Unite mechanical and electronic engineering in product development

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October 13, 2022

By: Cadalyst Staff



MCAD Solutions: Simultaneous collaboration brings model-based design to life by enabling mechanical and electrical engineers to design together.

As long as designers worked on mechanical products containing electronics, the CAD model or drawing contained a gray box. The box is where electronic components go, created by other engineers using other software. When it was common for design disciplines to operate separately, the gray box was business as usual – it was document-based engineering at its best.

In document-based engineering, collaboration is a sequential act. If the geometry changes and the gray area is moved or resized, or if the specific connectors change, you let the other team know. It’s not an efficient workflow, but it was the best way given the software tools available. Unfortunately, false starts, change orders, and unexpected incompatibilities were common.

Today, there is an increasing expectation of simultaneous collaboration. Product design moves from documentation to modeling. The increased use of mechanical models – along with an increase in connectivity, thanks to the cloud-enabled workflow – has led to an expectation of model-based design (MBD). The engineering process is now called mechatronics, for the union of mechanics and electronics. Putting a gray box in the model to symbolize a separate electronic design process becomes an unacceptable practice, especially when the model is meant to be the basis of a digital twin (and possibly a live digital twin).

How far a particular company has traveled down the road to concurrent collaborative design largely depends on its size. Economies of scale for new engineering methods favor those with large R&D budgets. Collaborative design based on concurrent models has become the norm for very large engineering companies – aerospace and automotive giants. From there it trickles down to mid-sized manufacturers and finally to smaller engineering groups as popular CAD tools at every level mature. This is an ongoing process and one that will continue over the next few years.

PCB Studio is a free add-on for Onshape, PTC's cloud-based MCAD platform.  Image source: PTC.

PCB Studio is a free add-on for Onshape, PTC’s cloud-based MCAD platform. Image source: PTC. Click on the image to enlarge.

The process of introducing advanced software utilities to a larger market is known as democratization. The first example of model-based design was the publication of Dassault Systems CATIA V6 and its collaborative approach to cloud-based design. The main competitors of CATIA from Dassault (PTC Creo and Siemens NX) quickly found ways within their own technology to move in a similar direction. Today, the democratization of Model Based Design has reached the level of Autodesk and Dassault SOLID WORKS division, the two largest providers of CAD modeling tools for the wider engineering market.

Altium CoDesigner for electronics design may appear in a Dassault Systemes SOLIDWORKS project.  Image source: Altium.

Altium CoDesigner for electronics design may appear in a Dassault Systemes SOLIDWORKS project. Image source: Altium. Click on the image to enlarge.

MCAD/ECAD integration

The process of integrating MCAD with ECAD follows a similar path as the development of model-based design.

The creation of mechanical design software (MCAD) and electronic design software (ECAD) are two very distinct activities. The biggest names in eCAD are not the same companies that offer mechanical CAD. Software tools have been largely incompatible with each other, leading to gray box as the industry standard.

Product development adapts to the challenge of unified mechatronic design in two ways, cooperation or acquisition.

Autodesk Fusion 360 is a cloud-enabled product design platform that has both MCAD and ECAD tools.  Image source: Autodesk.

Autodesk Fusion 360 is a cloud-enabled product design platform that has both MCAD and ECAD tools. Image source: Autodesk. Click on the image to enlarge.

Cooperation primarily means multiple companies agreeing on standards-based processes. Sometimes cooperation takes the form of two companies entering into an agreement to share proprietary technology between them. The acquisition goes one step further, allowing a company to bring together all required technology under one roof, uniting it with proprietary processes.

The following list provides an overview of what major CAD vendors are doing to integrate MCAD and ECAD into a unified development workflow. The list is non-exhaustive.

Cadence Allegro and Dassault 3DEXPERIENCE Systems: A technology sharing agreement creates a platform for the modeling, design, simulation and life cycle management of electromechanical systems.

Altium Designer and Altium 360 = Altium 365: Collaboration software tools to unite MCAD/ECAD through intentional compatibility with major MCAD/ECAD formats.

Autodesk Fusion 360: A unified, cloud-enabled engineering environment with MCAD and ECAD tools that eliminate the need for file translation.

Siemens Xpedition: A platform for using multiple software products to manage concurrent mechatronics engineering.

PTC Creo ECX: Short for ECAD Collaboration Extension, ECX is software for integrating ECAD data created by products from Altium, Cadence and Mentor (now part of Siemens).

Onshape PCB Studio: A free add-on that imports ECAD file data into an Onshape MCAD project. It supports IDF, IDX and Eagle formats.

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