How PCB Library Organization Expands Design Capabilities

June 27, 2018 Altium Designer

Electronics library with engineer in front


A popular children’s cartoon featured a superhero called the “Masked Retriever” who had a real job as an ordinary librarian. In the pursuit of library justice, the Masked Retriever left a bold check mark as a calling card and pursued anyone with an overdue book. In one animated adventure, the Masked Retriever pursued the most powerful man in the region by horseback because he wouldn’t give up his book.

Unlike the library of the Masked Retriever, PCB libraries don’t require superhero actions or drastic moves to recover overdue items. In the PCB world, component and schematic libraries are essential tools in expanding PCB design capabilities to build customized approaches. Here, success depends on pursuing innovation while maintaining a very organized and centralized approach using PCB library folders.

Know the PCB Layout of the Land

From a very generic perspective, every component and schematic library calls for organization. Altium Designer organizes its libraries within four categories:



(Installed Tab)

Available for all projects and across design sessions


(Project Tab)


(Search Path Tab)

All libraries found along the Library Search Paths for the project





Active Project



SIM Model




Sim Subcurrent

Available on a Defined Search Path



PCB3D Model

In Library Panel


PCB3D Model




Sim Model




Sim Sub-circuits




SIMetrix Model




This organized approach connects schematic symbols with PCB layouts. Every symbol or icon represents a part by showing a flat, visual picture of the component. Footprints show the physical configuration, orientation, and size of the part as well as the pads that interconnect the parts to the board.


When working with Altium Designer, you can use the project tab to list libraries that contribute to the active project. Then, you can use components, footprint models, circuit simulation, signal integrity analysis models, and other models from available libraries that:

  • Belong to the active project currently selected in the Projects panel;
  • Have been installed; and
  • Are available on a defined project-specific search path.

The schematic component symbols created within schematic libraries reference footprints and other models defined in separate footprint libraries and model files. As you build your component parameters, the symbols divide into two categories, with the first representing IEEE (United States) standards and the second tied to IEC (European) standards. No matter the type of component, every symbol has a name that indicates the sequential use of the part in a circuit—such as R10—and a value.


Altium Designer allows you to place your components in discrete component libraries. It also enables you to compile symbol libraries, footprint libraries, and model files into portable, integrated libraries. You can browse the contents of those libraries in the Libraries panel and create a schematic library of all components placed in a schematic document of your active project that includes pin, pads, and other criteria.

How to Care for Your Library Management

In the past, folders provided the organized approach for holding components and schematics. Saving a PCB design project involved giving your design a meaningful name and storing the design on your local drive, an external drive, or a flash drive. You could then use search paths to define a specific file or folder and sub-folders. The search paths allowed the compiler to automatically detect libraries as you added them to the folder.



Unified component library system in Altium Designer

A unified component library system will be vital for maintaining your design data



Working with folders required a very hierarchical perspective that required a root folder, a project folder, a library folder that held schematic libraries, footprint libraries, and multiple folders for snippets. Certainly, we can use search paths defined to a folder, sub-folders, or a specific file.


While this traditional method worked, searching a large number of folders that may contain hundreds, if not thousands, of files becomes a very time-consuming and software-intensive task. In addition, the search path/folder method depends on the quality of model links that can become broken with the renaming of a folder.

Library Management Transfers to Strong Bills of Materials

Ultimately, the Masked Retriever captured the overdue book but then relented because the culprit hadn’t finished reading the story. Similarly, Altium Designer allows you to finish your PCB design story by compiling an integrated library.


Going back to the chart that we viewed earlier, the term “integrated” is visible under the installed and project tabs. This indicates that the integrated library includes all library and model files. With this approach, Altium Designer places all component information into a single portable file. As you work on a project, you only need to access or move one file when working on or moving from one workstation to another. Compiling your schematic libraries in the integrated library guarantees that source components will map to target models and the library has correct pin mappings.



Bill of Materials component information in Altium Designer

A bill of materials will guarantee your library organization transfers to manufacturing output organization



All this organization clears the clutter generally involved in folder management. In addition, the integrated library approach offers document control, project security, and process control. In the end, the integrated library gives the same peace-of-mind offered by the Masked Retriever who never lost a book.


With a smart Bill of Materials tool in ActiveBOM, Altium Designer can make getting organized with both your internal design data and component information management and your external BOMs and Gerber Files a breeze. Consider getting your team situated in a unified design environment with the strongest PCB design software available.


Want to learn more about optimizing your design process with organized PCB libraries? Talk to an expert at Altium.


About the Author

Altium Designer

PCB Design Tools for Electronics Design and DFM. Information for EDA Leaders.

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