CircuitHub is banking that the time is now for a user-driven parts library.
Ed. This is the latest in a yearlong PCD&F series highlighting promising new enterprises in printed circuit board design.
CircuitHub was founded in 2011, but its origins are much older. While designing boards eight years ago, Jonathan Friedman noticed that life at an engineer’s desk was inefficient. As Friedman says, there are three views of a part: logical, physical and manufacturing. The first two are handled well by CAD tools, the last by manufacturing tools, but the tools don’t communicate well at all, leaving what he calls “the great chasm” in between.
“You have two domains in play – engineering and manufacturing – each with their own libraries. And what you want is one library that can bridge both domains,” he says.
The revelation led to a series of academic papers, including one presented at IPC Apex Expo in 2011, followed by the launch of CircuitHub, whose first offering was rolled out in late January.
That product, a universal parts library, has been on the minds of designers and developers for years. It’s the Holy Grail for designers: a one-size-fits-all solution that frees them from the tedious work of library development and allows them to concentrate on the higher value layout work. (In a PCD&F survey released in December, 93% of the 451 designers responding said their CAD tools’ library creation capability is “very” or “moderately” important.) It’s also been something of a bottomless pit, as many software engineers have tried to solve the problem, with varying degrees of success.
But while labeling library creation as a huge problem, Friedman says it’s not so much intractable as it is inefficient. And, apparently, age-old. “The medium of exchange between the manufacturer and user has not evolved since 1950,” he says. “In those days, the component maker put together a datasheet and handed it to the person who was going to use it. Here, 65 years later, we have the PDF.
“Transferring information via digitized paper datasheets creates tremendous redundancy. Either the designer redrafts the data from the sheet by hand, or they go to Google and try to find some dubious third-party download. Either way, they are going to get burned.
“There’s no reason you can’t have first-run success. There’s no reason you should have a situation where the footprint is wrong, or where the footprint isn’t correctly matched to the symbol. These are secretarial issues, data entry problems. We are all creating the same data from the same datasheets in order to use the same parts from the same manufacturers!”
His enthusiasm for simplifying the libraries is just one of the facets that sets Friedman apart. There traditionally haven’t been many Ph.D.s designing printed circuit boards. Going back through 15 years’ worth of our salary surveys, the percentage of designers who identify themselves as holding doctoral degrees has held fairly steady at less than 0.5%. Friedman holds a doctorate in electrical engineering from UCLA. Between stints running four companies, Friedman also has consulted widely in signal integrity, mixed-signal and embedded systems, and put some 100-odd designs into commercial use. (Andrew Seddon, cofounder of the Silicon Valley-based company, also has 10-plus years of experience as a design engineer, hardware entrepreneur, and embedded systems consultant.)
But there’s a large gap between knowing design and standardizing footprints. Through the years, a number of companies have tried to tackle libraries: Valor, PCB Libraries, WikiComponents, plus most CAD vendors, a fact Friedman readily acknowledges. But he thinks CircuitHub has latched onto a solution that automates the development process, while also divorcing it from the CAD tool.
“Universality has been a struggle. We tackle that problem on both ends of the scale. Chip makers want to support all the tools, but there is a huge maintenance cost and liability incurred with each maker supporting all of the formats directly. On the other end, you have the assembly facilities where [footprint accuracy] might be about how good your pick-and-place machine is. These are decisions that affect the design, but are not made until later in the design cycle. And in the middle you have the design engineer who doesn’t want to spend half of his or her day just dealing with part data.
“Our universal format solves the chipmaker’s dilemma, permitting write-once, support-all symbols and footprints and our templates built in parametric data based on IPC-7351. That allows precise control of factory tolerances without having to redraw anything – solving the assembly-end of the problem. In the future, you would be able, based on the factory, to come back and have the footprint customized around the tolerance automatically.
“We have a model called automation, collaboration, moderation. We use proprietary algorithms and data sources to eliminate nearly all of the data entry work, the community provides peer-review, and conflicts go to a team of professional moderators. We further believe that it must be free and not tied to any one EDA vendor.”
Crowd-sourcing, of course, has historically been problematic. Wikipedia works because it’s so broad, and has many contributors. PCB design is a fairly narrow area. Yet Friedman is optimistic he will succeed. “The encyclopedia is hit or miss. That encyclopedia must have the content you want to know when you want to know it, or its value drops off pretty quickly. CircuitHub is very different. It’s not an ‘all or nothing’ proposition. Let’s say that CircuitHub’s library only covers 80% of your design; you can do the remainder with your existing local library. But if you don’t have it locally and you have to add a huge BGA with lots of I/Os – well, you can just add the missing part to CircuitHub in a matter of seconds. It otherwise might take 40 minutes to draft that same part directly in your EDA tool.”
