Is there an opportunity for more electrical-mechanical collaboration within board systems design?

Let’s make sure we’re on the same page before we go any further. First off, what’s involved? We’re talking about taking the board layout in ECAD and communicating that to the 3D assembly in the mechanical application. Why is that needed, and what’s changing? Why do we need to improve this process?

Opportunities for Improvement

When you look at companies that are transitioning to smart, connected products and away from traditional mechanical ones, you see a lot more board systems being used. That’s part of the transition, but we’re also starting to see trends towards smaller packaging and unusual shapes for board systems. There are tighter spaces, things are more compact, and components may need to be flexible to wrap around other items.

There are more multi-board systems, especially if there’s a high demand for computer power or processing and signal processing. How will everything fit into the enclosure? How will the enclosure fit into the surrounding mechanical product?

It’s not just about fit, but function as well. Obviously, modern board systems are going to have tremendous thermal issues. They generate a lot of heat, and the board will fry if the heat is not evacuated properly. To conduct a good thermal analysis of the board system, you’re going to need a 3D model. There are a lot of great CFD (Computational Fluid Dynamics) tools available, integrated into the mechanical tools. But to run a proper analysis, you really need an accurate definition from the electrical side.

Fit and function are two areas for increased collaboration opportunities, and the third is excitation and other types of structural issues. If you want to identify the natural frequencies, you need to be able to conduct a digital simulation long before you take it to the shaker table. You want to find any potential problems early on, so you don’t waste money on a re-spin.

Emerging Capabilities

So, is this really an opportunity? Until recently, the way information was exchanged between ECAD and MCAD was all file-based. Once the layout is sent over, it automatically populates the mechanical assembly, and you can use that in the enclosure assembly. Then, you can see if it’s a fit or has any interferences by running simulations.

Because the board design is always changing, both electrical and mechanical engineers often wait until the end of development to exchange files. The board layout may be changing, the enclosure might be changing, and it’s not really efficient to constantly be going back and forth.

But it’s not always obvious what has changed on the board from one iteration to the next, and so far there hasn’t really been a good visualization tool that enables engineers to see what changes are being made in real time.

A Long-Term Investment

Here lies the challenge. Technologies are emerging that let MCAD and ECAD synchronize and pair so that changes can be passed almost in an associative manner. This means better change notifications and visualizations, along with interactive highlighting.

We need to recognize this shift isn’t just about technology. It’s going to be a process change. If you want to take full advantage of this, the electrical and mechanical engineer will need to collaborate much earlier in the process, even as far back as the work-in-process phase.

Exchanges can be made before things have solidified and stabilized. That’s when there is the most flexibility to adapt to change from the other side, and also the best time to collaborate if there are conflicting constraints between the mechanical side and the electrical side.

Don’t have the expectation that installing these solutions will immediately fix your problem because it requires process change. It requires communication between the engineers as well. There’s an improvement opportunity here, make no mistake, but don’t underestimate the effort that it’s going to take to actually implement that change.