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Peggy Aycinena
Peggy Aycinena
Peggy Aycinena is a freelance journalist and Editor of EDA Confidential at She can be reached at peggy at aycinena dot com.

PCB Tools, Part 1: Zuken, Mentor, Cadence, Altium

April 30th, 2015 by Peggy Aycinena

Board design is evolving quickly: The vendors who sell CAD tools to the people who design boards are working hard these days to keep up with the changing needs of their customers. That’s the unqualified conclusion I came away with after a number of phone calls over the last several weeks with the four of the biggest companies in the PCB design-tool industry: Zuken, Mentor Graphics, Cadence, and Altium.

These conversations were not only interesting, they were inspiring as well. The folks I talked to have been in the industry for a long time, and have a seasoned and intelligent understanding of the evolution of board designers and the tools that support their efforts. Here are the people I spoke with for this lengthy article:

Zuken: Bob Potock, VP Marketing; Humair Mandavia, Executive Director, SOZO Center
Mentor Graphics: Dave Wiens, PCB division business development
Cadence: Hemant Shah, Product Management Group Director
Altium: Dave Reed, Director of Product Marketing


PCB Design: a virtual roundtable …

* WWJD: How large is the market for PCB design tools?

Altium: We refer a lot to Gary Smith EDA, working off the charts he puts together. The market [per his information] is currently around $500 million worldwide.

Mentor Graphics: The calculations are difficult, but we [embrace] Gary Smith’s pyramid model. At the bottom are companies who purchase larger numbers of seat counts, but pay lower dollars per seat. At the top of the pyramid, there’s lower volume, but higher value per seat. And that high-end represents, disproportionately, 70-to-80 percent of the market revenue in PCB design tools.

Zuken: Recent statistics indicate that between packaging and board tools, it’s about $700 million.

* WWJD: Who’s the competition

Mentor Graphics: Cadence, Zuken, and Mentor are all competing at the high-end. We’re all in double-digit market share. In terms of seat count, Altium is lower in the spectrum, but trying to position themselves up into the enterprise.

There are others as well, probably 40-to-50 competitors in the PCB space who mainly live at the low-end of the landscape. Many of these are tool vendors who also provide some services, although many PCB design companies avoid investing in [tool vendors] that are not medium-to-large sized. They don’t want to be hamstrung by small companies: ‘Will my tool vendor be around tomorrow?’

There is also a business model that gives away CAD tools [associated] with this manufacturer or that.

Zuken: On the printed board side, it’s Mentor and Cadence. On the packaging side, Cadence is the main competitor.

* WWJD: Are there open source PCB design tools?

Mentor Graphics: Yeah, there are, but they are tools at the maker level. They may be gaining followers, but in that specific community of folks who are willing to work with others. If you ask any corporation if they’re willing to place their future and their flow on open source tools, however, nobody’s going to do it for PCB design. At some level, that may be unfair, but open source is a relatively new space. When it’s been around long enough to see how well the tools are being developed, [things might change]. One never knows.

* WWJD: Where are the bulk of your customers located?

Cadence: We’ve been present all over the world for quite some time: China, Taiwan, India, North America, Europe and Japan. Europe, in particular, is a busy and productive market for us. In general, however, we are seeing a migration in board design from the more developed countries to the more middle class countries. Since I joined Cadence in 2000, I’ve seen us working with industry leaders worldwide, all of whom need us to help them get ahead of the curve.

Altium: The bulk of our customers, geographically, are in the U.S. and Europe. Those two regions make up the bulk of our sales. In terms of Asia, we have some reasonable numbers in China, but because of the nature of the way software is licensed there, we don’t see them as a [major] customer yet. We do have customers in Korea, India and Singapore, but we’re not number one there. And in Japan, we’re still a minor player at the moment.

* WWJD: What kind of customers do you engage with?

Zuken: Historically, the company was born in Japan, so we have had the luxury of working in the consumer market, which today means tablets, wearables, [etc.]. But we also have a major share in the automotive space, and have been engaged with a lot of semiconductor companies.

* WWJD: Where is the epicenter for board design?

Zuken: It’s an interesting situation, where there is a lot of design and manufacturing in Asia now. But the U.S. is designing more complex boards, and Europe as well.

We see the workload distributed into two main scenarios. One scenario has the OEM doing the IP or the more complex, more critical part of the design, but off-shoring the [less complex aspects of the project] to other offices. In the other scenario, teams are working in silos or the workforce is distributed. It’s the time to market perspective that’a [driving one scenario or the other].

