I read once about a test pilot during World War II who complained about how a new fighter plane’s engine quit on him when he rolled the plane on its back. This is a pretty basic maneuver for a fighter, but because the engine wasn’t designed for inverted flight it couldn’t perform as it was expected to. I remember that story because I have had a similar experience with many of the PCB CAD systems that I have used over the years. Because those systems weren’t designed for 3D viewing, I wasn’t able to work on my designs the way that I expected to.
If you are designing printed circuit boards on CAD systems without 3D capabilities you are missing out on a lot. Being able to do full 3D checking, seeing how tight components can be placed together, or simply getting an idea of what the board will actually look like when it is assembled are just some of the things that are beyond what your design system can do for you.
PCB design systems with 3D capabilities are available though, you just have to start using them. Let’s contrast some of the pain that you may be experiencing now without 3D capabilities with what you can expect to gain when you start working with a PCB design system with 3D.
What You are Missing When You Design Without 3D
Without 3D you have to place flat 2D components without being able to see how the different heights of your components will look on the board. With a full 3D view of your board, you can see right away what it’s going to look like. When you have the complete picture of what you are working on, it will help you to better visualize how you need to arrange and organize your parts placement so that you can get the best results.
A CAD system without full 3D is working with your shapes in 2 ½ D. With the CAD system assigning a simple cube shape to each part, a lot of space can be lost because the parts are not correctly rendered. With full 3D capabilities, you can check the actual contours of the parts in your design allowing for a tighter placement than what you get with the cube shapes of 2 ½ D checking.
Some CAD systems have added 3D capabilities to their existing tools, but this may not be as helpful as you might think. There is a difference between systems that have been designed to work with 3D from the start and those that have been retrofitted with it later. Some of these modified systems require an enormous amount of setup in order to work. You have to follow many different steps in order to configure the system to render your design in 3D.
Full 3D allows you to visualize your placement as it really looks
The Problems of 3D in Systems Not Initially Designed for It
Without full 3D you also won’t have the ability to check your design to mechanical enclosures and features or to other circuit boards in the system. This means that you have to be dependent on your mechanical engineers or other members of the design team to check and then give you feedback on your placement. You also will have to wait for feedback from them on clearances and alignments to other PCBs in the system as well.
You will also find PCB design systems where the added 3D capabilities are offered as more of as an option instead of being part of the overall design system. This can mean that you have to start up a separate process to view the board in 3D that is outside of the regular design environment. In some cases, the only option for 3D is to use a completely separate third party tool that isn’t associated with the core PCB design system at all.
Working with the Best Native 3D View in Altium
I have found that Altium Designer provides the best 3D solution for PCB design. Altium Designer features a unified data model as well as a native 3D engine. This means that the data structure is consistent with the lowest level of the design all the way up and through the full layout. In this way, the data is all designed to work together for a natural fit with Altium Designer’s native 3D engine.
Full 3D allows you to check your design to mechanical features and other boards
With Altium Designer, you can easily toggle between 2D and 3D depending on your design needs. You have the ability to work with STEP models and exchange that data with MCAD systems, and you can import mechanical data into your design to do your own system checking in full 3D. If conflicts are found, you can make those placement corrections while working in 3D as you can see how your design fits mechanical obstructions or other system boards.
Altium Designer is the PCB design software that has given us the 3D viewing capabilities that we need. If you are looking for a better way to work with your designs in 3D, contact them and talk to an expert at Altium.
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