Changing of the EDA Guards

Turnover among the heads at the major suppliers of electronics design-related software is rare indeed. Since 2010, the top spot of a leading PCB software company has changed hands only once.

The dean of PCB EDA, Makoto Kaneko, founded Zuken in 1976. Wally Rhines has run Mentor Graphics since 1993. His counterpart at Cadence, Lip Bu Tan, has been in place since 2009.

Altium has had three chiefs in its existence, the most recent being Aram Mirkazemi, who was installed in 2014. But for a shareholder revolt in 2012, however, Nick Martin, who founded the company in 1985, might still be in charge.

That’s why it’s was so unusual this week when, on the same day this week, Ansys and NI each named the successors to their respective thrones.

Ansys appointed Dr. Ajei S. Gopal CEO-in-waiting, succeeding longtime head Jim Cashman. Gopal’s been a familiar face around the company, however, having joined its board in 2011.

Cashman joined Ansys as president in 1999, and was named CEO a year later. On his watch, Ansys’s revenues have grown from $50 million to almost $1 billion.

In NI’s case, it’s in some ways an even bigger transition. As a researcher at the University of Texas, James Truchard cofounded National Instruments in his garage in 1976. Come Jan 1., when Alex Davern takes the reins, it will be as chief executive and president of a $1.2 billion firm employing more than 2,000 workers worldwide.  If Davern has an advantage, he’s held a variety of positions in finance at NI dating to 1997, and he’s been Cashman’s right-hand as COO and CFO since 2010.

What’s clear is that the software industry, while dependent on innovation, also prides itself on stability. Since the market is characterized by a relatively small number of major players, the ability to maintain relationships with key customers may have something to do with that. That the leadership at most of the aforementioned companies has been relatively controversy-free doesn’t hurt, either.

From the looks of it, the heir apparents promise more of the same. Given the respective performance of the CEOs they are following, that’s not a bad thing.



Riding High on Design

The herd is riding on the EDA vendors, almost all of which are at or near 52-week high share prices.

In the past week, Cadence, Mentor and Synopsys hit or were trading just pennies off their yearlong highs. National Instruments and Ansys both traded much closer to their highs than their lows. Even Altium closed in on a high, but that’s a bit deceiving because it’s a penny stock and lightly traded on the Australian exchange.

So, is it the investor herd driving up an industry? Or is it a sign that the EDA market, which topped $5 billion for the first time in 2011, is geared up for a sustained run?


False Statement Plagues Mentor Plea

Mentor today again exhorted shareholders to vote for its current slate of directors and reject activist investor Carl Icahn’s alternate nominees.

In the open letter, Mentor pointed to its improved revenues over the past few quarters, calling it proof that its strategy is working. That alone provides ample evidence the EDA company is headed in the right direction, although it remains to be seen whether Mentor boost sales profitably, which has been Icahn’s point all along.

In the letter, Mentor argues against what it calls Icahn’s desire for a “public sale.” “The linchpin of Icahn’s platform for his nominees continues to be a risky public sale process for [Mentor]. This public sale process might provide Icahn with liquidity, but has the potential for significant value destruction and could derail the business and financial momentum that Mentor Graphics currently enjoys,”  the letter states.

Does Icahn want to be in the software development business? Of course not. And this is a polite way of saying so.

But more troubling is the company’s continued obsession with any alleged regulatory issues of a potential sale.

“It is clear that Icahn is simply continuing to ignore the regulatory obstacles and commercial risks to any transaction with Synopsys or Cadence, despite knowing that the analysis we recently performed shows that there are serious regulatory risks to any transaction with these two companies. He also continues to ignore the destruction of value through loss of customers and employees from any failed process to sell the company.”

Again, Mentor positions the only two logical buyers as Synopsys or Cadence, when in fact, they are perhaps the least logical buyers, for a multitude of reasons.

This line of argument is, at best, disingenuous*. As we’ve noted before, Cadence is heavily in debt and already made one failed play at Mentor, a move that helped cost then-CEO Mike Fister his job. Synopsys has shown little taste for PCB tools over the years and has made no indications it is at all interested now.

