Exclusive—Flux Ascends Out of Beta With Its Collaborative PCB Design Tool
On a mission to take the “hard” out of hardware design, today Flux is officially launching its namesake online PCB design tool.
In the electrical engineering world, there is a commonly used expression that “hardware is hard.” While it may sound cliche, anyone who has ever designed a PCB before can deeply sympathize with this sentiment.
Flux is a browser-based PCB design software with big implications. (Click image to enlarge)
In contrast to software development, the design of PCBs and electronic systems is notoriously painstaking and time-consuming—suffering from slow iterations, difficulty of collaboration, and an overall lack of cohesion. Especially in today’s world of remote work and supply chain shortages, these difficulties are more acute than ever.
It was with all those engineering challenges in mind the company Flux was born three years ago, setting out to offer the industry a new platform intended to reimagine the hardware design process. Today—two years after securing $15M in seed funding—Flux is announcing that it is making its platform public.
All About Circuits had the chance to talk to Flux co-founders Matthias Wagner and Lance Cassidy to hear firsthand about the product and the new launch.
Hardware Challenges: Startup Time
As many electrical engineers can attest to, the PCB design process can be painstakingly slow. When juxtaposed with the rapid development times that exist in the software industry, these shortcomings of the EE world become even more inexcusable.
One of the significant challenges in the PCB design cycle is the lack of pre-developed workflows at the designer’s disposal. Unfortunately, the most time-consuming aspects of any new design often come from the minutiae required to start a design from scratch.
For example, the time spent dealing with relatively menial and tedious tasks like creating component footprints and redesigning/laying out common circuit blocks tend to account for a significant chunk of the development process.
These issues are quite vivid when you look at the difference between how software and hardware development is typically done. “When you look at software development, nobody does anything from scratch,” says Wagner. “Nobody's gonna sit down and write their own encryption library or their own operating system or their own web server, right?”
“Well, in electronics hardware design everything's done from scratch every single time,” he says “You want a power supply? You're gonna spend weeks building it. You want a voltage regulator? An amplifier? You need to build that thing from scratch too.”
The result is that the hardware design process becomes significantly slower, more expensive, and riskier overall. Wagner emphasizes that engineers can get bogged down with less important stuff.
“Unfortunately, EEs spend so little time doing meaningful stuff and so much time just dealing with all the plumbing.”
Hardware Challenges: Collaboration
Beyond the startup time required for a new project, another major hindrance to the hardware design lifecycle is the difficulty of collaboration.
Today’s software industry has platforms like GitHub, which help with processes like version control, design reviews, and design iterations. In contrast, the EE world seems to lack anything equivalent. Instead, standard practice for sharing designs often includes creating a ZIP file of a PCB project and sharing that over email. To view that design file, the viewer needs the same software as the designer with the same components and libraries available to them. This adds another layer of difficulty to an already laborious process.
“We've all been there,” says Cassidy. “You want to send somebody a ZIP file to review, but then you keep working on it, and now they’re no longer looking at the most up-to-date version of the design. So now you send them another, updated ZIP file. By the time you’re done, there are 15 emails with 15 different ZIPs and everybody is confused.”
Design reviews are equally as antiquated, often including spreadsheets or Powerpoint documents which are again shared back and forth over email. No matter how you look at it, this process is unnecessarily slow and cumbersome.
Flux: A Collaboration-centric Approach
It was to address all these challenges that Flux was born. Flux is a full-fledged, browser-based PCB design tool that was designed explicitly to make PCB design more collaborative and streamlined.
One major value proposition of Flux is its array of open-source, community-contributed designs and libraries. Within the Flux platform, designers can get access to libraries full of reusable components and footprints as well as full circuit blocks that include schematic capture and layout.
Here, instead of designing a common amplifier from scratch, for example, a designer can find a pre-existing design that can be immediately used and integrated into their own project. By offering quick and easy circuit blocks for designers to use, Flux helps speed up the PCB design process, sometimes making designs possible in a single day.
A Flux design with in-project collaboration. (Click image to enlarge)
Beyond its ability to speed up the design process, Flux also claims to be unique in its ability to facilitate design collaboration in a way that is cohesive and intuitive. To do this, Flux designs are essentially live documents, where anyone with access to the link can view the most up-to-date design revision and leave comments and notes directly in the design.
In doing this, Flux removes the need for cumbersome design review processes and back-and-forths. Instead, Flux aims to make it possible to directly communicate and address issues in the living document.
Generally, Flux offers all of the functionality of a standard design tool. Other noteworthy features available on Flux include live design rule check (DRC), live simulation tools, and generic component design options.
To summarize Flux, Wagner describes the service as the intersection of GitHub and Google Docs. “It's like both the authoring tool and the collaboration platform in one,” he says.
Flux Goes Live
For the past two years, Flux has existed only in a private beta, within which over 25,000 engineers have signed up for the beta. Today, Flux is finally announcing the official end of their private beta, and the official public launch of their platform.
With the launch, Flux will come in two versions: a free version and a pro version. Offering a unique model, the free version of Flux is in no way limited in terms of functionality, only in terms of how many private projects can be hosted. And you can have as many projects as you want in this free tier as long as they are public.
With the free version, Flux offers up to 10 private projects (again, public projects are unlimited) to be hosted at a time. For $12/month, however, the paid version eliminates all restrictions and allows for unlimited use of Flux.
Filling an Engineering Need
From an engineer's perspective, Flux is perhaps most exciting because it's filling a significant need in the marketplace. According to Wagner, the goal of Flux is “...to really build the best tools for designing PCBs and electronics hardware that the world has ever seen.” While time will tell if this dream becomes a reality, there is no doubt that the industry is ready for a tool like this, and Flux has the potential to make a big impact.
All images used courtesy of Flux