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A New Twist on Printed Circuit Board Design?

Comments(3)Filed under: EDA tools, EDA companies, Brian Fuller, EDA vendors, EDA software, Fuller View, PCB design, computer design, Printed Circuit Board design, Saar Drimer, circuit board repair, board layout, Printed Circuit Boards, PCB, high-speed trace routing

Printed circuit board (PCB) design has long been considered a less-glamorous aspect of engineering than, say, microprocessor design or application-software design. This, despite the fact that in areas like communications-board design or consumer, the challenges confronting PCB designers are bleeding edge.

It wasn't always this way and PCB design can be really cool again, according to one engineer and self-described inveterate doodler.

In fact, Saar Drimer argues that thinking outside the PCB box means not only reframing decades-old form-vs.-function questions, but laying the groundwork to inspire a new generation of engineers.

"I'm looking for applications where the form contributes to function, like perhaps RF design, flexible circuits--where the free hand and freedom of shape contribute to the function of the board," Drimer said in a telephone interview.
bold port life is the game pc-board photo

Drimer is a Cambridge, U.K.-based hardware engineer who has been designing different-shaped PCBs and has developed a tool to that end, through his company Boldport. He built a board honoring the late analog engineering guru Bob Pease and has turned out PCBs in the shapes of butterflies, board games, and business cards.

EDA Effect
He argues that boards in the 1960s didn't necessarily adhere to 45-degree corners (and by extension, path routing), but the rise of commercial EDA vendors ended that in the name of tool uniformity and methodological optimization.

Fair enough. Every industry evolution or creation is a tradeoff of existing processes and technologies for something that promises additional productivity. But, Drimer argues, the only thing preventing PCB designers from getting creative is a slow-to-change EDA world that won't alter tried-and-true tools.

"EDA companies are like a huge ship sailing on with little incentive to change," Drimer said. He argued the usefulness of EDA tools is reaching "a certain limit" and companies "need to offer people innovative and creative ways to manage those large designs."

He notes that in the software world, the dynamic nature of open-source software has opened up a world of creative opportunity for engineers.

Drimer said:

"The more openness that comes from EDA and manufacturers, the more you would allow creative people to use the information for better productivity and better project management. There will be more innovation, more innovation in DRC, more innovation in routing, even though routing is a difficult problem."

saar drimer There are existing tools that can handle "curvy" traces, but they're limited, said Drimer (pictured, left). Indeed, he argues that 45-degree angles aren't optimal for high-speed board design. He expanded:

"You do want to go curvy in some cases because then the width of the trace is uniform as it meanders, as it turns. Whereas, the 45-degree angle has kinks, turns, and the characteristic impedance changes with those angles."

The tradeoff with Drimer's approach, he noted, is that integration isn't optimized since extra area is needed for layout.

Inspiring a Generation?

As for the next generation of engineers, there's potential here, Drimer said. The open-source Rasperry Pi phenomenon is appreciated by engineers because they understand the effort that went into innovating the platform. But a grade-school student can't understand that. What the student might understand better is different shaped boards, different color options, and so forth.

He rails about tools and design convention, but he's no gadfly: His 2009 research dissertation was on security within volatile FPGAs.

Drimer right now is figuring out what the business model is and seeking investors. Clearly he can design and produce lovely and functional PC board designs. He offers a free open-source design tool via Apache License 2.0 called PCBmodE written in Python. He's considering a freemium model involving domain-specific add-on modules for PCBmodE that, he added, address industry-specific challenges that aren't well served with existing tools. The existing version supports two-layer board design but can scale to four or more, Drimer said.

He added:

"On top of productising PCBmodE, we're in the process of designing a few products using PCBmodE as a tool. It's still early days but we're working on a few concepts that we hope will work out to be good revenue streams."

Brian Fuller

Related stories:

--Bob Pease PCB; Secret Smart Watch; ESL Lives! (Great Reads 8-23-2013)




By Saar Drimer on December 10, 2013
Thanks Brian for the writeup! I do think that the EDA industry needs a bit of a shake-up ;)
On the Boldport blog, I write about some of the issues we face, particularly these articles:
And for some background for PCBmodE
I'm looking forward to hearing people's thoughts about what I'm trying to achieve.

By Greg on December 11, 2013
Last year I made a circular PCB with components and traces at 5-degree intervals. The clock-line is nearly 2 feet long, and being able to make it a uniform circular trace definitely improved the signal integrity. I have the 14" x 14" PCB hanging in my office; most people assume it's for a tester-head but they are wrong. It's for a large neon clock. To save costs, a single square PCB is fabbed, then I cut-out the circular main-board. The triangular-shaped corners are the other 4 PCBs needed for power supplies, display-drivers, connectors, etc. Wish I could post some jpeg's......

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