So who else would be potential buyers? In no particular order:

  1. National Instruments is coming off a record quarter, and has one of the best balance sheets in EDA today, with $385 million in cash and no debt. It is slightly larger than Mentor overall, but it would certainly be large enough to absorb the latter’s PCB unit.
  2.  Mechanical and PLM software developer PTC also is slightly larger than Mentor. It acquired Ohio Design Automation in 2004, giving it a small inroad to EDA. With its Winchill and Pro-E suites, it has a dominant place in MCAD. Given that some ECAD vendors are trying to extend into the MCAD space, it stands to reason PTC might see the value in going the other way.
  3. Siemens clearly has both the financial girth and potentially the general interest. The conglomerate has a huge stake in PLM with Tecnomatix and Unicam, and is attacking factory line software as well. By owning the PCB side of the equation, Siemens could hypothetically offer manufacturers a single solution encompassing ECAD, PLM and traceability, without the need for machine translators at pick-and-place and test, for example. (This would not happen overnight, if ever, of course.) As for its financials, well, it was the world’s third largest electronics company in 2010, after H-P and Samsung, according to Forbes, with $103 billion in sales.

I’m looking at this only through the PCB lens, of course. But the universe of potential companies that could both afford and possibly desire Mentor in some shape or form is clearly much larger than two. While Rhines deserves the opportunity to continue to run Mentor without Icahn’s interference, it also would behoove Mentor to stop treating its shareholders as fools, as doing so undermines its rational — and strong — argument for the status quo.

*Disingenuous: not straightforward or candid; giving a false appearance of frankness; “an ambitious, disingenuous, philistine, and hypocritical operator, who…exemplified…the most disagreeable traits of his time”- David Cannadine; “a disingenuous excuse”  (Source:

Short Cuts Don’t Always Make Long Delays

The saga continues. I have my parts kit. The PCBs should be here from Sunstone tomorrow. When I placed the order on our website, I estimated that I’d have the parts and PCBs today. I knew it would be tomorrow, but I wanted to see how our communications goes when something is late. Obviously, an assembler can’t start building until the parts have arrived, so the Industry standard is to start the turn-time once everything is in the shop.

If a box is late and the sender doesn’t know it, unintended delays can be added into the process. Knowing this, we recently did a lot of work to improve our communications, on such issues as late parts, to help reduce delays. Sure enough, I dropped on over to the website and right on the top of the home page is a note that I have an issue (late parts) with my job. Tonight at midnight, I should receive an email telling me the same thing too.

On the subject of the PCBs, I sent Gerbers to Sunstone. That works just fine, but I’m always a bit nervous about the accuracy of my layer mapping. They double check, so I’ve never had problems, but I still get nervous.

If I’d waited a few days, like until today, I could have taken a short cut by just sending in my CAD board file — they just started accepting native CAD files. You can still use Gerbers, but if you use Altium, Eagle, OrCAD, National Instruments’ Circuit Design Suite, Ivex Winboard or PCB123, you can just send in the board file and save some time and hassle.

When I get the boards tomorrow, I’ll pack everything up and deliver it to the receiving folks. Then I’ll see how the rest of the build process goes from the other side of the fence, and I’ll see how we deal with extra parts. I did that on purpose also. With a couple of parts, I’m delivering several hundred more than I need. With a few other, just the requisite 5% over. It will be interesting to see just how I get the extras back.

Yes. I know. I work here, so I shouldn’t have any doubt about how all of this stuff works. I do know how it goes, but it’s always a good thing to, every now and then, check and see how well practice matches up with theory.

Duane Benson
Grip, Fang, Wolf! Guard the mushrooms!

Sunstone’s ‘Fab’ Design Tool

Sunstone is again acting as much like a software company as it is a quickturn PCB fabricator.

The board shop, which over the past few years has developed and honed its free CAD/DfM tool known as PCB123, today rolled out a conversion tool that features native file upload functionality.

In short, customers no longer need to export data in Gerber; instead, they can use one of a series of native data formats, including Altium, Eagle, OrCad, NI, and others (including, of course, PCB123).

It’s the second big development by the PCB maker in the past year, having already rolled out a parts library addition to PCB123 that supports some 500,000 components.

PCB123 won’t replace the big ticket CAD suites, of course, but for the types of prototype boards most designers need, it keeps getting better and better. And with its CAD conversion capability, Sunstone further extends its “ease” factor to those who don’t use the company’s own software.

Circuit Design ECOsystem

Years and years ago, I was a product manager at In Focus, the projector manufacturer. It was a great time to be in the display industry. New technology was being invented left and right (and center and back, and some over in that far corner too). Competition was still reasonably light and we were ahead of most of it.

