An interview with Ben Jordan on Altium's perspective on future changes in engineering and CAD requirements.
Earlier this year, Altium undertook an international road show, bringing its unique take on the art of PCB design tools to the streets and explaining its vision for matching its products to the needs of an increasingly diverse set of users. in the wake of that tour, Ben Jordan, Altium's director of community tools and content (pictured below), spoke with PCD&F editor in chief Mike Buetow.
MB: Over the past few years, Altium has added folks with deep experience in enterprise CAD to a corporation that has deep roots in keeping things simple. How do you take these different viewpoints and make them coherent?
BJ: We are dealing with a development culture, a corporate sales and marketing culture, and an enterprise culture. A lot of us who have been at Altium for a while knew we had to move forward with people like Henry Potts. Altium has been known as a 30-year startup because we primarily were an innovator in terms of EDA software and also in terms of seeing where the market was going to be, in terms of the user perspective. At the individual user level, more and more designers are coming in with actual engineering degrees and would consider themselves EEs who happen to do PCB design. It’s been trending this way for some time. One of the reasons Altium Designer has been successful is because our company’s founders fit that model. Having originated in Australia, the engineering industry is small because the population is small. What that means for people doing electronics in Australia is that there’s a thin air environment. They were always going to do more of the layout and design themselves. Altium Designer was formed with that tech-entrepreneur engineer persona in mind. We still cater to those people, but we have to open our minds that for some of the larger corporations, or those who deal with high-reliability electronics, from the customer point-of-view, what’s best for the designer is that they get to focus just on their job and not have to worry about other elements. That’s why we must understand what’s needed at the enterprise level. And to expand our reach, we also need to cater to the long tail, through CircuitStudio and CircuitMaker, to support the increasing trends for younger engineers to be working with open source. We want to provide something with a budget for which a mainstream tool doesn’t exist, so we are giving them the tool for free. For our organization, our decision-making for these products comes from a lot of sources. We are bringing in the necessary leadership to fulfill those requirements. For the low end, a lot of us consider ourselves makers or enthusiasts, so we build what we would want to use ourselves. But at the same time, we need to involve others in the industry who are more involved day-to-day than ourselves to get their input. We have a very creative, disciplined R&D team that has the freedom to come up with new ideas and bounce them around some of marketing and our closer users. Our R&D product managers are doing more proper market research, interviewing companies that are looking at Altium Designer but rejected it for some reason, and trying to find out why and what needs we haven’t met.
MB: One complaint often heard is that the data migration from schematic capture to the CAD tool isn’t smooth, and that errors get introduced in the process.
BJ: There was a great divide until recently between ECAD and manufacturers that, unless we are doing DfM software; Altium is known as a CAD vendor. But manufacturers who are etching and doing the assembly have a pretty consistent set of complaints when they get data packages from designers. We started visiting the manufacturing factories and asking them about the design data handoff. That is a big driver of product feature decisions as well. That’s why we came out with Draftsman. A pretty basic concept, but critically important, is that often the drawings did not match the final Gerber or ODB data set because the designer can make some last-minute changes, and everyone is working to get the design out the door. We needed to automate the drawing process. It seems like it should have been done years ago, but designers had different software sets for doing MCAD and documentation, and would export it, but it was prone to error. By automating that process, we can solve a lot of problems with the handoff between design and assembly. We want to expand and grow to increase influence and revenues and margins. That’s an equal goal, while also making sure every engineer or PCB designer in the world can get access to good tools to do their work.
MB: Have you Pareto’d the reasons why companies didn’t pick Altium Designer, and if so, what are the top reasons?
BJ: There are three big reasons: One, the status quo, which comes down to a lot of other elements such as fear of the unknown, risk vs. reward or a breakeven graph of adopting a new solution vs. the pains with the existing solution. A lot of that could come down to perceptions that can’t accurately be qualified by the user. At least a third of decisions not to move forward are “the devil you know.” And sometimes politics are involved in that; it can come from someone’s knowledge of a given tool or their own investment in the flow in customizing it, and they don’t want to throw all that away. Then there’s perception when competing with a much more expensive solution. In the past, there have indeed been technology gaps. In our case, there are some way more expensive packages out there that have better automation in one niche area, such as RF design or autorouting technology, or workflow automation that in the past we didn’t address. We’ve brought out new tools like ActiveRoute, which is user-guided automation, because a lot of designers reject autorouting as an overall concept. (“The autorouter can’t do what I do.”) We think the automation can save time while still being guided by the user. Another area was Draftsman for design documentation, which pre-version 17, Altium Designer was a bit weak on the documentation tools. Since we released Draftsman, new users aren’t acquiring other tools for documentation. That indicates to us we are closing those technology gaps. This is another area, but usually a smaller area, as Designer is known for having a lot of features for the money. Third is budget. Although Designer is really very low cost for what’s in it, there are a lot of startups that didn’t have the budget for it or Pads Pro or OrCAD Pro. So, they would go for Eagle or free open source software, which is free but hard to use and inefficient. That was our motivation for bringing CircuitMaker and CircuitStudio to market. I feel like we are doing well to close those gaps, and in a growing market more and more devices are going to have electronics in them moving forward. All ships are going to float on the rising tide.
