Collaborate: Design to Manufacture

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Software-based collaborations can help improve design for manufacturing (DfM) and the move to production. This article reviews fundamental collaboration methodologies and the benefits of a well-suited methodology.

By Matt Wuensch, Systems Design Division, Mentor Graphics Corporation

Collaboration is typically defined as "the act of working together toward a common purpose or goal." How to accomplish this, however, is more complex. Less than 15 years ago, phone calls and regular mail were the predominant form of collaboration. As computers became more prevalent, along with full-time connection to high-speed networks, phone calls and regular mail evolved into voice over IP (VoIP), e-mail, and Web conferencing. This offered a slight improvement over previous methods, with the promise of more to come. Today, software-based collaboration solutions are one realization of that promise. Users can choose from a variety of collaboration solutions; the challenge a user faces is how to determine which of these potential solutions will best meets their needs.

Here, we explore the fundamentals of collaboration and how these can be applied to evaluate a design-to-manufacturing collaboration solution. This includes the different collaboration methodologies, their characteristics and usage, and the differences between general and targeted collaboration solutions. These fundamentals will be used to outline the functionality and benefits of using a design to manufacturing collaboration solution.

Collaboration Methodologies

Collaboration activities can be categorized into one of three categories: asynchronous; synchronous; or hybrid (a merge of both asynchronous and synchronous). Asynchronous collaboration is best characterized by a fairly high level of independence between collaborators. In asynchronous collaboration, the timeframe for when collaborators need to be made aware of changes tends to be on the order of days or weeks, not immediate. Generally, asynchronous collaboration can be thought of as being similar to a serial process, where activities have a specific sequence of order that they follow. Usually, asynchronous collaboration takes place in a well-defined work-flow, and suits activities such as design reviews that are typically performed at specific product development milestones, usually with a set of data that represents a unique point in the design process. The information to be reviewed is provided to various individuals for their analysis and feedback, usually in advance of the design review meeting. The actual design review meeting is best described as synchronous collaboration effort.

Synchronous collaboration is characterized by a high level of dependence between collaborators (Figure 1). As opposed to asynchronous collaboration, where collaboration timeframes are long, synchronous collaboration can approach real-time, although occurring at real-time is not a requirement. Synchronous collaboration is more akin to having a conversation, where multiple contributors can be providing input simultaneously. 

Figure 1. Synchronous collaboration is enabled through real-time access to a common data model.

Synchronous collaboration suits situations where change may need to occur rapidly, such as during the mechanical and layout design phases of a product. In this circumstance, the designers may need to explore different implementation options than what they currently have. A synchronous collaboration environment enables the collaborators to exchange different design options, evaluate them in their own environment, and determine immediately the proposal's viability, or suggest an alternative solution. Since the key distinguishing factor between asynchronous and synchronous collaboration is the timeframe of the collaboration, it has been argued that a combined approach makes the most sense when modeling collaboration.

The hybrid collaboration model combines asynchronous and synchronous characteristics. While there is merit to the hybrid collaboration model, the predominant work on collaboration solutions today has been done using the asynchronous and synchronous collaboration models. As solutions evolve and user requirements become more stringent, one should expect today's collaboration solutions to evolve toward the hybrid collaboration model where appropriate.

Types of Collaboration Solutions

Finding software-based collaboration solutions is so easy it borders on overwhelming. Simply type "collaboration software" or "design to manufacturing collaboration software" into your favorite search engine; the number of returned results will top two million. A review of the search results quickly indicates that there are general collaboration solutions and targeted collaboration solutions available. The general collaboration solutions are typically offered by enterprise resource planning (ERP) and product lifecycle management (PLM) companies; they are usually asynchronous and document-based. General collaboration solutions allow visibility to shared documents or data, provide notification that changes have been made, and provide generic viewing capability that allows collaborators to look over graphical data (like a PCB layout or schematic) in a generic viewer. There may be provisions where a user can mark-up these drawings, but most often, the data does not contain the underlying intelligence of the source. Lacking the intelligence in the data makes it difficult to extract in-depth information about the design; data that is necessary to support effective collaboration and review.

Figure 2. Asynchronous collaboration interfaces during a products development and launch.

Targeted collaboration solutions are focused on either a specific industry or set of activities. PLM companies often offer targeted collaboration solutions that support mechanical product design with the general collaboration solutions. These targeted solutions tend to be asynchronous, but provide in-depth access to the design data. To support collaboration for PCB electronics design and assembly there are asynchronous and synchronous solutions available. For collaboration solutions that support a wide range of product design and manufacturing activities, the application determines whether a solution is asynchronous or synchronous. Synchronous solutions tend to be used during product design phases. In one such product, design activities supported by synchronous collaboration solutions include ECAD-MCAD design collaboration; RF co-design; and ASIC I/O optimization. An asynchronous collaboration solution* supports collaboration between the disciplines involved with product design and manufacturing activities (Figure 2). Using this targeted collaboration solution, collaborators have greater access to the underlying product data and functionality that directly supports PCB design and manufacturing collaboration requirements.

Design to Manufacturing

To effectively support design-to-manufacturing collaboration, several crucial functions need to be supported. First, a common data model of the product needs to be available and usable by both the design and manufacturing teams. Working from this data model collaborators need to be able to configure how they view the data, enabling them to examine the product design from their perspective. The examination of the product data should allow collaborators to review DFA and DFT analysis results, disposition the reported DRCs and incorporate that review and disposition into the data that gets returned to the design team. Additionally, collaborators need to be able to add mark-ups and redlines into the design data in order to illustrate issues requiring attention. The ability to identify these issues is facilitated through a collaborators' ability to extract custom reports and perform measurements on the design. Tracking the collaboration activities by individual collaborators is necessary to retain a historical record of the collaboration sessions (Figure 3). Finally, to close the loop on a collaboration session, the ability to cross-probe between the collaboration environment and the design tool where the collaboration results will be acted upon is necessary. Companies who use targeted collaboration solutions will recognize value that translates directly to their bottom line: reduced cycle time, fewer design re-spins, improved product quality, improved manufacturing results, and leading-edge innovation.

Figure 3. Design to manufacturing collaboration solution.


Software-based collaboration solutions are widely available today and when properly deployed they provide exceptional benefits. Companies that deploy targeted collaboration solutions to enable their product design and assembly processes will ensure they have the ability to remain competitive in today's market.

*visECAD from Mentor Graphics.

Matt Wuensch, Systems Design Division, Mentor Graphics Corporation, may be contacted at



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