More about Collaborative Design

Now reading version 19.1. For the latest, read: More about Collaborative Design for version 20.2

Bringing Collaboration to the Design Process

It was Aristotle that said, “The whole is greater than the sum of its parts” – an expression often used to describe the potential to produce superior results when a team works collaboratively. For this collaborative effort to deliver more than the sum of the output of the individual team members, those team members need to be able to collaborate effectively throughout the design process.

Collaboration is all about human interaction, it is not something that can be easily characterized and packaged into a single software feature or interface – in essence it must be part of the DNA of the software. Acknowledging that collaboration happens on many levels, in a variety of ways, Altium NEXUS includes a number of features to help designers work collaboratively.

The foundation is best-in-class PCB design tools. On top of that, the design team also needs control over the design workflow and collaboration process. Collaboration during the development of an electronic product will often cross company boundaries. Perhaps your company outsources the creation of new components to a specialist, or calls on an engineer from the fabricator to participate in the sign-off design review for the PCB fabrication files? Situations like this can require that an external designer be able to review design or output data, even if they do not own a license of Altium software.

So just how do you go about monitoring and managing the design workflow? How do you keep track of who has yet to complete their review task, the reason that new component was rejected, what revision of the fab files were reviewed by the fabrication engineer, or be made aware that the designer engineer has finished updating the schematic and the board can now be finalized?

This requires comprehensive workflow management and collaboration capabilities, that can be tailored to suit the requirements of your organization.

Manage Your Content

The first step is to take control of the design content. As every IT professional knows, the best way to manage content is to control where that content is stored, how it is accessed, and who has access.

Content management can be brought into the electronics design environment using traditional IT methodologies – regulating file access via domain permissions, history and change management via a version control system, and crafting a suitable design management methodology to identify and manage the design content. The downside is that this imposes file management tasks on the designers, distracting them from their real work of creating innovative electronic products.

Instead of wrapping the electronic design methodology around IT systems, another approach is to build content management into the electronics design environment. Altium's design software has this, content created and stored in this way is referred to as managed content.

Rather than simply storing the design source as files on a hard drive (unmanaged content), the content is stored in a managed content system that can:

  • Manage the source files
  • Perform version and revision control
  • Manage the lifecycle of designs
  • Capture the product releases
  • Support all document types and design elements; such as components, templates, and full designs
  • Control which Users have access to, and can manage, design data

Altium offers a powerful managed content solution – the NEXUS Server.

To learn more about working with managed content, refer to the page Working with a Managed Content Server.

Adding Collaboration and Workflow Management

The NEXUS Server delivers content management, abstracting away the management of the multitude of entities that go together to create that next great thing your team is designing.

Managing how that data develops as the product comes to life, how it changes through the overarching design process, is a separate challenge. This is management of the process, rather than the data created during that process. To do this you need to be able to track and manage the various processes the design travels through on its journey from idea through to finished product. All organizations have systems in place to manage the design process; it can be handled using tools like Visio flowcharts, checklists and pro-forma design review templates; or it can be handled by a dedicated Product Lifecycle Management system.

A strong advantage of using a managed content server, such as Altium's NEXUS Server, is that it provides an excellent platform for the addition of collaboration and workflow management features.

This is where the Altium NEXUS + the NEXUS Server combination – the Altium NEXUS Solution – steps in, delivering:

  • Content management
  • Collaboration capabilities
  • Workflow management features that provide both visibility into, and control of, the design process.

Coupling the Altium NEXUS client to the NEXUS Server delivers powerful content management and workflow solutions.Coupling the Altium NEXUS client to the NEXUS Server delivers powerful content management and workflow solutions.

Content Management

The Altium NEXUS Server works in harmony with Altium NEXUS to provide an elegant solution to handling design data with secured integrity. As well as secure data storage, it also enables re-release of data as distinctly separate revisions – with ongoing access to prior revisions. It also provides lifecycle management, which gives instant visibility of the stage the data has reached in its 'life' and therefore what it can be safely used for.

