In the advent of the IoT era, many engineering executives are rightfully realizing just how important software is to smart connected products. And while that’s an important epiphany, there is one reality that every one of those organizations can’t ignore: electronics lies on the critical path. You can’t sense the physical world without sensors. You can’t communicate to IoT platforms without antennas. You can’t run the software that makes products smart without circuit boards. So you better develop good board design and development competencies or outsource to suppliers with them.
That’s the context for this review of Xpedition, the enterprise multi-board solution from Mentor. We’ll review the capabilities it provides. Then I’ll offer some commentary on what those capabilities mean for engineering organizations.
Table Stakes: Schematics, Layout, Routing
In our Reference entry on ECAD, the capabilities defined as diagramming, layout, trace routing and bill of material management are offered by practically every ECAD solution out there, including Xpedition. However, Xpedition has enhanced those base capabilities with powerful functionality that specifically matter to big organizations. Furthermore, Xpedition also has unique tools that sit on top of those fundamental capabilities as well. Let’s dive into them one by one.
Managing Performance and Complexity
The first category of differentiated capabilities for Xpedition is complexity management. Today’s circuit boards are getting far denser, much larger, and more complex. As a result, you need functionality that can deal with that complexity and manage it. This includes:
- Large Design Responsiveness: Some of today’s boards are as large as a tabletop. Xpedition has been architected to perform responsively despite a large number of components placed and traces routed in such designs. That’s true of interactive routing. That’s true of design rule checks. Xpedition users don’t have to wait for a minute or two, waiting for the application to catch up.
- System Design: For some organizations, the complexity of multi-board systems is becoming overwhelming. Many are turning to system design processes early to lay out and partition the design. Xpedition has a set of capabilities in System Designer to do exactly that.
- Connectivity Management: Defining component-to-component connections for a board is critical, particularly for high-speed signals.But what about a netlist for a multi-board system? What about the signals between embedded systems in a larger electrical system? Managing such connectivity is not only complicated, but they are also critical, especially when they fulfill a requirement as a whole. Xpedition provides tools to track and manage such connectivity across designs between boards, across cables, and down to integrated circuits
- Holistic Data Management: When it comes to managing work-in-process designs, there is a lot more than just the board. Controlling the component library is critical. But there is also the need to manage design rules, especially standards for the entire organization. The design process from concept-to-manufacturing must also be defined and managed. With Xpedition, all of this is managed centrally.
Collaborating in Real Time across Design Domains
With more complex board designs and shorter schedules comes the need to work concurrently, yet collaboratively, with other engineers. Xpedition has capabilities that enable collaboration in many different ways.
- Board-to-Enclosure: Designing an enclosure in a mechanical CAD application often needs to happen in parallel to the design of the board in electrical CAD. Xpedition supports the IDX interface, which allows for incremental changes to be passed back and forth between these two tools.
- Board-to-Package-to-IC: Placing the IC in a certain way in the package that sits on the board that makes a difference in terms of performance. Xpedition provides tools to optimize this interface or optimize FPGA programming.
- Board-to-Board Interfaces: Xpedition’s system design capabilities allow an engineer to lay out and partition a multi-board system. It also provides tools to coordinate design activities between multiple engineers in the detailed phases as well. In fact, engineers can be working at the system and board levels simultaneously as well.
- Board-to-Harness: In a broader context, engineers working on two different embedded systems not only need to manage their signals and connections, they may need to coordinate their design activities. Xpedition provides capabilities on this front as well.
Note that a significant enabler of many of these capabilities is the client-server architecture of Xpedition. Because all the engineers are connecting to a single distributed model, there is no miscommunication on the details of the design. Connections between multiple boards in a single system are automatically tracked. Designing across multiple boards can be done because it is essentially one model.
Analysis and Verification: Right by Design
Respins can wreak havoc on a development schedule. That’s why all manner of approaches to avoid such disruptions are extremely attractive to engineering organizations. Xpedition provides a wide array of simulation capabilities on this front, including:
- Signal Integrity, EMI and Power Integrity: Signal integrity and electromagnetic interference is often a source of respins. Furthermore, verifying that all parts of the board are getting enough clean power is becoming more challenging with lower voltage components. HyperLynx is a broad simulation suite that allows electronics engineers to analyze their board for all of these issues virtually before building out a prototype.