Mentor Graphics: Geographically, there’s still a reasonable contingent in North America and Europe, the historic basis geographically for PCB design. Certainly, we are seeing the emergence of design in the PacRim, China and India. Those types of designs traditionally have mapped to the low-end of the scale, which is why Altium has a decent penetration there, in places where designers want to do simpler designs. However, the multinational companies are investing in China. The engineering talent pool is increasing there, and in Taiwan.

At the same time that more PCB tools are being distributed in the PacRim, there is a trend back to on-shoring again in North America, although that’s a larger trend on the manufacturing side than on the design side.

On the whole, it’s about keeping your IP close, and that’s not just true for mil-aero. Consumer guys are even more concerned about their IP, and its exposure to the competition. Mentor’s biggest customers today are in North America, big enterprises and others who are re-building that way.

* WWJD: Is it difficult to serve what is essentially an aging population of PCB designers in the U.S., while also innovating in tools for the challenges of new materials and form factors?

Cadence: If you look at North America, you don’t see new, younger people getting into the board design. It’s a bit of a worry.

Change can be difficult to manage. If designers are already productive using tools in a particular way, getting them to use tools in a new way [can be difficult]. In general, getting people to use anything new is difficult. Of course, that’s true at any age, but if a designer is just out of college, they’ll usually say, ‘Okay, because everything’s new for me’.

But unless [seasoned] designers are compelled, unless project-schedule pressures force them, they will not change their methodology. And that challenge is even harder with an aging population. Even in Japan, you’re now seeing second and third generation designers. It’s not just a phenomenon in North America.

PCB design tends to [involve] layout in the field, day in and day out, and has often been outsourced from another company. Hardware engineers, however, spend more time designing, testing things in the lab, and reviewing their design with their hardware tools in front of them. All of this has forced us to produce board tools that are easy to learn, and easy to relearn.

Zuken: There’s definitely a generation thing [going on]. The traditional PCB designer has 20-to-30 years of experience, they know the rules of thumb, they know what they are doing.

Today, however, the engineering in PCB design is becoming more involved – how to use DFM, how to attend to thermal issues, signal integrity, power integrity, how to have a full-picture view of the design that takes into account all of the factors involved.

Altium: The situation [in North America] is reflected in our strategy to a certain extent. Most of our customer in the U.S. are older, but what we see in those companies, and with the people running them, is a definite need for innovation at the product level and a need for getting better productivity out of their engineers. Older engineers are more expensive, so we look for more productivity [to help our customers].

When you look at Asia, however, [the situation] is kind of the opposite. There are much younger engineering teams, with much less experience, so they rely more on simulation and things like that. Everywhere, however, designers looking for better tools.

Mentor Graphics: The easiest way to explain is to build a story. Designs are getting harder, speed for one and manufacturing for two. And there are new form factors. All of these complexities require collaboration with somebody else in the organization, even working with mechanical engineers, signal integrity specialists, and manufacturing engineers. All of this slows down the design process for the core designer and the layout guy.

So what do you do when you’re continuously having to wait on others [in the design flow]? If I’m going to have to wait two weeks for [that other guy], maybe I’ll just do the analysis myself. There’s a natural drive towards that thinking, because delays can impact the personal promotion of the designer and of the project manager.

As a result, design engineers and layout engineers have been forced to do more and more of the work themselves, job functions have increased, and layout designers have had to understand manufacturability and electrical problems in performance.

Even more difficult, design engineers at the start of their careers don’t know how to do signal integrity analysis, so you have to look at what people have brought with them out of school, and what they’re capable of learning. Just because a guy went to a trade school doesn’t mean he can’t do EE-level work. Today, there’s an opportunity for core PCB design teams to step up and take on more tool expertise. If they don’t, they will get replaced.

We’re seeing this happening in the layout space, particularly in North America and Europe. It’s just a natural result of hitting retirement age. However, time equals experience, so it’s what a designer does with that experience that’s important. I know engineers in their 60’s and 70’s who are still involved, still in their prime, still evolving, still teaching technical session to the next generation at conferences like PCB West.

As with anything, if we don’t keep our flexibility, our brains stop being flexible and we lose our value to the organization. If someone is capable of change, there will be opportunities. I don’t care where they come from, or where they are in the design process, they’ll flourish.

And yes, it’s true that in the new regions like China, they don’t have the legacy of older designers. They just come in and say, ‘What do you want me to do?’

* WWJD: What would you consider to be the average number of layers on a board today?