MB: In the Altium 2020 presentations, it was noted that it helps to have stratified products. The reference had to do with pricing. Could you say that’s also true about features?
BJ: Mentor has the Pads suite with different levels and pricing. Then you jump and there’s Expedition. And also, there’s Board Station for some customers who don’t want to change. Cadence consolidated everything to Allegro and OrCad. There’s a different schematic tool, but most use OrCad or Allegro. Our users were even asking for different licensing options: a cheap version for startups, a free version for students, a full version for enterprise. We thought we could do it that way, and in many respects, it would be the easy way. But from our experience, having one tool for 30 years and taking a lot of business away from our competitors, especially in the mid-2000s and 2010s, our marketing message all ended up zeroing in on one tool and no confusion on what you get with it. Based on our experience, having one tool with everything in it and no confusing licensing options; that’s what we found the mainstream PCB design market was craving. “Just give me a newspaper and tell me if it’s true.” I think our peers have recognized this and modified their business strategies to be nicer to the users too, so you don’t hit a roadblock and find out it’s another $20,000. But we had to price Altium Designer into the mainstream, which put it out of reach of some hobbyists, and at the enterprise level, it didn’t have some of the collaborative things. We realized it’s a better approach to have specific products that are strongly branded for those user groups. It helps the market understand who this is for. It helps us to have clear boundaries for how it should behave and the UI. But, at their core, all these technologies share the same foundation: the Altium engine. That makes it possible for us to maintain it efficiently.
MB: As you are gearing up to release Atina, is it important to have all the features in one tool, as opposed to a suite? And how does that extend to SI, mechanical, modeling/verification, etc.?
BJ: Altium Designer currently lacks the collaboration capability for a geographically and distributed workforce. Atina manages the changes and change history, but does AD still need to be further fleshed out?
MB: Does the buzz over IoT remind you at all of the dot.com era?
BJ: We initially estimated that by the end of 2020, there would be 20 billion interconnected devices. Some estimates put it closer to 50 billion connected devices. Somebody has to design those. We are considerably bullish, but we’re not crazy. Here’s the deal: Whether the devices are connected and could be called IoT is debatable. Most people don’t really know what that is yet. It’s one of those phenomena that will become clearer. But the number of devices and influence of electronics on everyday products is increasing. Anything involving young people doing programming and a little bit of hacking is turning into ideas for applying electronics to everyday problems. With the smart thermostats came the first wave. Then the wearables. But we are really just scratching the surface. Are they IoT? I don’t know… Intel’s original prediction was more like AI or robotics automatically doing things for humans for the benefit of humans. I don’t know if it will go to that extent, but what’s absolutely clear is electronics is finding its way into almost everything. The connected or self-driving car is right around the corner from regular use. Even in the auto industry alone, there is a whole lot of opportunity for infrastructure for electronics: sensor networks for charging, energy management inside and outside the car, parking … the number of opportunities for automating some tasks around driving, whether in or outside the car, is mind-blowing. And that’s just one area. Amazon’s delivery by drone – the world originally rejects or has trouble with some of these ideas, but it will not stop it. I think it’s pretty much inevitable we will have delivery systems point-to-point by air. The real big problem is how do we get more people involved? We have students who want to write code, but we need new people to get involved in the design of the actual circuit board. How do we encourage youngsters to do that? That’s the one thing I could see that could lead the whole IoT thing to starve of oxygen. The exponential growth of devices could be blocked by a lack of people to design them. The design may be complex, but our job is to get out of the way of the engineer. In America, you begin your coming of age when you get your driver’s license. None of them really needs to know about how the car works. There’s where the fuel goes in, but if something breaks, you take it to a mechanic. In EDA, it’s a tricky one, because most engineers who use ECAD could also be software authors. They have some knowledge of what goes on under the hood. But the tools don’t have to be hard to use or complex. I feel like it’s taken EDA as an industry a long time to get to that point. It’s a core belief of Altium. It’s particularly a problem with simulation tools. There’s a tradeoff between ease of use and accuracy. That may be true, but it shouldn’t be true. We have a partnership with CST. CST has a reputation for being incredibly powerful and accurate. If you want the simulation to give an accurate result, you have to spend time setting up the model environment and boundary conditions. Really what you are doing with a simulator is painting a picture of what you want the board to do. If you want a detailed, accurate result, you need to give it detailed, accurate information. You have to enter so much info in to get an accurate starting point. If you are willing to enter some assumptions, it can be easier. I think there’s a better way – a third way. You can get under the hood and customize it if you want. But if you don’t have time to do that, you can use a set of data that’s set up on a normalized reality. The setup can still let you enter all the details of reality in the system, but it doesn’t have to be hard. A big chunk of the difficulty with a lot of the tools out there is the UI.
