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    EPFL Switzerland is using Altium Designer to streamline complex 3D board development and mechatronic system integration.

    For over two years, the use of 3D has really improved the electronic developments in our group Mobots and it becomes obvious that only a better training of users will reduce the iterations, to get a correct board the first time indeed.

    This is expected to be implemented on a larger scale at the EPFL, although it will take several years to achieve an excellent result.

    Electronic integration at the University

    In our school, the needs for electronic development are extremely varied and many areas are concerned:

    • Development from simple boards (sensor interface) to very complex ones located in a similarly complex environment.

    • Use for education purposes as for example in a course on "Projects of design" to that of a proposed high-level research.

    • Use both by students of the different sections, from the first year of studies, as PhD students, researchers and technical staff. In these various classes, the level of experimentation can be very eclectic.

    After more than 25 years experience in E-CADs (including 10 years of product Altium Designer Protel since 99), I often realize that the CADs are poorly operated and that too often, as during the studies, the user is working in a compartmentalized with little or poor interaction between the various areas that are purely electronic design and integration for use. This means that often several iterations of an electronic board will be required to meet the needs ultimately expected because too many details have been neglected throughout the process.

    This is however a shame because with its management 3D Altium Designer allows you to "see almost like the real thing" the PCB throughout its development phase and that with everything that surrounds it. It is possible to consider many details if they are present and obtain a successful product with confidence. A few examples will illustrate this.

    Virtual Reality

    The use of CAD allows a better visualization of the reality if the 3D of the component is well defined. The following example, here is the evolution over time of different ways to represent a 12-pin connector MicroMatch in SMD version for the top row and through-version to the bottom.

    From left to right, there are:

    1. The very simplified version of the connector card only.

    2. The very simplified version of the card connector with its counterpart.

    3. The detailed version of the card connector only.

    4. The detailed version of the card connector with its counterpart.

    5. The detailed version of the card connector with its counterpart, the latter being partially transparent to distinguish.

    Only detailed versions 3-5 give a clear representation, both in terms of the type of connector but also to ensure that counterpart is present or not. This is essential for a complete management with the environment, especially if there is something close above it.

    The detailed version SMD allows for example:

    • To locate components closer as in the example beside: R5 and C6 may be partially under the connector.

    • To foresee where the flat cable will go through if an opening in a housing is expected or simply how to get to the cable.

    • The possibilities of integration will depend on the quality of details.

    Use detailed contextual components

    Too often the components in a schema are reduced to their strict detail, regardless of the use that can be done. This simple little connector of Samtec is a perfect example in our research group. It is used to program a microcontroller dsPIC33 and / or communicate with it via a serial interface through a variety of developed modules (currently Bluetooth or RS-FTDI USB).

    On several occasions this connector was placed without much thinking in various developments of boards with the result that too often its orientation and / or placement no longer allowed to set for the various modules. On the example beside, circled in red the collision of the Bluetooth module with mechanics is evident. It would be avoided if the connector was rotated 180 degrees and placed a little further.
    If this problem is detected only after the PCB is mounted, a new iteration is needed to solve it.

    To reduce such inconvenience, it is easier to use "detailed" components. These include not only the connector base but also the modules or directly available modules, eventually all, and that is the developer who has to decide which ones to be used for a specific board. Thus it is not possible to make mistakes unintentionally.

    Particular development

    For the following example, a single electronic card should be used in two different parts of the same robot. It was enough for it to overlay 3D models of these two parts of the robot, as shown separately on the figures below:

    Complete robot Part with 2 motors Part with 3 motors

    The structures of the robot are conductive and the PCB is fixed against. Then it was necessary to ensure that no track is short-circuited. With the 3D robot, it was easy to determine the outline of the structures involved directly from Altium, without necessarily going through importing a DXF file obtained from the M-CAD. It was enough then to define these areas as a Polygon Net GND.

    Also the placement of components on the board could indeed be tried taking into account the full mechanical context.

    • A checking on the basis of location rules for components permits to work with confidence and this in 3D.

    • The strategic positioning of the connectors takes into account the links to be made for example with engines, with the batteries on the other side and between the two main parts of the robot.

    • For example, the 3D support for Altium ensures that there is sufficient space between the top of the green power connector and the plate that will close the structure of the robot, in fact, it is necessary to pass the cables of these connectors. In addition, this connector can be placed in two planned configurations (2 or 3 engines) making sure there is enough room.

    • As for the small white connector, it is very close to the wall in the mechanical configuration with 2 motors and therefore unusable, but in fact it is only used in the other configuration, in which case there is sufficient room for the cables between the PCB and the motor. Such details can easily be checked and raised above!

    Why doing without 3D?

    In fact, all the work of electronic design is done "as if the real prototype was under the eyes" and this may also evidence drawbacks in the mechanical design, allowing to interact between these two areas. There is no real distinction except that the two CADs (E-CAD and M-CAD) are used symbiotically to build on their merits.
    For story, I sometimes spoke with a colleague who developed the robot Thymio, also a very good example of the use of 3D. When we received the PCBs assembled, I took one in my hands and I asked where the waveguide for the LEDs was, willing to see how it fits. The colleague told me they were being manufactured. He replied that I had already seen one yet, he said, "Yes, but that was on Altium ! “.

    So yes, 3D is not a luxury but a real design assistance to promote the creativity of all developers.

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