ECAD Takes on the World

Nov. 8, 2013
Software Now Accounts for the Third Dimension by Incorporating a Database of Electrical and Physical Characteristics of Components
About the Author

After working as a semiconductor process engineer, Hank Hogan hung up his cleanroom suit and now writes about process control and other technologies from Austin.

Thanks to global competition, the world, the pundits say, is getting flatter. But you wouldn't know it from recent advances in ECAD. Electrical computer-aided design (ECAD) is no longer just a 2D representation of wires and symbols. Instead, software now accounts for the third dimension by incorporating a database of the electrical and physical characteristics of components. As a result, machine builders can determine if something works in terms of both electrical and physical layout before committing a design to manufacturing.

Such digital prototyping is a clear trend for good reason, notes Lee Hollingworth, senior AutoCAD Electrical product manager at 3D design software maker Autodesk. "This saves time, effort and costly reengineering when things don't fit or work out as planned," he says.

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In its products, Autodesk offers 3D capture and rendering, which can be beneficial for retrofits and upgrades. The company also has a mobile solution that allows electrical customers to take designs into the workshop for review and markup. There is also a cloud-based version for when an Internet connection is available, thereby enabling distributed design collaboration and remote access, Hollingworth says. Autodesk's desktop software doesn't need a network connection.

The ECAD software includes a PLC module and a catalog of standard parts. However, Autodesk is aware that a customer's needs for modeling and design information can exceed what's in the software's database. "As such, we have tools within the product that enable customers to add and modify the content to suit their needs." Hollingworth explains. "Many customers maintain company- or project-specific content, which they share through their LANs."

The ECAD software from Bentley Systems is intelligent and cooperative, says John Zwerlein, director of technical resources for the Bentley Electrical Group. The intelligence arises, in part, because the company's promis•e software is tied to a parts database. Consequently, placing a component into the design automatically generates a bill of materials and a from-to connection list that can be used for automatic cable routing. Because the routing tools are parameter-based, a change in a component results in an automatic cabling change that accounts for such factors as the need for different routes or cable overfill warnings.

Another indication of the software's intelligence is that it helps prevent users from doing something not-so-smart, such as having two cables collide, Zwerlein says. "Clash detection is big, and being able to visualize it is also very powerful," he says. "Those will help, not only in design, but also in the construction of the actual equipment."

All of this can be done on a laptop running Bentley's software. A machine equipped with eight gigabytes of RAM allows users to rotate models and see things from various perspectives. Handling PLC and controller symbols is fairly easy because these are represented by different attribute values, according to Zwerlein.

The information in these symbols is stored in a database, which the user can modify. That's where the cooperative nature of the software can be seen. Bentley works with device and component manufacturers to get the data in a format that can be consumed by 3D models.

At software engineering solutions provider Eplan, the ECAD focus is on relationships. The company's software is fully associative, with a relational, object-oriented database offering users a fast response, while managing all the data, says Eplan America's president, Ray Gaynor.

The software takes care of such tasks as what points on a circuit breaker should be connected to a motor. A change in the motor size, such as moving from 10 to 20 or higher horsepower, automatically changes the associated circuit breaker to account for the larger current draw.

What's more, placing a component into a design, either manually or automatically, brings along a host of other data. This can include physical dimensions, part number, mounting information and more, Gaynor explains.

"What are the operating characteristics? How many BTUs will be created by that component? Is there a potential hot spot problem? Does it need to have a certain mounting clearance for cooling in the enclosure?" he asks.