7 Collaborative PCB Software Programs for Designers Working Remotely
Social distancing doesn't mean your productivity must come to a halt.
The COVID-19 outbreak has driven widespread stay and shelter orders. Many government authorities clarify that people must not leave home to go to work unless their employer provides an essential service, such as food retail or healthcare. These developments have urged many companies to instate remote work or a temporary shut down.
The good news for electrical engineers is that many software companies have already created open-source tools and PCB design software to soften this transition.
Consider the CHIPS Alliance that our contributor Gary Elinoff explains is a collective effort to promote open-source hardware designs. Also, if electrical engineers need to spend time designing PCBs, numerous collaborative PCB software programs have been on the rise for the past few years.
One example of such software is inspectAR, an augmented reality app for PCB design. Indeed, the expectation for these programs was that users would team up from various global locations while using them—not that they would be at home due to a dangerous virus.
Even so, the existence of these programs is perfect for the current situation. Collaboration is the way of the future, and the products listed here are ready to meet that need.
1. Altium 365
Altium offers software for PCB designers, plus live training sessions and a tool that allows viewing and sharing designs in a web browser. The company's Altium Designer option works on desktop computers.
In 2018, the enterprise launched Altium 365, a cloud-based collaborative tool for multiple devices, platforms, and operating systems. There's also another CircuitMaker, an option built by Altium that enables real-time concurrency editing for collaborators.
Going back to Altium 365, in particular, the technology shows schematic, PCB, and 3D views from any internet-enabled device. It promises that people can "create and discover like never before."
The company also focuses on collaborative features by showing a video of four designers working around the world to create a PCB design in 45 minutes.
Demonstration of a designer inserting a part into an existing wire in a schematic. Screenshot used courtesy of Altium
Two products fall under the Altium 365 umbrella: Concord Pro and Altium NEXUS. Although both have collaboration capabilities, the latter features a dedicated panel showing all team members working on a project, including the changes made and when. Altium offers free trials for most products, after which you can sign up for a monthly subscription fee that varies depending on usage.
The trial option is especially handy for engineers stuck at home during the COVID-19 crisis. Their employers can use the trial period results to evaluate the software and decide whether to invest in the full version.
Autodesk specializes in software for a variety of industries ranging from construction to engineering. EAGLE is a tool that combines mechanical computer-aided design (CAD) and electronics to help people create PCBs. Fusion 360 is a CAD tool that integrates with EAGLE. Whether you use EAGLE, Fusion 360, or both, be sure to check out the Fusion Team Collaboration feature.
Fusion Team Collaboration features interactive markup tools, plus the ability to download the design into a wide variety of file formats, including those used by 3D printers. You can also share the work with anyone using a computer, tablet, or smartphone.
Autodesk also understands how collaboration extends to the manufacturer-designer relationship and not just communications among designers. It provides various tools to let manufacturers explore the designs from wherever they are, including an option to measure the distance between any objects on the PCB.
Interface of Autodesk EAGLE tool. Screenshot used courtesy of Autodesk
While explaining Fusion Team Collaboration, Autodesk asks readers to envision a scenario whereby they can show a design to someone who does not have EAGLE or Fusion 360. "You could send them off on a chase to find a free design viewer, but wouldn’t it just be simpler if they could view your design right from their browser? This is the beauty of Fusion Team Collaboration."
Keeping collaboration levels high during the coronavirus crisis is especially crucial for maintaining manufacturer confidence. Engineers must convey that, despite working from home, they can still meet deadlines and satisfy clients' specifications.
Fusion Team Collaboration makes these things easier to do. You can download EAGLE or Fusion 360 for free to give Fusion Team Collaboration a try. There's a subscription fee charged to use the full features, though.
SOLIDWORKS PCB is another product designed by Altium. Thus, it's compatible with the previously mentioned Altium Designer. The SOLIDWORKS brand offers a wide assortment of solutions geared toward the manufacturing and design communities, so the collaborative aspect of SOLIDWORKS PCB makes sense for the company.
It promises "a unique collaboration between electrical and 3D mechanical design teams" while offering "a clear advantage where ECAD-MCAD is critical for overall success of electronic product design." More specifically, the collaborative features unify the design data and provide all parties with up-to-date changes made by any participant.
SOLIDWORKS PCB says their key features include PCB design entry, modern schematic entry, real-time 3D clearance checking, component parametric database, and supplier links, among others. Image used courtesy of SOLIDWORKS PCB
You can also look at a detailed version history. It shows all changes, including the responsible party and the time they occurred. That feature is particularly helpful for PCB design teams that are working on the same project during different shifts or across different time zones, and it gives peace of mind to anyone in a supervisory role. Moreover, users can view design revision comments and accept or reject changes.
The spec sheet for SOLIDWORKS PCB does not mention mobile device compatibility, although the company says people can collaborate remotely from multiple locations.
PCB designers weigh the pros and cons of various aspects of their products while building them. Figuring out the best materials to use often becomes more straightforward due to input from multiple parties, but collaboration doesn't end there.