Cadence: Average is an interesting thing. What an average means in consumer electronics versus what it means in other things is meaningless, but it’s easily six layers at the lower lever, consumer electronics, and 8 or more at the high-end.

Overall, however, the number of layers is increasing. Everyone is trying to do more miniaturization, which is the other new trend: smaller form factor plus higher layers of integration in the chip. And more on the board, using HDI [high-density interconnect] to get more of that done.

* WWJD: Also, new trends in materials? Do you get to influence the choices your customers make?

Cadence: We don’t get to influence material choices, we have to follow the choices our customers make, but we can make it easier or harder for them. But if a material is more acceptable, they’ll use our tools and if it’s not well suited, they’ll figure out a way to do it.

So what we can do as EDA vendors is obvious; we can make the choice of new materials or any new technology easier to adopt. In other words, our tools have to be open [to change]. As opposed to our competition, our tools are more flexible, although that can be a double-edged sword. The more flexibility you offer to your customers, the easier the tools are to use, the more [challenging] to adapt to new technologies.

We are always under pressure to find the right time to optimize our tools to address the new fabrication processes and new materials our customers are using. Our customers are constantly working with their customers on the fabrication side, so [there is an expectation on us] to respond.

Customers won’t wait for us to adopt new technology, so when our customers are doing something new, we need to keep up. As always, it’s about striking a balance between too early to market with the tool, while meeting the [evolving] needs of our customers.

* WWJD: It must be challenging to be dealing with the new board materials and the new form factors.

Altium: Every engineer I meet is always enthusiastic about the new products and materials, although with a greater willingness at the low-end to experiment [with these things], assuming it’s workable. At the mainstream, however, [they always ask] is it a commercially a viable process?

* WWJD: Is there pressure from your customers to meld board design and packaging tools?

Zuken: What we’re finding is that, if you’re looking at the old traditional single chip, flip chip, or wire bond designs, the state of maturity of the needs in the market is status quo.

For a lot of the companies that we are engaging with, however, once there’s sophistication injected into the package – silicon interposers, stacked dies, optimizing chip bonds in RDL routing – that’s when companies need us. We are working with leading-edge customers when they need to optimize to the newest technologies.

Cadence: The evolution occurs for our customers, because either they’re designing the package themselves – there may be systems stuff in there – or they’re designing the ASICs for themselves. That interdependency can be leveraged a lot, so there is an opportunity to improve the performance of both the package and the board.

[Meanwhile], the board layout becomes more challenging. For example: the Board is not supplying the appropriate power to the chip. Will it perform well? If the package is not well suited to the board or the chip, you’ll leave a lot of performance on the table. So that’s one class of customer, those who design their own ASICs and boards, interested [in melding] board and package design tools.

But there are a large number of companies that don’t do that; they’re buying boards off the shelf. And there are Tier 1 companies that don’t design the package or the chip, but have enough influence to say, ‘Look, if you do the pin layout differently, you’ll reduce the number of layers in my board’.

[In these cases], system companies are able to influence the pin design on the package, to require the least number of layers and the least number of layout designs. And, there are those who buy chips off the shelf, the category of company who must deal with chips that are already outsourced.

Altium: From our point of view, we treat them as two different worlds. We say that, because we don’t have a packing solution in our tools. Generally we work to high-end market tools and bring them into the mainstream, so if we were ever to look at packaging and wire bonding, we would look at how they look at the high-end and bring down to the relevant level.

Generally our strategy is to segment the market, and we do it nicely. Altium’s flagship tools are mainstream, and we recently [started looking at adding] high-end tools into our lineup. We could accommodate from the low-end to mainstream, and then from high-end to mainstream.

* WWJD: How do you define the low-end?

Altium: Like Gary Smith says, there are two distinct [groups of people]. Low end for the maker crowd and the next generation of engineers in the U.S. The other low-end is a one-man organization, not a specialist, doing a lot of maintenance or redesigning a product that hasn’t graduated to a team of engineers. At the top of the low-end market, there is no need to collaborate. In fact, no one wants to collaborate.

So, there are two types of low-end, but as soon as you cross the line and have a team, we see that as mainstream and a very different looking set up. Low end is across the community, but when you get into the mainstream it’s across an organization and design team.

Actually, however, there are three different populations. We know how to do mainstream, and at the low-end we feel we have something really interesting and great to offer there; the Altium approach is to market and manage these two distinct population.

But then, we have yet a different approach for the high-end, which is extremely different than the first two, and a market that we have only started to go after in the last few years. There are not many customers [in this market segment]. and lots of times their problems need solutions very particular to those companies, customization of the tool and partnerships that rely on us to be stable, financially strong company.