► Refer to Working with a Managed Content Server to learn more about managed content and working with it from within Altium NEXUS.

► Refer to the Altium NEXUS Server page to learn more about working with the NEXUS Server.

Design Comments

Acting like electronic Post-it® notes, design comments can be attached to a schematic sheet or PCB design – of a managed project – without actually modifying the design document. Comments are placed via the editor's Place menu, and are stored in the NEXUS Server as document metadata. Because they are managed by the NEXUS Server they appear immediately on that document, for any other team member that currently has that document open.

Placed comments are displayed in the Comments panel, click on a comment in the panel to open the document it was placed on and zoom to the comment. A comment can be replied to with the entire thread being displayed in the panel, but only the last post being displayed on the schematic. If a comment is Resolved it is removed from the panel and design document, and you can Assign a comment to another user as a Task.

► Refer Document Commenting in Managed Projects to learn more.

Collaboration Panel

The Collaboration panel provides a formal, traceable mechanism for pushing design changes made on a design document, through to other designers. Once the change has been made, the author of the change can Push that change. The affect of this is to save the updated file, commit it back into the NEXUS Server, and notify other designers. As with the Comments panel, other designers that have that project open will immediately receive a message in their Collaboration panel.

If the change crosses a design boundary, for example a schematic change that impacts the PCB, then other designers can Pull that change into the open PCB. The result is the modified schematic file is reloaded, and an Update PCB initiated, propagating the changes through to the PCB.

► Refer to the Collaboration panel page to learn more.

MCAD Collaboration

As well as supporting collaboration between the schematic and PCB editors, the Collaboration panel can also be used to pass design changes between the ECAD and MCAD domains.

The designer working in each application uses the Altium Collaboration panel to Push and Pull design changes from one application to the other. Notifications about incoming changes appear automatically in the Collaboration panel, as soon as a Push is performed on the other side.

Each change can be reviewed before being accepted, with the objects to be changed being highlighted and the before and after states shown.

Altium NEXUS collaborates with the MCAD software through the NEXUS Server. Designers on either side can push/pull changes to:

  • The board shape
  • Board cutouts
  • Component positions
  • Free pad (hole) locations

MCAD collaboration can be performed with:

Managing the Workflow Process

In Altium NEXUS, the flow of the design process can be managed through interaction diagrams. An interaction diagram looks like a flow diagram, giving an intuitive graphical representation of the tasks, decisions, and their sequence – in essence, they define a Workflow Process.

While they look much like a flow diagram created in Microsoft Visio®, interaction diagrams are much more that a simple visual representation of the workflow. In Altium NEXUS, the interaction diagram is used to configure and manage the workflow process – it defines the process, and from it stem the tasks and notifications that are sent to the nominated users.

Interaction diagrams can be used to define the following company processes:

  • Parts Request
  • Project Creation
  • Project Activities (Design Reviews, etc)

► Refer to An Overview of the Workflow Process to learn more.

Tasklist panel

Tasks are created in a Workflow Process. Behind each Task element placed in the Workflow Process diagram, a User Form can be created. When this form requires interaction from a designer, that designer is presented with a Task in their Tasklist panel.

The Tasklist panel details all outstanding tasks assigned to the designer (or unassigned tasks which they can claim as a candidate), including: Part Requests, Project Creations and Design Reviews.

When the designer clicks on an active task in the panel a dialog will open, giving them access to the Form defined for that Task and an image of the interaction diagram, showing where this Task fits into the process. The Form is used by the designer to fulfill their contribution to that Task, where it will detail which fields are mandatory and which are optional.

If the designer is the initiator of the Task, their Tasklist panel will also include details of any Activities they have initiated.

► Refer to the Tasklist panel page to learn more about the panel.

► Refer to An Overview of the Workflow Process to learn more about processes.

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The features available depend on your Altium product access level. Compare features included in the various levels of Altium Designer Software Subscription and functionality delivered through applications provided by the Altium 365 platform.

If you don’t see a discussed feature in your software, contact Altium Sales to find out more.