of the biggest challenges in designing with semiconductor products is access to scalable application engineering support for engineers. Not only are experienced application engineers scarce, but application engineering support has been dramatically scaled back in the new economy and many semiconductor manufacturers and electronics distributors are often shorthanded to meet their customers’ demands. Application engineering departments are overburdened by the number of design support requests they receive; typically giving higher priority to top tier customers. Consequently, a large segment of potential customers (the Long Tail) frequently do not receive any design support and face the daunting task of researching their design online.
While the Internet has made it easier to share engineering design data, today’s engineers are faced with severe information overload that slows down the design process, especially in the early stages of design
. Websites hosted by manufacturers and distributors, as well as a number of specialised search engines, now offer a plethora of design information that is of most use during concept and prototype development. However, the onus remains on the design engineer to aggregate, review, and analyse a multitude of technical documents, product searches and other information before determining how to best use that data.
For more than a decade, Transim Technology Corporation has been leading the charge in providing a new and innovative approach to solving this bottleneck. Transim hosts cloud-based engineering applications for several leading semiconductor manufacturers in applications spanning power management, lighting, embedded systems, motion control, RF/MW, and signal integrity. Each application is uniquely customised and features manufacturer’s products in an easy to use, scalable web-based platform for collaborative application design and support.
A key element of these tools is the sophistication of design support that is made possible by extracting design knowledge to recreate and automate the design process as it would be conducted by a real person. Each design generated is unique, based on complex design algorithms which translate a set of application driven design requirements into a working application. Providing such advanced design support at the click of a mouse button through the Internet allows manufacturers to reach thousands of design engineers, quickly and efficiently. Cloud-based design centres offer the added benefit of being able to rapidly adapt to new products and applications as new applications are identified for semiconductor products.
Online design process
Transim’s design centre technology guides engineers through an interactive design process, helping them to quickly find the right products based on application requirements and automatically generate custom designs, complete with BOM and order fulfillment options. Engineers can instantly test and verify their design online using Transim’s WebSIM technology deploying a variety of simulation engines. Once a design has been created, engineers can also effectively collaborate on a global level with peers, using shared workspaces on the cloud.
Smart product selectors increasingly complement parametric or cross-reference search modules. The interview frequently begins with the target application and leverages sophisticated selection rules that take into account a variety of design parameters, but require minimum product-specific knowledge from the engineer. Once the product has been identified, the application asks a set of product-specific questions similar to those posed by an application engineer assisting in the design process, such as voltage and current limits, frequency, or complex interdependencies.
All design parameters can be limited to values meaningful for the design constraints defined by the device under test. Moreover design parameters often have interdependencies that are automatically cross-checked avoiding design attempts outside the safe operating area of a particular device. The design requirements interview usually simplifies complex technical applications in a way that means engineers not familiar with a particular field can still get help quickly and efficiently.
Once all input has been collected, the engineer’s requirements are translated into a working design using a Reference Design Generation Program (RDP). The RDP is a server based process that captures in-depth engineering know-how from application notes and direct communication with the application engineer. It is a reliably repeatable design algorithm, in the form of server based scripts and programs.
The actual configuration steps can vary based on the nature of the application. Analogue/mixed-signal and RF/MW applications frequently only require external component calculation. If a manufacturer has specific requirements for the technical characteristics of these external parts, vendor part selection deploys a set of selection rules matching appropriate products. In other applications, such as embedded systems, microcontrollers, DSPs and FPGAs the configuration process is more complicated. RDPs can help optimise controller parameter or chip settings, adjust header files for or even generate embedded code or firmware.
Test and verification
Performance testing with an online virtual test bed trumps traditional testing with an evaluation board on a test bench by offering instant results, without hardware and measurement setup and software installations.
The WebSIM technology deploys a number of simulation tools using a cloud-based schematic. Engineers can modify component values and perform a variety of simulations to visualise the design’s performance under a variety of operating conditions. The results are visualised in WebScope, an interactive waveform viewer, allowing detailed analysis of the simulation results and post-processing. WebSIM supports a growing number of simulation tools, such as SIMetrix (powerful SPICE solver), Microwave Office (RF/MW applications), VSS - Visual System Simulator (signal processing and communication systems), SIMPLIS (piecewise linear solver for switched mode power supplies), Portunus (multi-domain solver for motor drives, alternative energy), Channel Designer (signal integrity), and ELMER (Finite Element Thermal Analysis). Depending on the application, the appropriate solver is deployed.
The engineer has the option of downloading and printing a comprehensive package of design collateral, such as the design schematic, bill of materials and simulation results. As with everything on the Internet, links to additional information from the manufacturer or part search engines are available. All designs can be saved in his/her private and secure workspace to share or re-visit later.
The BOM Manipulation Module allows checking price and availability of the entire BOM across multiple leading global distributors. Users can modify vendors based on availability, price or purchasing restrictions. Once finished, the BOM can be transferred to distributor websites for purchase or ordering samples.
