powerful, yet easy-to-use tool for configuring DIN rail terminal block assemblies and a fast and efficient means of creating control panels. Significantly, Wieplan 3.0 features a bi-directional interface with Rittal’s ePlan computer aided electrical engineering package, effectively closing a gap in the engineering chain by contributing a DIN rail specific element into the software.

At about the same time that Wieland was introducing Wieplan 3.0 to the UK market, Zuken announced some major enhancements to its flagship E3.series modules for electrical and fluid power systems designers.

New for 2008 are improvements to the core module, E3.schematic, which make the design process smoother by eliminating tedious tasks like switching between ‘forced’ and ‘normal’ wiring for a connection that would normally taken up to 60 seconds per pin connection. For a design with more than 1,000 connections, completing this job automatically clearly saves a lot of time!

The latest version also allows any file to be embedded as an external document within the E3.series design, delivering productivity improvements for project managers. And for companies with wide product ranges, managing design options has become a lot easier; changing from one option to another previously required about 25 mouse clicks – now it’s down to just three. E3.panel is also now more flexible and really takes advantage of the E3.series object-oriented structure. When space, scale, product variation and options are an issue, users can simply apply different mounting positions for the different variations or product options. And should you need to link your electrical systems into pneumatic or hydraulic controls, there’s always E3.fluid.

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