MB: Does this explain your approach to handling designing for team-based environments?
BJ: We are developing that. Our goal is to design for what designers need but not just kludge it on. That makes it more complicated. Atina 1.0 does not include concurrent editing. Altium Designer through version control already had the ability for people to work concurrently, but it wasn’t real time in the sense you could see someone was doing something, but then someone had to merge the changes. We are moving into real-time collaborative editing, and it’s in CircuitMaker. In CircuitMaker you could invite someone in to edit it, and the server would automatically update it. To make that work properly for the enterprise, they don’t want something to be like the Wild West. They need control over the workflow and permissions and management, and designers to focus on their skill set and not have to worry about other people. In CircuitMaker it’s for open source, so we want it to be like the Wild West. In talking about the agile enterprise, designers get a little paranoid that it will tie their hands behind their back. In truth, the right enterprise solution makes it more efficient by giving the designer the freedom to work hard on their area of expertise and not worry about what other people are doing or other people’s areas. I think what people will discover with Atina is it will have these collaborative, team-based designs in it, but it will really allow people to dive deep in the part of development they love most. MB: Do the enterprise guys at Altium get involved in the maker products and vice versa?
BJ: The whole executive team is connected to all these products, but our CEO Aram Mirkazemi is very deeply involved in making sure all the products are successful. Since the launch of CircuitMaker up until January 2017, Aram made me director of community tools and content, and it was my job to make sure it got market acceptance. I regularly reported back to Aram on where we should go next and how to promote the software and the overall direction. Our executive team will go out and face people directly and like to bring people like me around to do that more regularly. We are kind of like the researchers and bring that back to the corporate team. At the launch of CircuitMaker, Sergey Kostinsky, our vice president of engineering and two or three of the engineering managers came to a couple different Maker Faires to observe how people were reacting to the product and ask questions about what their frustrations with their current tools were. We’ve also started working with collaboration partners downstream, like fabricators. It’s a little bit like a raspberry pie, in that you have all the products run together like the sauce under the crust, even though the crust has been sliced. We talk almost daily about all our products. It’s a good thing; it makes sense since they all run on the same engine. Designer and Atina have the newest version, which is 64-bit, but essentially, it’s the same engine. There’s a lot of enthusiasm internally because people get to work on different products from time to time. We are one ship with a few different bits of cargo.
MB: In 2014 Altium relocated its headquarters to the US. But did the 2011 move of your headquarters to China accomplish what you set out to do?
BJ: There is an overlap, but the primary reason we relocated was because our founder Nick Martin had a great idea that he wanted to be at the forefront of IoT, and he wanted Altium to be more involved in pushing out cloud software. We would develop tools for that, and in addition provide a lot of reusable hardware modules and a cloud infrastructure for people to enable the connectivity. And that vision was a good vision. Those are things that are needed, and a lot of companies are providing cloud-based services dedicated to IoT. China was where we needed to rapidly scale our labor force in hardware, and our understanding of hardware. Shanghai was going to be easy to find the quality of graduating hardware engineers and get more software engineers to build this IoT. But honestly, it wasn’t in our wheelhouse. We are a CAD and EDA vendor, and our skills lie in that. Things did not move according to that vision. It didn’t work out how we all had hoped. So, we had a hardware team designing modules in 2012. We also realized a design methodology for design reuse. Even though it went nowhere in terms of IoT products, we learned a lot about the day-to-day pains users go through using our products, and about going to production. So, it wasn’t all a complete waste of time. The other thing is we’ve always been aware that the number one software used by Chinese hardware users is Altium Designer (or Protel). And they can use whatever they want to use or pirate, but if dealing with western companies, they want to comply, and educational institutes like to comply with licensing. It was very beneficial for them to see us as a company, to put a headquarters there for a time. Culturally it turned out to be a good move, and increased sales in the market and legitimate licenses. Customers were more willing to do business with a company that was there. There’s no development presence in China anymore. We still have hardware designers for our library working there. They are turning out component libraries, which all Altium users use – and even some outside Altium. Some of those were developed by us for semiconductor companies that provide them for free download on their websites; they were developed by us, and we are working closely with Octopart.
MB: Until Altium 2020, I hadn’t truly understood the reason behind the Ciiva acquisition. Octopart asks does a part exist, and Ciiva helps find and source it.
BJ: Octopart is for component and reference design search and discovery. The acquisition of Ciiva wasn’t clear to many people, since it had features that overlapped with Octopart. But Ciiva was all about providing tools for getting to production. Our Ciiva team was so busy developing and working on something that I can’t discuss now but will be revealed later this year. But we’ve not been able to take a breath and share the news to the broader market about what it all means. But simply, Ciiva helps you go from design to the realization in production.
Ed.: Jordan, Altium's director of community tools and content, will present a two-hour talk on Multi-Board PCB Design at PCB West in September.