* WWJD: Have you seen an evolution in the background of PCB designers from community college trained individuals and those who learned their skills in trade schools, to today where many PCB designers have the equivalent of a BSEE?

Zuken: We are seeing a fundamental change in the trend. For the traditional generation that started off in PCB design, it’s been that single generation of designers in the market for a long period of time. A lot of companies are dealing with the issue of 10 years from now, who will do that job? It’s a resource issue, which places like India are offset to [change the] balance. There is definitely a phenomenon taking place, a generational issue.

Nonetheless, tools are tools and allowing engineers and designers to do their jobs more efficiently [is the role of those tools]. Bit because of technical trends, there is more engineering involved in the physical design. Things like high-speed design, physics-based design, as well as time to market are all driving factors that require more electrical engineers and even mechanical engineers. Electrical engineers are doing both design and PCB layout, more so than they did in the past. The two functions are converging.

However, [even today] most universities are not teaching the discipline of board design, so the ease of use [of the tools] is all that more important. We [are providing] tools that are easy to use, but still engineering skills and expertise are needed to interpret the results. Today, a designer has to have a product-centric view of the world, which is why electrical engineers have to do so much more. They’re delivering products, not just boards.

Cadence: Some tools are more suited to somebody with BSEE or MSEE; that’s always been the case. But from the PCB designer or layout perspective, I don’t think a BSEE is required

In North America, it’s true that trade school [training has been the norm]. But in Europe, far more board designers [historically] have had a BSEE or MSEE. In the Far East, as well, the education levels have been higher than the historical trend in North America, where many designers have only had a two-year degree.

Altium: What has happened here and in Australia [where Altium was founded] is that the layout portion of the work was farmed out to layout specialists. Initially, you could get those skills at a community college or trade school, but today that part of the job has become so complicated and requires so much deeper an understanding of engineering that you now see the schematic design job and the PCB layout job converging.

Definitely we saw that trend in Australia in the 1990’s and early 2000s, but in the U.S. today we still see layout specialists. But when we [see them doing that work], they’re really working as engineers. Elsewhere in the world today, in Asia in particular, we very seldom see a layout person who doesn’t have the equivalent of a 4-year engineering degree.

* WWJD: When I worked at ISD Magazine 15 years ago, there was definitely no love lost between board designers and digital designers. Has that changed?

Altium: I haven’t seen that conflict for a very long time. Although, it’s very telling today that when an electronics design engineer doing a lot of schematic and functional work meets the layout specialist, how the two react to each other is very interesting. These days, again, with the speeds and performance requirements a layout specialist is really an engineer.

Cadence: There are a surprising number of changes today, and a surprising pace of change, all being driven by the need to miniaturize and the need for more functionality. PCB companies have to respond to the needs of their customers.

All of this requires a three-way communication between ourselves, the fab, and our customers. If that communication doesn’t happen, we won’t be able to help the customer or the fabricator. Again, the important point is that the tools have to be flexible enough so [our customers] can buy them now [and know they will grow with the challenges].

Our Allegro tool has always allowed customers to do what they need to, without the tools being too rigid. That flexibility means they can do things in one, or two, or three different ways – particularity important when our customers’ intent is not clear to us.

* WWJD: What would you say are the biggest changes happening today in board design?

Zuken: Today, no one designs a board that’s a single board. Everybody’s making a system. Back in the day, people were doing systems, but the board was standalone. Now the tools for PCB design need to develop system-level data, and optimize [the design] from a system-centric point of view.

It actually started a few years ago with the emergence of the SoC, and the fact that the SoC companies created reference boards, boot loaders, operating systems, device drivers, etc. That really changed things, going from a PCB-centric focus in the design to a product focus. [In turn], that meant that our tools have to include more ease of implementation and realization, features that are now critical [to the success of our customers].

To understand the biggest changes, look at Zuken’s portfolio of tools. We have data management tools, and PLM tools to help people who are working and designing together; PCB circuit design tools [targeted] at more multidisciplinary design processes, including architectural evaluation; Wire and harness design tools, a business that is growing and of increasing complexity, and serving users that [struggle with growing design complexity] yet are still using spreadsheets and even string. All of these tools increase the ability of the designer to [avoid] over-designing, and incurring additional cost and weight

We have a growing presence in mil-aero, complex mechatronic systems, and are the only company looking at the integration of the cable harness, the PCB, and the mechanical world with a true product-centric flow.

