SolidWorks has officially entered the PCB CAD market with a unique tool that is expected to make some noise. SolidWorks PCB (SW PCB), which is powered by Altium, and shares a lot of its capabilities, is a strong PCB tool that will enable designers to easily and efficiently design PCBs. The tool offers a unified platform to allow for a single environment for library, schematic, and PCB design. One of the major highlights of the software is its SW PCB Connector, which is an unmatched collaboration tool that will allow a PCB designer to collaborate with a mechanical designer in order to maintain mechanical constraints of PCB boards. Having the best of both worlds from Altium and SolidWorks, SW PCB also inherits the classical ribbon system that is used throughout SW products, and this does allow for better feature access and ease of use.
The ribbon based system is very noticeable in the schematics design environment, with the majority of the features on the Home Tab. SolidWorks did a great job in organizing these features and placing them in intuitive places for users to access them. Just like in Altium Designer, SW PCB uses panels to accomplish several tasks, and these panels are accessible from the View tab. One of the main panels that is often used is the project panel, which displays all files and projects in the current workspace. Through this panel we could accomplish a lot of project related tasks, such as compiling and recompiling, adding files into our projects, accessing version control features, etc. Another very useful panel would be the Library panel, which allows for a streamlined design environment. The library panel provides access to component libraries and gives previews of both the schematic symbols and the footprint symbols of these components. It also allows for fast placement of components onto our schematics. Wiring your components together can be a daunting task and can take a lot of time, however this task can be made simpler through the Drag feature and the auto wire feature in SolidWorks PCB. The Drag feature, as displayed in the video below, allows a user to automatically generate wiring just by pulling apart on connected components, and to interactively move components and wires at once without affecting the connections.
Finally, SW PCB offers users the capability of adding live supplier links to their components. This feature is very useful in helping designers quickly find compatible supplier-based parts, and in acquiring live supply chain information, such as quantity, price, etc.
Version Control is a very powerful feature that not a lot of designers take advantage of, and it may be due to an anticipated difficulty of use, however, through SW PCB, version control is just as powerful, but simple to use. Just by creating a new project, SW PCB automatically saves a local copy, and a copy onto an SVN repository, so it’s an automated and simple process from the get-go. Some of the version control features available to users are committing files and projects, reverting local modifications, locking files to specific users, etc. The Storage Manager panel also comes in handy with version control and allows users to view all revisions and local saves made to a file or project, and it also has the capability of comparing 2 different revisions and viewing the changes.
SW PCB Connector:
The ability to collaborate smoothly between ECAD and MCAD through a perfectly synced process is very valuable, and it is a feature that is offered with SW PCB. When the mechanical constraints of PCB boards need to be validated, the majority of PCB designers out there go through a tedious process of exporting their PCB boards in specific formats and transfer their files in unmanaged ways. This can cause a cluster of files and potential loss of data, and what if the mechanical designers need to communicate certain changes back to the PCB designers, how is that handled? These issues are resolved with the SW Connector, where you can communicate back and forth between SolidWorks and SW PCB (or Altium), view previews of changes, and accept them. The video below provides an excellent demonstration of SW PCB Connector. Some of the design capabilities that is made easy with this collaboration tool are:
- Configuring Board Shapes in SolidWorks freely or based on existing assemblies
- Moving components for accurate fittings within mechanical fixtures or casings
PCB Environment & Routing:
The PCB design environment in SW PCB provides powerful features and capabilities, and it has been enhanced for ease of use. It does allow for PCB boards with up to 32 signal layers, 16 internal planes, and 32 mechanical layers. There are three different routing modes available to allow designers the flexibility of routing various components and net types; there is Interactive Routing, Differential Pair Routing, and Interactive Multi-Routing. Interactive Routing is the default method of routing common nets, while Differential Pair Routing allows a designer to route differential pairs, and SW PCB does provide the ability to configure properties of differential pairs in the Design Rules. Multi-Routing is another useful route mode for when busses need to be routed. These modes are presented in the video below. SW PCB also comes with a neat AutoRouter that does a good job of completely routing simple to mid-complex boards.
For a PCB Designer it’s essential to have a comprehensive set of Design Rules and a streamlined way of viewing design violations, and SW PCB has both of these elements. The Design Rules available through the software have been imported from Altium Designer, and so they are detailed and offer a lot of flexibility; there are Electrical, Routing, SMT, Mask, Plane, Testpoint, Manufacturing, and Placement design rules. After running the DRC, viewing violations is very convenient through the PCB Rules and Violations panel, which allows designers to zoom and mask sources of violations, as well as editing rules directly from the panel. Generating output and manufacturing files couldn’t have been simpler than with SW PCB, where all output file types can be generated at once using the Generate Output Files Dialog box. From this dialog box we can configure and generate BOM’s, Schematic Prints, PCB Prints, Gerber files, NC Drill Files, ODB++ Files, Assembly files, and Validation files.
Overall SW PCB seems like a promising PCB solution that demonstrates the best of both worlds from Altium and SolidWorks. Its PCB connector tool is one of a kind, and will improve the efficiency of your electrical and mechanical collaboration efforts.
The video below will shed more light on SW PCB and provide a more detailed overview.
Taha Ramy, B.ASc. Electrical Applications Specialist CAD MicroSolutions Inc.
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