Being an engineer is as demanding as it is exciting and rewarding. A widening skill gap for engineers of all types in the United States has ensured there are more projects than qualified people to build them. If your department is overstaffed, if you are overworked and expected to know every engineering discipline within your development team, you are not alone.
But there are tools available to help streamline your processes so you can create more, and fight with circuit design less.
Here are the best tools for CAD, CAM, simulation, PCB layout, and coding to make your busy, overworked life just a little easier.
(Image source: Solidworks)
Whether you work with 2D or 3D designs, Solidworks has been and continues to be the leading CAD/CAE software on the market, and for good reason. The software is versatile, supporting industrial design and mechanical engineering in automotive, aerospace, shipbuilding, architecture, medical, energy, technology, augmented reality, and more.
Each year, the product gets better. In the new release, Solidworks offers a range of new technology to streamline large and complex workflow applications, user interface design, and collaboration. It also offers a development environment if you are working with contractors (free with the design for manufacturing solution), which enables collaboration across design, communication, validation, and manufacturing.
With this, since Solidworks is such a broadly used tool, it offers fantastic plug-ins and compatibility with a variety of milling machines and 3D printers. The software supports simulation, automated report generation, error detection, SolidCAM (a comprehensive CAM plugin tool) and more, with tailored features based on industry.
Solidworks is a phenomenal CAD tool, but it does have a learning curve. If you’re an entrepreneur or startup, Dassault Systemes (the manufacturer of Solidworks, among other engineering software tools) offers free training to help you learn the tool.
That said, if you’re looking for a more affordable platform for automotive, shipbuilding, architecture, or industrial equipment, look into CATIA (Computer-Aided Three-Dimensional Interactive Application), also by Dassault Systemes. CATIA is a CAD, CAM, and CAE software tool that is more affordable than Solidworks, and still a solid program if you’re within its intended industry. And if you’re anti-Windows OS and want a great open-source, 2D software, check out libreCAD.
(Image source: Autodesk)
There is no “best” CAM software per se. The best tool for you depends largely on the application. Your CAD software is also a huge determining factor, and is another reason using Solidworks or AutoCAD is a good idea – because the tools offer compatibility with a wide range of programs.
That said, here are a few of the best available now:
If you purchase Solidworks, SolidCAM is a plugin that integrates directly with your CAD designs. It is also compatible with Inventor. SolidCAM offers exceptional features, such as automated fine-tuning of your design, automatic updates to your tool paths if something in the CAD design changes, and automated geometry definitions.
Next on the list is CATIA. This tool was mentioned above for strong CAD functionality, but it is also one of the best CAM software tools available. It’s an all-in-one CAD, CAM, CAE tool, enabling you to create, validate, and manufacture your design using a single tool.
Last but not least, Autodesk HSM Works is a popular plug-in for Windows; and Autodesk Fusion 360 is another leading standalone tool, also available for Mac.
CAM Software and 3D Printing
All of this conversation begs the question if CAM software is obsolete. 3D printing has taken the world by storm. Where it was once necessary to use CNC milling machines for manufacturing, most prototyping can be done with additive manufacturing, or 3D printing, today. The choice as to which best suits depends on the product you’re making and your personal preference.
If you are thinking of saying so long to the milling machine in exchange for the 3D printer, you will enjoy newfound simplicity in prototyping and fabrication. Most, if not all, mainstream software offers 3D printer compatibility. If you use a program like Solidworks to create your design, simply export it to a quality 3D printer, relax, and enjoy your new prototype.
While 3D printing can absolutely be a go-to for rapid prototyping, it has shortcomings. 3D printers aren’t easy to use, particularly if your design is intricate. 3D-printed objects are usually fine prototypes, but not sturdy enough to be sold as a final product unless you sell in that niche. Furthermore, 3D printers can’t do everything. In fact, some engineers 3D-print objects, then further detail the design using a milling machine. All-in-all, milling machines are not yet obsolete, but it’s probably helpful to know how to use it in conjunction with a 3D printer.
(Image source: Texas Instruments)
WEBENCH is a classic, but still a favorite. Made by Texas Instruments, this tool is intuitive, easy to set up, and powerful for all your electronic design needs. It supports the design of a wide variety of electronics applications, including power designs and develop of signal chain and clock layouts.
WEBENCH’s Power Designer claims to be the most powerful end-to-end design tool in the industry. Whether or not that’s an objective fact, it’s still incredibly solid. The tool allows you to design a variety of circuits and simulate immediately. When you’re done with your design, WEBENCH automatically generates a schematic and BOM and allows you to choose alternative parts while hovering over the design. It’s a compact, easy-to-use program for engineers of any experience level. And, it’s affordable.
That said, if you’re already using the Solidworks suite, you may consider Dassault Systemes’ tools for electrical design (these include Solidworks PCB, Electrical Schematic, and Electrical 3D) or get all three in Solidworks Electrical Professional.
After all is said and done, good old paper, pen, and deep knowledge of electricity still seems to rule in this category.
(Image source: Autodesk)
Autodesk Eagle (formerly EagleCAD) continues to be the best PCB layout tool on the market. After having become the most widely used PCB platform around, it was bought out by Autodesk a handful of years ago and has only gotten better since.
Eagle is a powerful tool that not only enables you to execute PCB layout, but also allows you to place your designs within your 3D models. You can rotate your boards, remove chunks of unused board, route wires, and more, all with a few clicks of a mouse.
While Altium remains a key competitor to Eagle, it remains the most popular software tool for its robust feature set and affordable price point. If you’re a maker, you can download a free version of the software that allows for two schematic sheets and two signal layers in an 80 cm2 area. Even if you’re a manager in an electronics lab, you’ll find Eagle to have all the power and ease-of-use you need, at a great price.
(Image source: Wyliodrin)
It’s true. There’s no way to get around designing platforms in today’s world without having to deal with code. You could, of course, teach yourself to code if you need to learn a new language. Udemy, EdX, and Coursera (among others) all offer free online coding courses. These allow you to audit a class for free, or pay if you prefer a certificate of completion. Even then, the certificates are reasonably priced. This is another difficult category to handle. Extensive knowledge of software design is unavoidable.
That said, there’s a way to get around coding through what’s known as visual programming. Visual Programming Tools allow users to program devices by dragging and dropping interfaces using discrete chunks of logic. There’s no dealing with variables, the intricate syntax of a new platform, or the sheer work of building commands from the ground up.
Visual Programming Tools are gaining popularity. As such, there are many tools to choose from. The best solution for you depends on the application. There are many programs available for popular computers such as the Arduino and Raspberry Pi. There are also many free, open-source programs available if you want to try before you buy.
That said, one of the coolest tools on the market today is Wyliodrin. Unlike other platforms, this comprehensive tool is similar to Scratch. It allows users to build programs using a variety of coding languages. The interface looks something like putting Tetris blocks together, and you can see the code source as you go. It is compatible with a wide variety of hardware, including Beaglebone, Raspberry Pi, Grove, Arduino, and several hardware solutions from Intel.
Cabe Atwell is an electrical engineer, machinist, writer and maker. Aside from his writing at Design News , you can find his work at EETimes, EDN, Make Magazine , Hackster, SolidSmack, and dozens of other publications. Beyond writing, he also builds projects, designs tutorials, and writes books. His forthcoming book for aspiring engineers is, “ The Troublemaker's Handbook: A Compendium of Tricks and Hacks Using LEDs, Transistors, and Integrated Circuits.”
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