All of this reflects [the changes] happening today. The EDA companies, customers, and manufacturers are all working together, sharing their expertise, and changing the design-rule kit to make sure that the checks are in place to [insure] the design is right the first time.

Mentor Graphics: The next-generation tools are designed for a much bigger task. For example, HDI [high-density interconnect PCBs], it’s an expensive and new way of doing things.

We break [the changes and challenges] into three segments: the enterprise, the mid-tier engineer, and the self-driven engineer. We know the large multinational companies doing leading-edge design need IT management, library use and reuse [tools], and they want tools to optimize collaboration to speed up the work and leverage the power of the team.

At the mid-tier, the [level] of the independent engineer, they’re still dealing with high complexity, but are operating independently, possibly even in a single-person shop. They are doing high-end engineering with high complexity, but not working in the enterprise. At the low-end are the makers, the guys who represent a huge volume of people doing one-off or two-off kinds of designs, usually of low complexity.

Our challenge [is to provide] products that address this entire spectrum of users, through tools we brand as or own or through partnering with companies like DigiTools targeted at the maker community.

Altium: There are very real challenges in PCB design with regards to both form factor and miniaturization. Compared to [the situation] when I started in this business, it’s just ludicrous today to see the high-density requirements in a design, with the traces becoming more accessible.

The [move to] miniaturization means more orthogonal demands, more packaging issues. You see these demands in the market today for very small boards, often with strange shapes, with real challenges to make the board fit into mobile devices. Today designers are not just looking at a flat board, but one with embedded requirements or crazy connectors in crazy places,  boards that bend and flex.

[What has not changed], board design still requires very capable designers, and the designers need tools they can use – tools that help them know both the mechanical and electrical [portions of the design] will work together.

The last change we’re seeing today is not so obvious. The move to the IoT means connecting devices [that are very different]. As a designer, I can easily be asked to put WiFi next to other networks, to put special solutions from one company next to a special solution from a different company. All of this is being pushed along with the IoT, creating a demand for tools that even 15 years ago would not have been possible.

Today’s tool vendors need to meet these demands and constantly worry about the rapid changes [in the industry] and how to meet those changes in their products.

Cadence: I’ve been in the industry since 1981, and see the PCB industry today going through many changes. Today, it is not only changing [more rapidly than ever], but changing in a fascinating way that will really impact the industry.

HDI is one of the big changes, the packages are going so small. Then there is the embedded component, a trend that’s really catching on because people are working out the real estate [demands] of the product. Even as recently as 3 years ago, the fabrication process was not as mature, but now the embedding of components inside the layers [of the board] is maturing with more companies getting into it. The third trend is miniaturization, and the fourth is functionality.

There are other new trends coming out having to do with the performance of mixed-signal boards, and the density of pins, including connectivity on the board that will allow more connection with the same number of vias.

All of this is coming and requires us as tool vendors to evolve our tools [appropriately] to leverage these changes. This is where our focus continues to grow.

* WWJD: Do you ever compete with in-house tools?

Mentor: I don’t know of anybody doing in-house PCB CAD tools to that degree. Sure, you can find a random simulator that some university guy has collaborated with a company to [develop]. In the large companies, however, they want to meet their own bleeding-edge requirements, but they also want to be sure there’s support for those CAD tools in the long-term, and that’s where the CAD tool vendors come in. They trust us to provide that support and continue to bang on the door of the vendors to provide the tools they need.

* WWJD: Can you tell me how much your tools cost, or is the answer The Big D, it Depends?

Mentor Graphics: Historically, we don’t release prices. Yes, there’s a level of Big D, but when price is a differentiators, then competitors may [be more forthcoming]. At the high-end, however, price is not the biggest selling point. And for the guys at the enterprise level, they’re doing term-rental deals and are more interesting in the total bundle of tools.

One last point: we do have core software with fixed prices that prices that are changed to each region in the world. And then on top of that, we sell services, support, and training that all add to the overall cost.

Editor’s note …

Part 2 of this series on PCB design tools will include an in-depth discussion of some of the new materials and form factors appearing on the market. In addition, if you are one of the 50+ companies providing PCB CAD tools that’s not quoted in Part 1, it would be great to hear from you: peggy at aycinena dot com. Thanks.


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2 Responses to “PCB Tools, Part 1: Zuken, Mentor, Cadence, Altium”

  1. randomguy says:

    very interesting read, will there be a Part 2? 🙂

  2. […] PCB Tools, Part 1: Zuken, Mentor, Cadence, Altium […]

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