EDA Tools Should Be Free

I am a huge fan of low-cost or no-cost EDA tools. That being said, there are several areas in engineering where there is no alternative to a high-priced tool. I contend that the evolution of technology is being hindered by the lack of high-end tool access. The basis for that contention is that most innovation originates from small organizations with little or no money to pursue their visions. Anyone who has worked for a small, minimally funded startup company knows that tools cost dollars, but the time to use them is free.

I understand that a company that invests in developing tools deserves to make money selling its product. Likewise, there needs to be a way for its staff to earn a living while developing great products. As it turns out, there are many companies that do just that and still distribute their EDA tools for free.

One great example is Linear Technology's LTSPICE, a free electronic simulation tool. Another example is PCB123 from Sunstone Circuits, a free PCB layout design tool. So how do these companies make money giving away their tools for free?

That's an easy question. They make money selling their next higher-level product, a hardware product, which is then included in the customer's hardware end product. Everyone in the product chain makes money selling hard solutions.

Hard-solution companies employ lots of people to manufacture their hardware. Even more people derive their income stocking, delivering, and selling those hard solutions. But EDA tools are rarely included in a hardware product chain. They are the beginning and end product. They are used like a wrench when new tires are put on your car. When you buy tires, you don't have to buy the wrench from one company and loan it to the tire company. Rather, the tire company factors the wrench cost into the price of its tires.

While LTSPICE and PCB123 are adequate for many engineering problems, they aren't the best EDA tools for electronic circuit engineering. Those tools are available from companies like Cadence, Synopsys, Mentor Graphics, Mathworks, Ansys, and countless others. And the cost is out of reach for small companies.

The high-end tool companies are not alone in limiting technology's evolution. Another group that frustrates me are the organizations that publish technical journals. Lots of great research is hidden inside articles behind expensive pay-walls.

Perhaps more frustrating is that many of those articles are written by people who were funded in part by grants of public tax dollars through various arms of a government. In the United States that includes agencies such as the National Science Foundation (NSF), Department of Defense (DOD), and National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). The same thing is true in other countries around the globe.

Thankfully, this appears to be changing slightly. The IEEE now has an arm that openly publishes a small amount of research. I suspect, and hope, that this will become the de facto standard in the not too distant future. In fact, all of the world's patent offices have always offered open access to research results.

The world of electronic design is moving very fast toward solutions that are embedded into a single piece of silicon. But those silicon solutions are very complex and absolutely require the most advanced design tools and access to the latest research. In keeping with my blog thesis, the companies that sell the silicon pieces in the form of wafers should own the high-end tools and offer those for free to their customers. Companies like Intel could lock their customers into buying the company's silicon developed with the free tools, just as Sunstone locks down its PCB123 customers. Even a consortium of foundry companies, including TSMC, could buy and then openly share the EDA tools.

Regardless of how it would shake out, everybody would win, and innovation could move forward at an even faster pace.

5 comments on “EDA Tools Should Be Free

  1. goafrit2
    December 4, 2014

    The problem with free development tools is that it reminds you that you are still a hobbyist and not a massively scalable company. I have used many free tools in CMOS design. When the transistor counts get to 20,000 everything begins to fail. When that begins to happen, Cadence big bucks look ordinary.

  2. goafrit2
    December 4, 2014

    >> As it turns out, there are many companies that do just that and still distribute their EDA tools for free. / One great example is Linear Technology's LTSPICE, a free electronic simulation tool.

    Yes, that is a great example. I hope a new CEO in near future does not change that model. I tend to use many LT products these days because LPSpice has all the models already for me and that cuts off days in my design.


  3. volee68
    December 25, 2014

    In a way, the free tools such as LTSpice and PCB123 are marketing tools, in that these tools allow a user to “try out” a product. For higher complexity circuits and for extensive IC simulations, they are not suitable. In the “old days” I would call an FAE to discuss a design and how the products from a company such as Linear Tech might offer a solution to my design problem. Similarly, the free layout SW from PCB123 allowed me to do simple prototype boards, with the restriction that the PCB fabrication would be done by the company. For large, complex production boards, the Mentor tools and a specialized fabrication house made sense.

    The free tools, and there are many more than the named LTSpice and PCB123, make sense and serve a purpose in some circumstances, where other sometimes very costly tools make sense. As always, the tool selection depends on the situation.

    One point regarding the tools, free or otherwise, is that the real usefulness of any CAD tool depends almost entirely on the libraries that accompany the tool. For any Spice simulator, the model library determines entirely the fidelity of the simulation result. Similarly, the component library (footprints and stack-up) determines entirely the usefulness of any PCB layout tool.

  4. fasmicro
    January 10, 2015

    >> In a way, the free tools such as LTSpice and PCB123 are marketing tools, in that these tools allow a user to “try out” a product.

    That is a very great summary. It is a marketing strategy. Anyone who has made big ASIC designs will know that without Cadence, you may be out of luck especially when you have many design sites across the globe. Only Cadence to my knowledge offers value that saves you time with capacities to grow with your design.

  5. fasmicro
    January 10, 2015

    That noted, most companies do not see the cost benefit from using free EDA tools. Comparatively, the tools are cheap at least for an enterprise. It serves a purpose for the hobbyist or student, it is not a big deal for companies. I will not deny my designers the benefit of our deep libraries for saving few thousands of dollars on free EDA tools. It means you want them to start afresh which is always an issue.

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