New AI Tools Offer Look, and Questions, for Future
What role will artificial intelligence truly play in electronics design, and what will the impact be on hardware engineers?
Zuken took a step toward answering that question with its announcement at PCB West of a new AI-based tool for printed circuit place-and-route. Yet the first public mention of AIPR for CR-8000 – the actual rollout will come in the first quarter next year – poses not only a dramatic vision for a highly automated future of design but a host of new questions as well.
The new tool itself is an extension of Design Force, Zuken’s layout, routing and verification tool within the CR-8000 platform. Its AI, explained Kyle Miller, Ph.D., who architected the engine, involves all three basic types of machine learning: supervised, unsupervised and reinforcement. AIPR stands for Autonomous Intelligent Place and Route, and like previously announced AI-based CAD tools, it starts with routing. The “Basic Brain” performs so-called smart routing by means of exposure to Zuken’s database of PCB designs built in CR-8000. Over time, it mimics human routing, with channels organized in logical ways. Smart placement is next, at an undisclosed time.
According to Bob Potock, vice president of sales and marketing, Zuken will add IPC-2581 capability as part of the next-generation Dynamic Brain, allowing designs from other ECAD systems to be incorporated and learned.
The first two stages are working up to Autonomous Brain, a goal-based utility that the product designers, including Miller, say will use text-based inferencing whereby it detects descriptions of different parts of boards. According to Miller, four functionality levels will be used to inform local and planning decisions.
The system, notes Steve Watt, manager of PCB engineering, can learn from both good and bad designs. “The brain can be untaught if it is sent a dirty design,” he said. Zuken has tested it on about 100 designs, most of the high-speed, digital variety.
Adds Miller: “PCBs are complex. They involve numerical data, geometrical data, the layers in the board, text, constraints … Autonomous Brain is multi-modal; it combines all these data and extracts the designer’s intent.”
The Zuken announcement came on the heels of a broadcast from Cadence, which is now tying its OrCAD X platform to a cloud-enabled solution that uses AI-powered placement to cut design time while allowing multi-user collaboration on a common job. Siemens has taken a different path, leveraging its Simcenter PLM tools with AI to fit the design to the form factor based on a mix that takes into account factors such as costs and stackup, and also uses AI in its Hyperlynx DRC and PI tools.
All these features are funneling toward a common goal: cutting the amount of time spent on design. But there is pushback, not in the least from the (very large) segment of the industry that eschews readily available automation tools such as autorouters. And what will be the impact on job security?
Those concerns, among others, were raised during a free panel session titled AI in Electronics: What Can We Expect? at PCB West. There, Miller joined a group of experts, including Michael Jackson of Cadence, Tomide Adesanmi of Circuit Mind, and Sebastian Schaal of Luminovo, who with moderator Louis Feinstein of Dassault Systèmes tackled some of the more stubborn issues surrounding higher automation.
“Will I lose my job?” seems to weigh heavily on some engineers’ minds. Cadence’s Jackson answered that with a definitive “no.”
“It reduces the time to do the job,” he said, adding “as the technology matures, that may change.” Feinstein, who also keynoted the conference, noted that the number of open positions for PCB designers far exceeds the number currently employed, suggesting that automation such as AI is not only inevitable, but essential.
“It’s about multiple possible solutions,” chimed in Miller. AI tools can run several iterations of the same layout quickly, offering a number of options to the designer without requiring additional manual labor. “The overall control is still with the designer,” he said.
Indeed, with designers in high demand due to the aging out of many veterans and the length of time and amount of knowledge it takes to develop expertise, some of the concerns about AI replacing humans are eased.
In fact, AI tools remove much of the grunt work from PCB design, Adesanmi implied. “Think about the role of an EE. We break jobs into different tasks. What will we spend our time on? Don’t be a data sheet reader. Engineers will be more architects, explorers, optimizers.”
Other questions remain. Can AI-based tools be realistically used in anything but local environments? Vendors are still working through the issues of cloud-based systems, even as users point to security concerns.
And how will time-based licenses be affected? Miller indicated it takes about five days to learn to use AIPR. But once mastered, Zuken tests showed it eliminated autorouter setup time, and cut autorouting time to 30 sec. from 15 min. That could throw a considerable wrench in the industry’s current pricing models. The consensus of CAD vendors we spoke with is some version of a perpetual license is likely ahead.
Given the broad industry resistance to using autorouters, it remains to be seen how AI-based tools will be integrated into general industry use. That said, the trend in board design is away from the traditional dedicated specialist, toward layout and placement being a small function of engineers’ overall responsibilities. That shift may finally tilt the field toward automation, and if Zuken’s vision is correct, eventually near-complete abdication to the machine.
P.S. We welcome our new marketing coordinator Megan Fletcher, who joined us just in time for PCB West this year. She has prior experience with Textron and Sparton, and you’ll see her at several shows this fall.
Also, the call for abstracts is open for PCB East, taking place next June in the Boston suburbs. To submit, visit pcbeast.com.