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Standing Tall: How Lightmatter Found Their Competitive Edge Using Altium Enterprise Solutions

"Partnerships with software companies like Altium really give us a competitive edge, helping us create distance between us and our competitors. With it, we can attract top talent and work at lightning, breakneck speed. And we’ve produced real prototypes that are working right now."

Israel Kandaria
Head of Brand Marketing

Moore’s Law and Dennard Scaling are inescapable truths of the semiconductor industry.

Per Moore’s law, the number of transistors on a chip doubles every 18 to 24 months. Yet, even as manufacturers try to make smaller and smaller transistors, Dennard Scaling tells us that the power density stays constant. As transistor sizes approach physical limits, standard computing won’t cut it anymore.

But the need for stronger computing cycles won’t stop — particularly as AI data centers continue to grow. To keep their ML models running and continue innovating at the same pace, companies need to embrace new technologies.

What started as an MIT thesis has turned into a product that can replace the existing compute clusters Google and Amazon use to train their AI algorithms and cut down on power consumption dramatically. Instead of using an electric charge, Lightmatter chips use photonic circuits that manipulate light to perform matrix multiplication operations.

Not surprisingly, the potential of Lightmatter’s technology won the co-founders an MIT Technical Award, a prize from Harvard, and an $11 million Series A round.

But the Lightmatter team needed more than accolades and funding to bring their vision of photonic chips to life and take on the likes of NVIDIA, AMD, Google, and Intel. To compete with the giants, the small startup needed software that could streamline the creation and testing of their PCIe carrier boards

“Altium streamlines our board design process because it’s cloud-based and under version control. I can share designs with internal and external teams, they can pull it down to their workstation, work on it, and save it to the server. I don’t have to type up a million notes every night about how you need to match this length or move this component. Altium allows for a much more efficient back and forth.”

Jim Carr
Director of System Design

Designing Innovative Solutions Requires Innovative Tools

Lightmatter knew they needed a cutting-edge design solution. After an in-depth vendor evaluation, the team turned to Altium — a leader in electronic design automation software.
Altium enterprise solution stood out because of its collaboration, data management, simulation, and workflow features that helped other well-known technology brands accelerate their digital transformation. And, unlike other companies that suffered from a highly manual, unpredictable workflow for years, Lightmatter had an advantage: they could implement Altium from inception.

“PC boards are the testing vehicle for our chips. We use them to ensure each component is working at its best so that our chips will last in data centers for many, many years without any part of them breaking down.”

Reza Baghdadi
Photonics Engineer

Driving Internal Alignment & Efficiency

Lightmatter’s PCB development requires close collaboration between the electrical engineers, mechanical engineers, third-party contractors, and the procurement team. Like other startups, Lightmatter didn’t have an internal IT department and couldn’t afford to use engineering bandwidth to manage local servers or backups.

Moving to the cloud with Altium eliminated the need for on-premise servers altogether, ensuring work wouldn’t disappear because of a hardware failure or a missed save. With Altium’s version control, commenting, and sharing features, all parties could work simultaneously in a quick, effective manner on the latest design data.

As Jim Carr, an Altium power user at Lightmatter, says, “Since Altium 365 is cloud-based, I have my own workspace that's secure and private, but I can invite whoever I want to collaborate with, whether they're inside my organization or outside my organization. And I don't have to worry about maintaining hardware. I can expect that when I upload a project or download a project the data's all there.”

Altium enterprise solutions integrates with Lightmatter’s PLM, Arena, opening the door to further collaboration with other departments working on the product and facilitating engineering and BOM data transfer. With a single source of truth, everyone can work toward the same goal without with the confidence of having the latest and most accurate data.

Ensuring Supply Chain Availability

Getting accurate supply chain data was a challenge,and Lightmatter wasn’t big enough to ask a vendor to expedite their manufacturing. But these limitations couldn’t stop Lightmatter’s tight production timeline.

Altium was the key to real-time, reliable supply chain information. Knowing that the components they picked would be in stock when they needed them was key to their success

“If Altium’s Octopart says that vendors like Mouser have X many parts and other distributors have Y many parts, I know that there’s enough supply. If I put this part in my board design, I know that in a month from now, I'll be able to place an order and receive those parts within a few days”, says Jim.

Simplifying Component Management

Because Lightmatter’s current budget is finite, its operations team cares deeply about how much components cost. Altium’s Octopart database enabled Lightmatter to make optimal component choices to balance engineering requirements with budget.

Jim elaborates, “The Octopart database gives pricing information on all the components. I can create a bill of materials that gives me a price roll-up of how much it will cost to build each board. And it's accurate to the point where we can try to design a circuit that doesn't need parts that cost so much money. Having that data in real-time helps us make good decisions between operations and engineering.”

Overcoming Design Challenges

Lightmatter uses extra components, such as high-powered lasers, to make its technology work. Putting all those pieces together and testing them can be a huge hurdle to development. Altium’s 3D rendering gave the Lightmatter team a great visualization of the final board product.

“We’re trying to pack a whole lot of stuff on the PCI card we're designing—a whole bunch of power circuits and controller circuits and laser modules. So, it's a very dense design. Being able to visualize it with 3D views right in the tool gives us good confidence that everything will fit properly and we can route it.”, Jim said.

He emphasized the importance of Altium’s signal integrity and power integrity simulation tools in helping them optimize their designs for manufacturability and fit. On limiting expensive, time-wasting rework and reproduction, he continued: “Altium was important for us to be able to meet our schedules and not have to iterate 10 times to get things to work.“

Standing Tall Among Giants

As AI data center consumption continues to escalate, Lightmatter’s solution becomes more and more valuable. And with Altium, Lightmatter can continue to set itself apart from well-known competitors, innovating at breakneck speed and delivering the kinds of products that will transform the way we think about computer chips.

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