The Best PCB Design Tools Help You Grow From Design Kindergarten

Altium Designer
|  Created: February 2, 2018  |  Updated: September 25, 2020

PCB conductors and contact pads in the form of “Birth of Adam,” artwork

I used to work with middle-school aged kids, and one of the topics that I taught them was how to work together. I would separate them into four small groups and give each group a set of instructions on how to complete a section of a project. The intent was that after the four individual sections were completed, the kids would then come back together and use those sections to form one final project.

The results though were usually pretty funny as each group had its own idea of how everything should work. The kids learned very quickly that doing their sub-sections differently from the other groups made it difficult for them to put it all together later on. What was funny in that classroom setting though is not nearly so funny when you are trying to meet a PCB design schedule. When I’ve had to work with mixed tool sets, it results in the same kinds of chaos.

Schematics and layouts not synchronizing, drawing and manufacturing files that refuse to get updated are just a few difficulties faced. Before your schedules are delayed too far, it is important to know how to resolve some of the problems that arise in a mixed tool environment. Chaos can be fun when you are watching a group of 12-year olds trying to un-puzzle a puzzle, but it isn’t nearly so fun when it affects your job.

Problems with a Mixed PCB Design Tool Environment

Convenience aside, there are many problems that can occur in a mixed tool environment which not only slow you down but also open your designs to more opportunity for error. In those jobs where I have had to work with mixed tool-sets, the following are what I consider to be the disadvantages:

  • Look and feel: Different tools sets operate differently which will cause confusion when switching from one to another.
  • Function: The different tools will function differently. What you have come to expect from one you may not be able to do in another.
  • User training: In order to keep current on different tools, users need to be constantly cross-training on the other tools.
  • File format: The file structures and formats will be different from each other.
  • Libraries: The libraries will be different requiring maintaining multiple libraries or relying on translations.
  • The need for interfaces or translators: When going from tool to tool, you may need an interface or translator. These require regular updates to keep current with each other.
  • Lack of communication: Sometimes there isn’t a way for one tool to communicate to another.

Whether your design group is a large department or a one-person operation, the disadvantages of a mixed tool environment can have a big impact on your work.

Five 3D green square layers with the top transparent
Keeping track of your layers and avoiding jumping from tool to tool can cure confusion for a

Mixed Tool Problems Can Become a Sea of Chaos

When users have to spend extra time re-familiarizing themselves with how their design tools work, it can cause schedule delays or even require additional training. Additionally, job flows and work procedures are based on specific tool patterns. If the pattern that the users are expecting to use is unknown or even unavailable, they may spend unproductive time trying to resolve the problem.

With the differences in file structures, formats, and libraries, different tools may not easily communicate with each other. In the case of schematics and layouts, the user may not be able to cross-probe or the design might not even be able to synchronize between the two. In the case of layout software and drawing software, a change made to the layout may not update correctly in the drawing software.

Bill of materials that are completed in another tool may also end up different than the that is produced from the layout software. Because of these communication problems between tools, the users may end up having to find manual workarounds in order to transfer data between the tools. Netlist files may have to be extracted from one tool and then pulled into another. If the formats don’t match, those files may even have to be manually edited.

All of these issues may end up causing you some very big problems. You may find that you are spending more time, making more mistakes, and ultimately using up more money to make a mixed tool environment work the way you need it to.

PCB and circuiting within a computer
The best PCB design tool system is one based on a unified design environment

A Unified Design Environment Makes for the Best PCB Design Tool

The best approach is to use a unified design environment for your PCB design tools. With a unified design toolset, all of your individual tools are present in the same suite of applications. The schematics, layout, drawings, and the tools are all in the same environment. No longer will your users have difficulty switching between tools because they will have a common interface.

Menus, commands, functions, and patterns will all be similar if not the same. This will help your users work more efficiently on the tools and reduce the need for continual re-training. Translators and interfaces will not be needed in a unified design environment, nor will multiple libraries need to be maintained. Any changes made to one tool will be automatically updated in the others removing the need to move files back and forth or to make manual edits.

A unified design environment will remove the chaos that can come from using mixed tool PCB design system. With all of the applications you need available in the same environment, you can quit spending time on moving data around and shorten your time to market.

With the schematic, layout, drawing creation and functionality all present in the same environment, you can focus your energies less on software and more on design where it belongs. To achieve this unified design environment in a user-friendly, appealing visual interface, try PCB design software such as Altium Designer®.

And if you want to know more about how Altium’s unified design environment can help your PCB design process, then talk to an expert at Altium.

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

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