Years ago while designing a printed circuit board for one of my company’s products, I was called over to the mechanical design department for an impromptu meeting. They had pulled in my design files into their 3D mechanical CAD system and wanted to show me something. There it was as big as life; one of my tall electrolytic capacitors was sticking up right through the plastic enclosure. While trying to restrain their laughter, they sarcastically explained that this particular product would not come standard with an escape hatch in the housing for my capacitor. I thanked them politely for their critique of my work while privately thinking very different kinds of thoughts about them.
As funny as it was at the time (yes, I do laugh about it now), I did learn a very critical lesson that day about the importance of full 3D checking. The problem then was that our PCB design systems only had minimal 3D checking capabilities, and they didn’t offer any kind of 3D viewing of the board at all. A collision of some sort with our parts placement was going to be inevitable, and I, unfortunately, was the one who hit it first. Fortunately, PCB CAD systems have come a long way since then with 3D technology, and Altium Designer is at the head of the pack. You can now place your components easily with the 3D viewing software in Altium Designer to make sure that your placement is correct. Let me show you how this is done.
Being Prepared to Work in 3D
The first step is to change the view of your design from 2D to 3D. This can be accomplished easily by pushing the “3” key. To go back to 2D, push the “2” key. Before you can work with your parts in 3D however, you’ve had to make sure that they are set up correctly. Altium Designer uses 3D bodies built into their footprints to display that part in 3D. Most components that you pull from vendor libraries will have 3D bodies built into the parts, but it is possible that you may run into designs and parts that do not have these as you can see in the picture below.
A PCB design without 3D component bodies
You do have the option however of adding these 3D bodies into a design that doesn’t have them. To add 3D bodies to a design such as the one shown above, go to the Tools pulldown menu and select “Manage 3D Bodies for Components”. This will bring up the Component Body Manager as you can see in the picture below.
The interactive tab of the Component Body Manager in Altium Designer
The Component Body Manager gives you the ability to work with the 3D bodies of all the parts on the board. You can see in the picture above that the top portion of the dialog box lists each component out. Right below that are tabs for “Interactive” and “Batch Update”. In the picture above the interactive tab is active and it shows the status for the “Body State” of the selected part. You can see that there aren’t any 3D bodies listed.
You can update each part individually, but for our purposes, we will use the batch mode to update all the parts at once. This will give a very generic look to all the parts but will make for a quick demonstration. Click on the “Batch Update” tab as shown in the picture below.
Setting up the Batch Update parameters in the Component Body Manager
In the batch update tab, you can see that there are a number of different layers that the 3D body could be built from. To give our parts a look that is similar to their silkscreen shape, we have selected “Both Silkscreen Layers” as the only criteria used to build the 3D body. You can also see that we’ve given the 3D body a standoff height of 10 mils and an overall height of 100 mils. Ideally you would want to update parts like these with footprints that have advanced STEP models associated with them or detailed 3D bodies. To get 3D parts on your board quickly though, this will do the job as shown in the picture below.
Now that 3D component bodies have been added, it’s time to navigate the 3D view
Now that the parts on the board have 3D shapes, you can start moving your view of the board around in 3D. The standard view movements with the mouse still apply in 3D, you will use the right mouse button to pan your view. In 3D though you’ve got something new, you can hold the shift key down which will bring up the 3D rotational sphere as you can see in the picture above. With the shift key held down the right mouse button will now tilt and rotate the view in all axes. The key here is that the board will rotate where you have the cursor positioned, if you can’t get the board view to rotate as you want it to, move your cursor to a new location. This is very important as you learn to work with and manipulate the 3D view.
Moving Components in 3D
A simple 2D placement view in Altium Designer
To demonstrate moving your board parts in 3D, we are going to use a very simple tutorial design for clarity. In the picture above you can see our design from the 2D perspective. It is a clean placement and there aren’t any errors displayed. That doesn’t necessarily mean though that it is the most ideal placement of our parts.
In the 3D placement that you see below, you can see that our SMT parts are very crowded by the tall capacitors and connector. This might not be the best placement for assembly or rework. Fortunately, our 3D view gives us a much better perspective on how the placement looks than just the regular 2D view.
The same simple placement view now displayed in 3D
To change the placement of our parts in 3D you simply pick up the part the same way that you would do in 2D. Altium Designer gives you the ability to fly the part around on your cursor and rotating it just as you would in 2D. You can then place the part down in its new location.
In the picture below we have picked up R1 in order to move it. Currently, it is sitting on the connector, and the connector is showing the obvious DRC placement error in green with the warning of “Collision”. Just as in 2D, you can get immediate online DRC feedback of errors as you move parts around the board.
DRC warnings while moving parts in Altium Designer’s 3D view
To get a clean DRC and a better location for R1, we have located it below the connector as you can see in the picture below. The 3D viewing and placement features in Altium Designer can help you to design a more manufacturable printed circuit board by giving you a better perspective of your placement than what you get with a regular 2D view of your design.
Placing the part using the 3D view to verify its clearances
Checking Your Design in 3D Viewing Software
To show how Altium Designer utilizes 3D to check your entire design, take a look at the picture below. You will see a computer board in 3D view. We have selected and are moving a socket connector around on our cursor. 3D gives us the ability to fully explore a complicated design like this to see exactly how our parts are going to work in 3D.
Moving a connector in the 3D view of a complex layout in Altium Designer
There’s more though. In the picture below you can see the same board as shown in the picture above. This time though we are showing it using Altium Designer’s 3D multi-assembly view so that you can see all of the other boards in the system along with it. Here we maneuver the PCB that fits into the socket connector that we had selected above to show you how all of these designs are interconnected. We can also manipulate the other boards in this multi-assembly view as well as the mounting hardware that the main board is sitting on.
The same layout with other system boards in Altium Designer’s multi-view assembly
In order to ensure that solder and solder paste placement is correct during manufacturing, make sure that your surface-mount technology is applied and checked easily with the proper design software. The techniques for a thorough inspection process is made easier with a 3D image viewing angle to ensure solder is not disrupted. Whether it’s additive manufacturing or something else, make sure your surface-mount technology is applied correctly.
Altium Designer is PCB design software that gives you many other different features and functions for the design of your printed circuit boards in addition to what we’ve shown you here. The 3D capabilities for the placement of your parts are just one of Altium Designer’s key features. To find out more about Altium Designer and how it can help you, talk to an expert at Altium.
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