The Great Divide in PCB Simulation Software


The Great Divide in PCB Simulation Software

Today’s PCB design engineers have more layout and analysis tools than ever before. Over the years, we’ve seen layout tools become more automated, rule-driven, and more integrated. Now we even have integration between design tools from different vendors and covering everything from basic circuit design to PLM and ERP integration. It really is the perfect time to be a designer.

But there is one area that remains somewhat disconnected from the rest of the design process: simulation and analysis. Those of you who know me know that I love simulation and love to analyze interconnections to death. If you’re like me, you probably prefer to do all of this by hand. Otherwise, there are many electronic and electromagnetic simulation software suites to help you through the process.

The problem with today’s simulation software options is not their capabilities; if you shop around enough, you’ll find a simulation for just about anything. The problem with industry standard simulation tools is their place in the standard PCB design workflow, as well as the user experience. Simulation software used in electronics and circuit board design generally falls into one of the following categories.

  • Circuit or schematic simulation tools (e.g. SPICE)
  • 2D interconnect simulators implementing BEM or MoM
  • EMF solvers implementing FDTD, FEM/FEA or similar numerical method

All engineers and designers are probably familiar with SPICE; if you’re not, you should be. I consider the ability to run a SPICE simulation a mandatory skill for any PCB designer. Advanced applications will go well beyond SPICE and should use some level of simulation to verify signal integrity, channel compliance, and EMI.

2D simulators
Not all PCB design applications include a 2D interconnect simulator that can return impedance, reflections, crosstalk, and feedback path tracking in a PCB layout. Applications that include these simulators will not work in the online DRC engine. For everyone else, there are free and paid calculator apps that will give you a rough estimate of crosstalk and reflections.

In the standard workflow, 2D simulators can function as a tool for verifying interconnects after layout and routing is complete. In most of these tools, the user interface is suboptimal. They are not point-and-click simulation tools that work like DRCs. Some setup is required, and you need to know certain inputs with high certainty to get meaningful results. For this reason, these simulators are not often consulted during design creation; you will find that users wait until the design is almost complete to use them if they are used.

To read this article in its entirety, which appeared in the July 2022 issue of Design007 magazine, click here.

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