Upverter had that reality in mind when it centered on providing a user-friendly and collaborative option for electrical design work. The product description for the tool says, "Fine-grained access controls allow you to share design reviews and updates with colleagues, manufacturers, and reviewers."
Upverter says they have the largest parts library in the world. Image used courtesy of Upverter
The access controls referred to there are multilevel permissions that allow setting individual parameters for each team member. Plus, a secure sharing tool allows you to show your designs to internal or external parties without requiring them to download or install anything. Rest assured that any edits made to a design by a collaborator gets logged and saved, creating a thorough record of what happened.
A Collaborative Design Review feature automatically creates a list of issues with a design, then lets a product manager assign them out for people to address. A shared to-do list keeps everyone in the loop from wherever they are.
Upverter works on Windows and Mac computers. Engineers can also use it at no cost, which is good news for anyone feeling a bit cash-strapped due to the coronavirus or other reasons. The huge assortment of collaboration tools keeps the workflow moving no matter how long PCB designers must stay at home.
EasyEDA caters solely to designers in the electrical engineering sector, and it claims a user base of more than a million people. It is a cloud-based product that runs in a web browser or via a desktop client. The desktop client allows working offline once someone downloads it. That feature could assist designers who find their internet access at home to be slow or used by too many family members to facilitate.
This product does not have as many collaboration features as some of the other tools mentioned so far. However, a question addressed in the product's tutorial that asks why EasyEDA works in the cloud notes, "EasyEDA is built for people who like to work anywhere, who like to build projects together with other team members, who like to share their projects."
Visual depicting the various capabilities of EasyEDA. Image used courtesy of EasyEDA
The main collaboration option offered is the "Add Member" functionality. It allows a person to invite a team member to see and work on a project via an email invitation or a link.
By clicking on the Team Collaboration graphic underneath the large "The Next Generation of PCB Design Tool" header on the homepage, you can launch a short video that shows the basic steps of giving someone the ability to access your projects.
The company intends to provide EasyEDA as a "freemium" product. However, the only option available on the pricing page is the free version, and the other tiers are "coming soon." Therefore, now may be an excellent opportunity for you to see how you like EasyEDA by exploring the complementary product before deciding whether to purchase a paid subscription when available.
CADLAB is a strong example of a product where its developers had collaboration in mind from the start. The ability to contribute to a collaborative project is not an extra feature. It's the main one. The company's About Us page explains, "Our goal is to help engineers be more productive and ship their amazing products faster."
CADLAB's homepage gives the benefits of the product in a nutshell. "Easily view any revision online, review changes with visual diff [and] discuss design ideas with interactive annotations."
There is also a video on the homepage that breaks down some of the features you may use with collaborators during a project. While taking the steps to carry out particular tasks, you may find that CADLAB makes collaboration easy, regardless of the number of people involved, the scope of the project, or the distribution of the team members.
The annotations sidebar in CADLAB allows team members to annotate changes, accept or reject those changes, and leave comments. Image used courtesy of CADLAB
CADLAB works in any browser, and it allows any collaborator to see a version of a PCB in progress without downloading files. All changes show up to each team member in any location, ensuring that they have the most up-to-date information.
Plus, CADLAB offers a feature that allows a person to make comments directly on a PCB version or schematic. Interactive annotations also let people report, respond to, or resolve issues.
You can get this software by signing up for a subscription plan. The price varies depending on the size of your team.
Electronic design automation (EDA) meets internet connectivity in eCADSTAR, a product from Zuken. As discussed in a recent AAC article on eCADSTAR's new high-speed configurations, the product comes in your choice of four configurations, each with an assortment of features. All options include PCB design and schematics editors, plus a library editor tool that allows users to collaborate through all stages of a project.
A page about the library editor appeals to people interested in collaboration, stating, "Your library is the heart of your design process. It needs to be easily controlled, supporting collaboration between many users at different design stages—and even working on different designs."
However, the product documentation does not call out the collaborative aspects as clearly as some of the other products listed here. Collaboration is possible with eCADSTAR, but it is not a foundational element of the feature set.
eCADSTAR's PCB Editor. Image used courtesy of Zuken
eCADSTAR allows users to migrate projects you began elsewhere and finish them in eCADSTAR. That feature could be helpful if your team is like many others around the world and did not anticipate working at home for an extended period. There's a free evaluation period, but then people must sign up for a subscription.
Zuken also created a dedicated page about its COVID-19 response. It says, "Zuken and eCADSTAR continue to support our customers, and we want to make sure that you stay productive while working from home."
Work on Your PCB Designs With Others From Anywhere
Perhaps the coronavirus outbreak has you working solely from your home or you're working half-in, half-out of a lab. In any case, these seven tools may aid you in PCB design collaboration from any place with an active internet connection.
Although much uncertainty surrounds everyday life, one thing you can count on is the ability to keep your productivity levels high while communicating with your team.