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                                For over 20 years, Jotron Phontech has offered an extensive and flexible range of audio products which have been carefully designed and built for harsh maritime environments. Their systems are in use worldwide on merchant ships, fishing vessels, tug boats, offshore supply vessels, as well as various navy ships and offshore oil and gas installations.

                                Touch Technology: The Norwegian Connection

                                Touch sensors are well on their way to replace mechanical devices like buttons, sliders and wheels. And new tools will make this much easier. We met with the technology provider Atmel Norway AS, tool provider Altium Europe and the user Jotron Phontech AS.
                                By Einar Karlsen

                                Tools provider Altium delivers what they call a unified design system, which by definition has removed any hurdles between the different stages of the design process, from schematics through to PCBlayout, FPGA design and 3D modeling, to name just a few. In addition, Altium offers a large selection of hardware platforms for rapid prototyping and early verification of new application ideas. It is this combination that has been accepted worldwide, and in Norway this interest made it necessary to establish a distributor, a role 4test Instrument AS took over in late autumn.

                                The Engineer in focus

                                “We are a technology based company, which is based on the fact that our founder many years ago was not satisfied with the tool he used, and therefore made his own. We have retained this ‘spirit’ and we invest in tools that are based on the latest technology, and which are easy to use”, explains sales manager for Northern Europe, Rainer Heim. “None of my customers have returned any products so far”, he adds.

                                Cooperation with Atmel Norway

                                Norway has been very interesting for Altium, especially with regard to the agreement that was recently signed with Atmel. Briefly told, the agreement is about the integration of design tools for Atmel touch sensor technology in Altium Designer. “They contacted us and told us that they wanted to standardize on Altium.

                                “I must admit it was a bit of a surprise - they could have chosen any supplier”, says Rainer Heim. “But we realized quickly that this was not a ‘regular’ customer. Moreover, frankly we could see that Atmel’s position in the microprocessor market would help us to get more visibility in the market”, he said.

                                Touch Sensors take over

                                The market for touch technology is about to widen. “Market surveys show that three-quarters of those who still use mechanical buttons today are interested in considering capacitive touch sensors”, says marketing manager Arild Rødland, Atmel Norway AS.

                                An important reason for this is simple maintenance and cleaning. “Regular keys are expensive to waterproof. At the same time the mechanical performance of membrane keys is poor”, explains Mr. Rødland. “Capacitive buttons, however, can easily be made moisture-proof; they offer great design freedom, no degradation of performance over time and are cost effective”, he said.


                                The Atmel QTouch technology series comprises two main lines: simple touch-sensing buttons, sliders and wheels, and full-resolution touch screens. 'Many applications can be managed with simple buttons, and QTouch is delivered with fixed function components for easy implementation, but together with the QTouch Library variable functions and analytical models can be used to tune the sensors.

                                Basic errors

                                “Good design support is important”, says Rødland. “We see that even big mobile phone companies make basic mistakes on the touch screens”, he adds.

                                “Therefore, we have developed a powerful software package that will help making more robust and better products than the competition. Their products will work well enough in the lab - but what happens in production, not to mention in 'real life’”, he asks with a smile.

                                Production Problems

                                The experienced designer Martin Atle Christiansen of Jotron Phontech confirm this problem. “We manufacture thousands of touch panels each year and are experiencing major problems in production”, he said. “In addition, we have different needs in different markets, which also give us great design challenges. Therefore we think it is very interesting that Atmel and Altium come with an automated solution for this technology”, he said.

                                Should be easy

                                Atmel is now entering the next phase of the design of these components: It should be an easy to use tool for the design of touch buttons. The designers have had plenty of support, with the Atmel 70-page (!) manual for the design of touch sensors. “It is well written and exhaustive, but can also be intimidating”, admits Mr. Rødland.

                                Demanding Design

                                For example, the PCB design of a touch sensor in the shape of a wheel might at first glance seem straight forward, but is in fact a challenging exercise to draw in the first place. If the size of the wheel has to be changed, it is a complete redraw. “Our designers could spend a whole day just to make such a wheel. It is a lot of work to change some of the geometrical dimensions or change the number of channels, etc. Being able to automate this work will save a lot of time, and that was basically the starting point for making contact with Altium” says Rødland.


                                It is not always easy to gain access to the tool manufacturers. But with Altium, Atmel experienced a short way to the decisions. “Once we knew what they were interested, everything went fast”, confirms Rainer Heim. “The founder of Altium Nick Martin recognized immediately that we could integrate this in Altium Designer. Atmel Norway developed a pattern generator that produces an xml type file to Altium Designer, which we use to integrate this into the design specifications.”

                                A hit

                                Jotron Phontech is a company that already has used Altium for a while, and will now take advantage of this new functionality for the design of touch sensors. The company began with two Altium licenses half a year ago and has just bought two more. Now it is decided that the Jotron Group with its 40 engineers will use Altium as generic tools. “I think it was a gap in the market, which Altium filled very well”, commented Martin Atle Christiansen.

                                The right tools

                                ”Altium Designer came in with an excellent ‘look and feel’, and was easy to become a fan and passionate user of it”, he says straight out. “Basically, we wanted a design tool for printed circuit boards, but when we saw all the other functionality included – it even supports FPGA design - it was easy to see that this was the right tool for us”, explains Mr. Christansen.

                                Play and gravity

                                ”In general we try to create tools that help engineers to concentrate on developing their ideas”, adds Rainer Heim. “Not everyone sees Altium as a serious player in the EDA market and Altium’s price policy has been criticized, with the company being accused of either not providing adequate systems, or selling them at prices they could not possibly make a profit on. No, we do not sell too cheaply. But we offer the best value for money”, parries Rainer Heim. “We are in a very good position with a rapidly growing user base and sound finances. In only 6 months we have sold our system to 1,600 new customers worldwide.”

                                Easy integration

                                Robert Huxel from Altium demonstrated a prototype of the touch sensor module, which will be available in the next version of Altium Designer. In the schematic entry it is simply to select a touchbutton from the library, and call up a dialog box to change the element. You can easily change the number of channels, height, width, diameter, etc. The physical dimensions / layout are created on the fly when the component is added into the physical design. ”This workflow makes it a simple task for example to add ‘last minute’ changes to a front panel, explains Huxel. As mentioned elsewhere, it would be a lot of work to change this manually. "Certain types of shapes are very difficult to create or edit by hand, Huxel points out. "It is also easy to add the routing and connect the shapes exactly with the point you want", he said. In a next step the system will be integrated in a demo-/development kit from Atmel.

                                Natural way forward

                                4test is probably best known as a distributor of instruments from Agilent, in addition to other instrument products from Maury Microwave, VTI Instruments, QualiTest Technologies and TCI. But at the same time they have also delivered the HF / RF design software from Agilent EEsof, so according to sales manager Jonny Langmyren it was quite natural to take in Altium when they looked for a distributor in Norway. “After a few months we are already experiencing good activity”, he said. “Altium has pulled all the stops in order to make itself visible in Norway and gives us very good support”, says Mr. Langmyren.

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