- Structural Analysis and Thermal Management: Structural issues don’t always rise to the top of the list of concerns when developing a board, but it can easily be the cause of respins. In this case, pins are most frequently the point of failure. Xpedition and NX, the Siemens mechanical CAD solution, provide plenty of capabilities to accurately model those scenarios for accurate results. Furthermore, FloEFD and FloTHERM are two applications specifically made to simulation and improve the management of heat off a board and out of an enclosure.
- Manufacturability: Back in 2010, Mentor acquired Valor, a provider of manufacturability analysis software for circuit boards. This tool allows engineers to virtually test the production process. By catching issues early, they can tweak their designs as needed to improve manufacturing.
Digital verification of a design is becoming critical in circuit board development processes. Mentor, as a part of Siemens, has a strong suite of tools available here.
Xpedition Commentary and Analysis
For the past decade, we’ve been on a trend of increasing electrical and electronic systems in traditional mechanical products. Now that the Internet of Things era has arrived, that trend will only accelerate. Most people recognize that software is where the most value is added in today’s products. However, if you can’t get the right electronic hardware in your product, well, it doesn’t matter how innovative your software might be. As a result, having a strong set of tools to support electrical and electronic systems is critical.
Database-Driven, Not Cloud-Based
If you’ve read our post on Capital, Mentor’s solution for harness engineering, then this phrase might seem familiar. That’s because like Capital, Xpedition is also database-driven. It uses a client-server structure, where engineers connect their application to a central server. This means there is a central database against which all users design. Note that this is an on-premise solution. There are a few options to host this kind of solution in a private cloud. However, it is not offered as a multi-tenant subscription cloud-based solution.
Why is this a big deal? This central trait empowers many of the important capabilities in Xpedition, including:
- Database-Driven Design: Just as it was with Capital, there is no need to manually manage files because a database is used instead. That allows engineers to avoid all of the drawbacks of managing files. Designs in Xpedition can’t get lost on your hard drive, become lost or overlooked in your email or the plethora of other problems that crop up with files.
- Multi-Domain Collaboration: A differentiator with Xpedition lies in the ability for harness, component, circuit board and IC package engineers to all work concurrently in the same design. That’s enabled by the fact that the designs sit in a single database that is always aligned. There is no chance that designs can diverge from one another. There is one source of the truth that keeps all engineers coordinated.
Simulation and Analysis
Given the number of respins that companies often encounter in the development of boards, predicting and analyzing the performance is no easy thing. In HyperLynx, Mentor offers a very broad and capable set of simulation capabilities. That, alone, is extremely beneficial to engineering organizations. However, when you consider the very deep set of analysis capabilities from Siemens in the form of Simcenter and NX, you have to be intrigued. There you have expansive functionality to cover structures, thermal and other engineering physics. There is plenty of value that organizations can reap today, though the HyperLynx offering, as well as tomorrow, through a growing integration with NX and Simcenter.
For some organizations, the development of circuit boards might be relatively simple. They may have a single board with a few major components. In those cases, Mentor’s other ECAD application PADS or some other focused tool is probably a good fit. However, if you find yourself dealing with bigger and bigger boards, working to optimize the IC package on the board or need to have many engineers collaborating on designs, then Xpedition fits squarely in your wheelhouse.
Notables and Final Thoughts
So what’s the takeaway here? Here is what stands out to me.
- Lines are blurring between domains in electrical and electronic engineering. Xpedition acknowledges that fact by empowering collaboration from harness-to-board, board-to-board, board-to-package-to-board, and board-to-enclosure. If you need to optimize performance across some of those interfaces, then you should look at a tool like Xpedition.
- Today’s schedules are tight across all of engineering. But given that today’s products are increasingly powered by multi-disciplinary systems, it is critical that each domain can deliver on time. Xpedition provides a lot of simulation and analysis capabilities to reduce respins. If this has been a problem in the past, take a hard look here.
- Xpedition has broad and deep capabilities, but simply assessing it only in that context would be a mistake. There is tremendous potential with more integration across the entire Siemens PLM portfolio, as described in our post titled Siemens PLM’s Vision: Realizing the Complete Digital Twin.
There you go. Those are my thoughts folks. Let me know about your experience with Xpedition or board design overall in the comments below.