Tim's Takeaways: Design Tools of Tomorrow--A Real 'Marvel'


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You’ve probably noticed that I sometimes discuss movies in this column to make a larger point about PCB design. Yes, I confess that I enjoy a bucket of popcorn and a couple of hours wasted in the local cinema just as much as the next guy. One of the movies that I have enjoyed the most over the past several years is the first “Iron Man” from 2008. Lately, the whole Marvel cinematic universe has gotten wild, with gods, monsters and space aliens.

This isn’t a bad thing but they have gotten away from the purity of engineering that made the first Iron Man movie so good. Let’s face it; the lead character, Tony Stark, is the engineer’s engineer. In that first movie, he designed the Iron Man suits right in front of us on the big screen, and he used some awesome-looking design tools in his lab. That got me to wondering: What would our world of design be like if we had some of that magic?

I think everyone would agree that advances in system resources, improvements in data specifications, and more automation would be welcome enhancements. But I’m trying to get past the obvious incremental advances that we normally see in the next feature release of our favorite CAD tool du jour. Instead, I’m looking for those improvements that we can only imagine or dream about today. So, if we’re going to dream, then let’s dream big. Just how would you spec out the design system of tomorrow?

It would seem to me that the most obvious improvements would be in the user interface. A common complaint that I hear from designers is being constrained by having to use a mouse. One user even suggested that instead of a mouse that they would like to see the application follow their eye movements instead. Would that be helpful to you, being able to use your eyes to control the place and route of your design instead of mousing around? I’m not so sure. But if eye-controlled movements were implemented, then there would have to be other enhancements as well to complement it.

Voice recognized commands would be a very helpful enhancement to have. In that first “Iron Man” movie, Tony Stark gave commands with his voice, and his design system could understand and respond to that input. Imagine if you were designing your board and the routing followed your eye movements, and you could tell the system through voice commands when to drill a via, what size via to use, and what layer to end up on. Or if that is too much, imagine if you could at least use your voice to input strings of text for a drawing or a schematic. Since our smartphones can already do this, why shouldn’t our layout tools be able to do it as well?

Of course, you would probably always want the ability to input information directly with your hands somehow, and in that movie you see a virtual keyboard in use quite often. Since the need for direct system-level communication with our CAD tools will likely never go away, a keyboard seems like a logical way to do this. But what if we had a virtual keyboard instead of the mechanical keyboard that most of us are accustomed to now? That could be very helpful; the keyboard could change its input buttons depending on the needs of the design (language, symbols, tool commands), and change the contour of the physical keyboard to provide the best ergonomic interface for the user.

Beyond that, just imagine if you could interact with your design as a hologram floating in front of you the way Tony Stark did in the movie. Wouldn’t it be amazing if you could pick a section on your holographic design with your hands and expand it to the point where you could peer into it, spin it around, and manipulate it as you desired? Want to push a trace down to a different layer? Just give it a nudge in the right direction and the holographic display changes it to the next layer. Don’t like the way a certain area fill looks? Then just grab it with your fingers and pull it out and throw it into the virtual garbage can. Want to split off a portion of circuitry to put into a reuse block for use in another design? Then grab it and pull it over to the side and tell your system to save that portion under a new file name.

To read this entire column, which appeared in the February 2017 issue of The PCB Design Magazine, click here.

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