You’ve worked night and day to get your PCB design done and finally, the last trace has been connected, the last silkscreen reference has been tweaked, and the final DRC has passed. It’s time to call it a weekend, right? Wrong. You’ve still got a boatload of work to do in order to get all of your output files created for your manufacturers.
A lot of PCB design tool vendors provide different mechanisms for making the creation of output files easier on the user. Altium Designer is at the top of the list here of automating the generation of manufacturing output files through the use of its job output job files. These files enable you to define what outputs you want to create and put them all in a set of scripts that the system will follow. Once you define your output job files, you only have to activate each one in order create your manufacturing files. Could this process be any simpler you ask? As a matter of fact, it can be and Altium has outdone itself by further automating the output job file so that the files are all executed together by one project release process.
This mechanism that we are talking about is Altium Designer’s Project Releaser. The project releaser will use the output job files that are already in place as part of its overall release process.
Building on the Output Job Files
To start with, let’s re-examine our output job files. In a previous blog, we talked about how to create and use output job files. We are going to take some very similar output job files and change them slightly to demonstrate using the project releaser.
We are working with two output job files, one to create output files for our board fabricator, and the other for our board assembler. The two output job files are named “Fabrication,” and “Assembly.” These are very simple files. The fabrication file only has some Gerber files defined in it while the assembly file only has an assembly drawing defined in it.
The assembly job output file in Altium Designer
In the picture above you can see our assembly output job file definitions. There are many other outputs that we could assign to it, but in our case we have a very simple file set up to only generate an assembly drawing. Note also that this output job file is set up to target the “Release Managed” location in the Output Management menu of the PDF settings dialog. You can set up manual locations for running the output job files on their own, but for the automated project releaser we will leave it set to the automatic “managed” setting.
In the picture below you can see our fabrication output job file definitions. As you can see it is also very simple and we only have it set up to generate Gerber files. Like the assembly file, we have set the target location set to “Released Managed”.
The fabrication job output file in Altium Designer
As we mentioned above, output job files can be set up for as many outputs as you need. Here is an example from a different design of an assembly output job file. In this case, there are PDF’s being generated for the PDF container (highlighted), while there are Gerber files and other documents being generated for the folder structure that are not highlighted. When having to create multiple manufacturing files like this, using the job output files can be a real time saver and prevent you from forgetting important documents when you have to come back later and recreate a new set of output files.
An example of a job output file with many documents and prints in it
Using the Project Releaser for your Project Release Management
When creating your manufacturing files from the output job files, you need to open each job file and generate the files within it. The project releaser simplifies this process by combining all of your job files together and then managing them from the releasers intuitive user interface. You can simultaneously generate your fabrication and assembly files, as well as your source data and other documents and data as needed. The releaser will also generate the assembly data for any variants that you have defined for your design as well.
To start the project release, go to the Project pulldown menu and select “Project Releaser” as shown in the picture below.
The pulldown menu command for Altium Designer’s Project Releaser
Altium Designer will process the design data, and then open up the release document. The project releaser will operate in one of two modes:
- Managed (Online) – Generated data will be released in revision form to a managed content server that you are signed into.
- Unmanaged (Offline) – Generated data will be released to a folder and you also have the option to create a single zip file of all your generated data.
For the purpose of this demonstration, we are using the unmanaged offline mode to show the creation of the files within a local design folder.
When the project releaser is first opened you will see target revisions or target folders depending on whether you are using the managed or unmanaged modes. The default target containers are “Source Data”, “Fabrication Data”, and Assembly Data”. You also have the option to create additional target containers depending on your needs. We will only be working with the default containers here, and you need to make sure that those containers are enabled by clicking on their checkboxes.
The first thing to do is to click on the “Options” button on the bottom of the release document window. This will open up the “Project Release Options” as you see below.
The Project Releaser menu options
In the project release options, there are two tabs. The first tab is to set up our options. For this demonstration we are going to make sure that we are set for the unmanaged folder option, and that our source data does NOT have an option selected. This will ensure that our generated files will go to a directory that we specify and that our source data is taken directly from the design. The Project Releaser also gives you the option of creating one zip file of all of your generated files instead of putting them into a folder. Moving on through the menu, our fabrication data will have the “Fabrication” option selected, and our assembly data will have the “Assembly” option selected.
In the second tab; “Output Path”, we will specify a folder in our design directory where our output files will be generated. For our purposes we will set this target directory to be in our design directory and name it; “Example Project Releaser Outputs.” Once done we will click OK to close the options menu.
The next step is to click the “Prepare” button in the lower right corner of the design session. This will run several pre-release checks to make sure that your design data is ready to be released. Once completed the release window will show you the files that it is prepared to generate. By clicking on “View” you can see these documents in their native form. The Gerber files will open up in Altium Designer’s CAMtastic viewer, while the PDF will open up in its viewer as shown below.
A drawing PDF preview in Altium Designer’s Project Releaser
These are “previews” of the data intended for generation, but until you release the data they will not actually be generated. This brings us to the final step which is to release the design.
Releasing the Design and Generating the Manufacturing Files
In the lower right corner is now a “Release” button. Click this button to release the design and generate all of your manufacturing data. Once done, the release window will now show the data that has been generated as shown below.
The completed Project Releaser menu
In this demo we had set up a target directory in our design directory named “Example Project Releaser Outputs” for the project releaser to generate our files in. You can see in the picture above that this is the name of the Output folder. By clicking on this link you can open up an explorer window to see the file structure of these outputs as shown below.
The generated Gerber files in a file explorer window
When working with your PCB editor through PCB layout, placing components and integrating your schematic should be as much a part of your process as producing the printed circuit. Make sure your circuit board can get through schematic capture in your PCB design tools and see the light at the end of the manufacturing output files. Components layout and schematic organization shouldn’t be the end of the world for your printed circuit board. Use design software that takes to heart the intent to move through PCB footprints into PCB assembly.
Altium Designer is advanced PCB design software that features utilities like the project releaser. With it, you can help increase your productivity while reducing the chance of error that can happen when creating manufacturing output files manually. Altium Designer is full of other enhanced features and functionality like this making it one of the best PCB design programs that you can use today.
Would you like to find out more about how Altium can help you with your next PCB design project? Talk to an expert at Altium.
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