Altium NEXUS Documentation


Created: April 1, 2020 | Updated: March 23, 2021
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Bridging the ECAD-MCAD Divide

The electronic product you hold in your hand is the melding of numerous, independent designs. Firstly there's the enclosure you're holding; inside that, there will be one or more electronic circuit boards, and on the board, there is often a microprocessor running software. Beyond that, there can be specialized sections of circuitry to perform unusual sensing or signal transmission, or programmable hardware to implement high-speed signal processing.

Each of these independent designs - the mechanical enclosure, the electronic circuit, the printed circuit board, the microprocessor code, and the programmable hardware - uses its own design paradigm, with each design crafted through its own design editor.

Over many years these unique design spaces have become more closely connected. This close connection is essential to ensure that all aspects of the final product correctly interface with each other, delivering to us those easy-to-use and familiar products such as our mobile phone, our laptop, and our electric car.

The ECAD-to-MCAD divide is the last of these design spaces to be bridged. Bridging them by saving files in an intermediate file format works, but is becoming inadequate - being error-prone, limited in functionality, and difficult to coordinate and manage. What is needed is a true, 3D PCB design editor, which can directly communicate design changes to a variety of mechanical design packages.

This page introduces the various technologies that Altium is developing to bring the ECAD and MCAD design domains together.

The Advantage of 3D in ECAD-MCAD Integration

Altium's PCB editor is a true, 3D design space, where the designer can easily toggle between the 2D and 3D display modes. Component models can be created in the PCB library editor from a set of simple 3D shapes. Or accurate 3D models can be imported in a variety of formats, including STEP and Parasolid.

As well as importing models of the components, the designer can also import the product case, and 3D clearance checking can be performed (hover the cursor over the image). For a rigid-flex design, the board can be interactively folded, ideal for performing clearance checking of the folded board in its final state. The completed board can also be exported in the 3D STEP or Parasolid formats, ready to load into your MCAD software.

Building on the need to provide a better approach to ECAD-MCAD design, you can also pass the design directly back and forth to your supported MCAD software, through Altium CoDesigner.

Learn more about The 3D Advantage in ECAD-MCAD Integration

Direct ECAD-MCAD Design with Altium CoDesigner

Working between the electronic and mechanical design domains brings unique challenges. Small and complex product enclosures that house multiple, irregular shaped printed circuit boards - to successfully design these products the ECAD and MCAD designers must be able to fluidly pass design changes back and forth between their design domains.

Passing complex and detailed design changes between different design software is much more than just being able to save data in another format. The electronic and mechanical design teams work independently and need to be able to selectively transfer design changes at any point in their design process.

Altium CoDesigner supports this, delivering direct ECAD-to-MCAD CoDesign.

Learn more about Direct ECAD-MCAD Design with Altium CoDesigner

Altium CoDesigner is available for:

Linking Native ECAD and MCAD Design Components

Each design software package represents and stores the design objects that it supports in its own way. Altium CoDesigner's default approach is to pass the components back and forth as 3D models in the standard Parasolid format, ensuring the design is mechanically accurate in both the ECAD and MCAD domains.

However, components are much more than their physical envelope. For example, in the PCB domain, they also hold silkscreen and paste detail, a link to their schematic symbol, as well as parametric information that couples them into the supply chain. In an ideal world, the ECAD and MCAD designers can each place a native design component from their own library, and link their native components to each other. This can be achieved, through their shared Altium 365 Workspace.

Learn more about Linking Native ECAD and MCAD Design Components

  • MCAD-to-ECAD native component support is available for all supported MCAD packages
  • ECAD-to-MCAD native component support is available for PTC Creo 

Synchronizing a Rigid-Flex Board

Perhaps the most challenging printed circuit board design to bring to production is a rigid-flex design. Designing a rigid-flex circuit is very much an electromechanical process, because the rigid-flex board must be designed to be assembled and folded into the housing during product assembly. To date, this tight electro-mechanical design challenge has been solved by making a mechanical mock-up, also known as a paper doll cut out.

Altium CoDesign helps solve this challenge, delivering the ability to transfer the folded rigid-flex design between the ECAD and MCAD domains.

Learn more about Synchronizing a Rigid-flex Board

  • Rigid-flex design synchronization is currently supported by SOLIDWORKS

Where to Next?

If you're new to Altium NEXUS, you might like to start with the concept to completion tutorial - based around a simple nine-component circuit, you'll start with a blank schematic sheet and end up with the PCB, along with the files needed to fabricate the board. Like all of Altium's design technologies, the editors are designed to be quick to learn and easy to work in. Context-sensitive right-click menus are used extensively, and context-sensitive help (F1) and in-command shortcut lists (Shift+F1) are available everywhere.

Otherwise, you might like to check out the following articles:


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