As engineering teams become more geographically dispersed and social networking and online communities gain more prominence, sharing and collaborating on designs has quickly gained importance. Designs saved in the cloud can be easily shared by a click of a button. Online collaboration also becomes important when the design engineer is ready to seek additional support from the manufacturer’s/distributor’s application engineering teams, and can share the design collateral that has already been created.
Other select online design environments offered by manufacturers/distributors offer uniquely powerful capabilities that simplify application design for both novices and experts. International Rectifier’s SupIRBuck Design Tool is a one of a kind design center for applications with Point of Load Power Management and provides engineers with an accurate prediction of system performance in demanding computing applications.
In such applications, it is important to analyse and efficiently design efficiency, thermal characteristics, and an optimised control loop. Engineers start from a design requirements interview that helps to identify the appropriate part for the target operating conditions. After IC selection the RDP calculates an optimised set of external components and matches the values to a database of IR recommended passive components. The online schematic enables the users to perform AC, steady state and load transient ‘what if’ analyses. During custom design generation, not only are external components calculated, but losses are also estimated from the main heat contributors of the application. Starting from IR’s evaluation board layout and component placement, the engineer can assign losses and understand the thermal impact utilising 3D Finite Element analysis, including airflow. As it is the case with all evaluation boards the final design will significantly deviate from the template provided by the IC manufacturer. The online floor planner fills the gap by allowing engineers to drag and drop components, modify their placement and also supports changing board geometry, stack-up, material properties and copper coverage.
Within minutes, engineers receive a comprehensive report with electrical and thermal analysis results, efficiency curve, schematic and vendor parts BOM. The design can be easily shared with another tool user by simply pushing a share button, which sends an automated e-mail to the other user. Once that user clicks on the embedded link they can review, modify and collaborate around the same design.
Arrow Electronics has recently started to bring its in-depth design knowledge to engineers using an online application engineering environment. Arrow Lighting Designer is a unique solution offering complete system design through a workbench supported by multiple tools that modularises a design into logical components.
The online design process begins with the selection of a light source. To support an easy migration from designs with traditional lighting sources, the replacement designer captures current lighting specs and automatically generates a set of three LED lighting solutions – with the highest light output, the highest efficiency and the lowest cost. Advanced optimization capabilities allow engineers to fine tune the initial design, for instance comparing LED characteristics and reviewing binning information.
The engineer can add secondary optics and select a power supply (from a range of ready to go encapsulated designs to do-it-yourself discrete designs). The design inputs provided during the first step are automatically transferred to the optics and power supply design tools so that the solution space is limited to only valid solutions that do not conflict the LED selection. Finally all discrete elements of the design can be assembled on a virtual board designer. Engineers can chose from a number of pre-defined boards or design their own board based on a selection of geometric templates, board stack-up and properties definition, and then generate their own placement.
Embedded designs can be extremely complex, as they combine a wide variety of hardware, software and IP components in a single chip, but online design solutions can shorten the initial learning curve and decision making process in various ways. Freescale’s MCU Solutions Advisor, for example, simplifies the selection of an appropriate Kinetis MCU for a certain set of application requirements.
The increasingly tight integration of analogue and digital functions within a single chip makes it possible for semiconductor manufacturers to offer a wide variety of MCUs hosting different combinations of functional modules to target specialised applications. The onus is now on the engineer to sift through traditional parametric tables to identify the specific MCU that meets their design needs. Freescale simplifies this process by emulating a design ‘on the back of a napkin’, where engineers can simply drag a number of functional blocks on a web based ‘design napkin’, with the Solution Advisor. Each functional block can easily be configured by the design engineer according to specific criteria. The Solution Advisor monitors all requirements to optimise between more than 200 MCU variants in the background and presents a reduced subset of applicable MCUs based on the criteria. Once an MCU is selected, a pin multiplexing test can be performed to make sure the chosen functionalities can be supported by the pin layout of the package. Finally the MCU is matched with a Freescale Tower System, which can be ordered directly from the tool for rapid prototyping.
Wireless design from LNAs to base station amplifiers and filter designs require detailed knowledge in the RF & MW world but latest advances in simulation technology enable comprehensive design support through a web interface. NXP’s RF Transistor Interactive Datasheet addresses the need to evaluate the performance of a component under operating conditions different from the nominal cases shown in a PDF datasheet. Using NXP’s accurate device models, a simulation based environment allows a user to define their operating conditions and to re-create the component characteristics under such conditions. Microwave Office serves as the powerful engine in the backend and is capable of analysing RF/MW systems at various levels from system performance, to circuit analysis and the impact of the board layout.
The process of design is being aided measurably by the use of Cloud-based development tools; as design complexity continues to escalate it is reassuring to know that manufacturers and distributors are investing in the technology needed today to help deliver the end products of tomorrow.