It was always interesting to take one of the early overhead projector-style displays through airport security. Laptops were rare at the time, let alone a big clear display that looked like a see-through touch-pad computer, but without the computer. But that’s not the point.

Back in our engineering department, we had the electronics engineers, a few folks to work on firmware, a layout specialist, documentation specialists to deal with all the documentation (duh), purchasing people to buy the parts and PCBs, technicians build up the prototypes, manufacturing people to get the pre-production and production going. And here,s the contrast today. Quite a few engineers I talk to these days have to do all of those jobs except final production. That wouldn’t be too much of a problem except that while all of those jobs were being assigned to the engineer, everything got more difficult. Parts got smaller, timelines shrank, competition got more fierce, clock speed increased and a lot of formerly company functions, got out-sourced. It’s a lot of work and a lot of ground for that engineer to navigate.

A handful of companies — Digi-Key, NXP, National Instruments, Sunstone Circuits and Screaming Circuits (my company) — have gotten together to form the Circuit Design ECOsystem; a cross-company organization designed to help that design engineer get a design from inside the brain to the market.

NXP makes components and is creating library components for the CAD software made by National Instruments and Sunstone. Sunstone allows quoting and ordering of Screaming Circuits assembly service on their website and Screaming Circuits does the same with Sunstone PCB fab. Digi-Key is working to improve the data-flow to Sunstone’s PCB123 CAD and streamline the parts procurement process to Screaming Circuits.

It’s still early in the process, but the idea is to take the, now fragmented, design to manufacture process and make it easier for the electrical engineer to get through – to remove roadblocks, add in new services and improve communications to make it easier to produce a quality product.

DesignCon Day 2

Yesterday was the typical busy day for media types like yours truly. A quick breakfast with a couple of the exhibitors and then some editorial meetings. It has been several years since I wore the editorial hat at a trade show and I’d forgotten how distracting it can be to have a business conversation in an open space. Especially when people I hadn’t seen in 8 years or so would walk by and wave. The only thing that saved me was the fact that this is such a small and incestuous industry that the same thing was happening to the person I was interviewing.

I was reminded in one of the sessions Tuesday that the whole EDA market — boards, chips everything EDA, is smaller than Wal-Mart. Just an fyi to put things into perspective.

A couple of notes on the tech conference. DesignCon is trying to address the PCB side of the design world. They’ve put most of the emphasis on signal integrity, bringing in heavy-hitters like Bruce Archambeault, Lee Ritchey and Eric Bogatin. I also saw Rick Hartley on the show floor but don’t think he is speaking this week.

Some things I learned Tuesday. Rogers, the laminate supplier known for RF and microwave applications, is committing considerable resources to the digital market with its Theda products. I want to specifically thank Sean Mirshafiel, a market development manager at Rogers, for a conversation that educated me to some of the finer points of of copper laminate. Sean provided me with the seeds of several articles topics that we’ll talk about in PCDF soon.

Bhavesh Mistry and Vince Accardi of National Instruments brought me up-to-date on release 11 of the Multisim simulator for both academia and the commercial marketplace. Multisim is integrated with National’s NI Ultiboard layout software and its NI LabVIEW measurement software.

Today I have a couple of test drives with some EDA people and I’m looking forward to getting my hands dirty.

Newark Electronics and Eagle CAD — Interesting

I just read that Newark purchased CadSoft, including Eagle CAD. I guess it’s probably old news to everyone but me. The press release about it that Newark posted on its website, Element 14, has a date of Aug. 13. I find this purchase an interesting development and I don’t quite know what it means, or if it means anything.

I guess partnering is becoming a trend. Certainly, we’re involved in some good partnerships (Sunstone, Digi-Key, NXP, National Instruments) and Sunstone’s PCB123 connects up with Digi-Key parts. It does make sense. The engineer’s job has just gotten more difficult with this recession and the ensuing reduction in support staff. That’s pretty much what our ECOsystem partnership is all about — taking the disparate tasks involved in getting a prototype built up and reducing the steps and complexity involved in the process.

The Eagle / Newark deal does have me very curious. For one, I hope the CadSoft folks got a good deal. Their product has done a lot toward lowering the barriers to electronics design and they deserve a lot for that. The big questions are for the future. Will Eagle remain as accessible as it is? Will Newark throw a lot of resources into it and keep it moving forward? Will it get good attention or will it be treated as an impulse buy and not be given focus or direction? Hmmm…

Duane Benson
What about Element 32?