In short, he says, CircuitHub’s library provides value, even if no one else uses the platform. Because symbols and footprints are paired up, it simplifies library data management. It’s also portable across tool flows.
There is, however, a user validation aspect that is typical of many crowd-sourced platforms. Users can view who authored a symbol or footprint, and can learn whose work can be trusted. “Peer review is a powerful motivator. When you get recognition for excellence, people tend to excel more,” Friedman says.
The rub for many developers is that smaller users don’t have the funds or time to develop large custom libraries, while larger OEMs see their libraries as part of their IP. The latter uses teams to develop their own, based on their internal manufacturing processes or those of their contractors.
As Friedman correctly notes, time spent on library management is time away from designing product. “Everyone’s library data derive from the same origin, the datasheet, so you aren’t going to create a lot of unique high-value IP this way.”
Citing an example of an LED that can be installed on its side, Friedman points out the part may have multiple representations depending on the orientation. “You can end up with a symbol that’s a valid representation of a part, and a footprint that’s a valid representation of a part, but a mismatch between the two. CircuitHub prevents these kinds of errors by sharing lessons learned instantly and automatically among users once someone notices a problem. We’re all in this for the same end: electronics that are easier and safer to design. And with the IPC tolerancing built-in, users can ‘tune’ a part for a specific contractor.”
Besides the accuracy of the parts (and the quantity available, of course), IP protection is a key issue. The Universal Parts Library notifies all users affected of any changes to a part. What it does not do, however, is update users to changes to an individual’s library. Friedman allows that it could be possible for someone using cluster analysis to work their way back to see what part a very active designer might be using at a certain point in time, but stresses doing so would be very difficult. CircuitHub also is considering a model where it charges users for the right to keep their custom edits private.
One security problem CircuitHub does grasp is the reluctance of companies to entrust all their IP to someone else’s hands. That’s a fundamental
hurdle for cloud computing, and Friedman thinks the model by which only the standard data – that is, the footprints and symbols – reside in the cloud, while the unique designs remain on the users’ PC, is the way to go.
“One of the problems with online is that your life lives on an anonymous cloud server. Even the owner probably doesn’t know where your information physically resides. That’s kind of a scary place for your skill set, career, and software package [to reside]. We’ve been sensitive to that concern. So we use [Dropbox] file sync, rather than [having users] occasionally download from a server. Everything you want lives on your computer, and we sync all the changes made in the database down to you almost immediately. It’s on your computer in your CAD tool’s format all the time, so you can still work if you go offline.”
Perhaps more daunting is simply convincing management at larger companies of the benefit of sharing their libraries. Friedman calls this a classic cost-benefit problem. “It’s a lot like accounting. If you ask upper management, they all swear by their CFOs. But if you said, “You no longer need to pay taxes or do reporting,” how many of them would keep this expensive expertise for those tasks? If one cost goes away, the resources devoted to it will free up. The Universal Parts Library frees up a lot of resources to do higher value-generating activity.”
Like many new cloud-based organizations, CircuitHub is relying on users to generate and share the content. And, like many organizations, it’s not charging for the right to use it. How can the company afford to do this?
It’s received seed funding from Google Ventures and various blue chip angel investors, including the inventors or founders of Gmail, Google SafeSearch, Reddit and others. But it appears the library is just the first spoke of a much bigger wheel. “Once a universal library like this exists, it allows many interesting things to happen in manufacturing and logistics. Those are the areas that we see developing,” Friedman says, without going into specifics.
The parts library is integrated with Altium, Cadence and Eagle. KiCAD and gEDA are in process, and Mentor and Zuken are also on CircuitHub’s roadmap. Integration work on the latter two will begin by the second quarter.
The company has four engineers among its five employees, meaning resources are at a premium. Yet, being an outsider and not tied to any specific tool has its luxuries. “We’ve taken a philosophical stand in aligning the product with the end-user,” says Friedman. “We aren’t owned by any one factory, distributor or manufacturer. We only care about making life easier for the engineer.
“One person should [prepare the footprint and symbology], someone else should check it, and it should be done. For everyone. In every tool. Forever.”
[Ed.: To enlarge the figure, right-click on it, then click View Image, then left-click on the figure.]