How to Become a PCB Designer in Today’s World

November 20, 2017 Altium Designer


What did you want to be when you grew up? When I was a kid, I wanted to be Scotty on Star Trek. No joking, I really did. The idea that someone could fiddle around with electronic parts and blinking lights to create some gizmo that would save the day was really appealing. A few years later I tried to imitate Scotty by taking all the parts for a kit radio and soldering them together on a thin sheet of wood. Without realizing it, I had designed my first circuit board at the wise old age of 12 years old.


How about you? Have you ever thought about being a circuit board designer? Perhaps you are already in school and headed for an engineering degree. Or maybe you’re an electronics technician or you are doing some kind of CAD drafting. Maybe you’re not even in the electronics industry, but the idea of becoming the next Scotty sounds really good to you.


If any of this has caught your interest, keep reading. I’ll tell you a little bit about what it means to be a micro via PCB designer, what kind of education will help you, and what the future holds for our industry. You may never become an expert in warp drive on a starship, but you may find out that you have a talent for designing a circuit board.


What Exactly is a PCB Designer?

Printed circuits became popular in the 1950s and the need for PCB designers to create those circuits took off. Originally circuit boards were designed, or “laid out,” on a drafting board at four or even ten times the actual size using tape, knives, stickers, and a steady hand. When completed, those drawings would be recreated on film using a reduction camera, and that film would be used to make the PCB tooling at the fabrication shop. Today rigid-flex PCB layout is done on advanced Computer Aided Design systems (CAD), and their output is used to create the PCB tooling.


The PCB designer will create the library models (footprints) for the parts that will be included on the print circuit board within the CAD system. Then the designer will create the circuit board design within the CAD system using the footprints that have been created. Once all of the required footprints have been placed on the board, the designer will connect all of the electrical connections using lines that represent metal in a process called trace routing.


A good PCB designer is part electrical engineer, part manufacturing expert, and part computer guru with a smidge of process engineer thrown in the mix as well. Mostly though, a PCB designer has to have the ability to see beyond the lines and shapes of components on their computer screen in order to visualize where the design is headed. A good PCB designer can create something from nothing while solving many different puzzles along the way.


Picture of diploma

Many companies are now requiring degrees for PCB design positions


What Kind of Education is Required to be a PCB Designer?

Many engineers are laying out their own printed circuit boards today. To become an electrical engineer or a mechanical engineer you will need a BS in those related fields. Traditionally though, PCB designers are those who do the layout of the board only without doing any of the engineering of the board.


For those who are doing PCB layout only, there isn’t much out there in the way of a degree specifically in printed circuit layout. You will also find that there are still many positions that do not require the PCB designer to have a degree of any kind. However, you will have much better success as a PCB designer if you have a degree that includes courses in drafting, computer-aided design, electronic design, or other related areas of study. As PCB designs become more complex, more companies will begin to require degrees for their PCB prototype designers.


There are many certificate courses that are very helpful for the PCB designer. Some companies offer specific multi-layer PCB design and CAD training classes. There is also the IPC Certified Interconnect Designer (CID) course which is an absolute must for the new PCB designer.

Picture of a finger on a circuit board pulsing with blue power

The future is bright for PCB design


What is the Future for the PCB Designer?

The need to design current and evolving PCB technologies is growing. With more and more electronics such as IoT becoming everyday parts of our lives, the future of electronic design is very bright. However, the pool of experienced PCB manufacturers is shrinking as many designers are approaching the age of retirement. The industry needs more PCB designers, and those that are currently involved are reporting that their compensation and job satisfaction is on the rise.


Do you have a passion for creating things and making them work? If so, then designing printed circuit boards may be what you are looking for. If you are ready to start a career as a PCB designer, take a look at Altium. Altium Designer is PCB design software that is made for engineers and PCB designers to create world-class PCB designs. Not only will the software help you with all aspects of your design, but Altium offers training on its software that will help you to hit the ground running.


Would you like to find out more about how Altium can help you to step into the world of PCB design? Talk to an expert at Altium.

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About the Author

Altium Designer

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

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