Come see Altium at Embedded World, Booth 4-305, and discover our industry-leading suite of solutions!

Circuit CAD Software for PCB Design

Zachariah Peterson
|  Created: November 9, 2020
Circuit CAD Software for PCB Design

Circuit CAD tools are the cornerstone of PCB design. These tools give you the capability to create schematics and a circuit board layout of your new product, but not all CAD features are created equal. Today’s designers need to take a comprehensive approach to PCB design that includes mechanical design, simulation, and preparation for manufacturing. Your productivity stays high when your CAD tools are integrated with more advanced design features and your other design tools, and you can quickly design PCBs for advanced applications.

To handle the complex challenges of a complete design project, you need a complete circuit CAD system for PCB design. Altium Designer offers all these advantages and many more in a single program. You’ll have everything you need to design your next PCB in a single program, including tools for MCAD collaboration in popular mechanical design applications.


The most powerful, modern, and easy-to-use PCB design tool for professional use.

It’s true what they say: hardware is hard work. Compared to a new piece of software, building a new piece of hardware takes several iterations of building a proof of concept, prototyping, testing, retesting, and redesigning, not to mention any of the other aspects of marketing a new product.

If you’ve got a great idea for a new electronic device, you’ll need to turn it from a circuit diagram into a schematic. Later, you’ll need to turn your schematic into a layout, and then you’ll need to turn your layout into an actual PCB. The challenges of today’s complex designs require professional quality computer-aided design software tools. Too often in the past designers were forced to choose between settling for lesser quality tools, or mixing together tools from different systems in order to get the job done.

When all your design and production planning tools are integrated into a single application, you won’t have to worry about incorporating a third-party application into your design workflow. Altium Designer is a complete CAD software with a PCB design system that will give you the resources you need for your greatest design challenges. From your initial schematic capture to your final manufacturing output data, all the tools you need for printed circuit board design are available in Altium Designer.

The Role of Circuit CAD Tools in PCB Design

CAD circuit design tools in your PCB design software do more than just allow you to place components on a board outline. Simpler circuit CAD software will give you these capabilities, but not much else. PCB CAD tools should not be limited to component layout in 2D board designs. Working with more advanced board configurations like rigid-flex design takes CAD tools that link multiple boards into a single device. The best CAD tools create a link between multiple layers on your board, allowing routing through vias and within the inner layers. Modern CAD circuit design tools give you a full view of your device and allow you to approach your design holistically.

The best CAD software for PCB design will interface with a comprehensive set of design rules. These design rules govern the function of your routing features, simulation tools, and features for generating manufacturer deliverables. A rules-driven design engine in your circuit CAD software will automatically show you when you’ve created a rules violation, allowing you to fix any problems before you send your board off for manufacturing. A great CAD module forms the foundation for designing your next PCB, regardless of the application.

The Basic PCB Design and Circuit Layout Tools You Need

Your schematics define the basic structure of your device and provide the intimate details on how your components and power/ground lines are connected together in a coherent structure. Your new PCB starts its life in a powerful schematic editor, where CAD circuit tools are used to place and connect components together in a real device. The best schematic editors will include a SPICE-based simulator to evaluate the functionality of your circuits.

Once you finish your schematics, you’ll need to use a schematic capture utility to place your components into an initial PCB layout. You’ll then use CAD tools to arrange and route components together into a complete circuit board. The full layout of components on your PCB should feed directly into simulation and analysis features so that they can access information directly from your circuit CAD PCB design. Accurate PCB layouts help ensure your manufacturer can build your board properly on the first production run, which prevents fabrication delays and redesigns.

Screen capture of Altium Designer schematic capture tool

Altium Designer’s powerful hierarchical schematic editor

Design Tools in Advanced CAD Software

Most freeware and online circuit CAD platforms include schematic editing, capture, and layout features, but they don’t include more advanced features. You’ll be forced to add other programs to your workflow if you want to understand your circuit board’s behavior and prepare for full-scale manufacturing. Post-layout simulation features are important for predicting signal integrity problems like crosstalk and ringing, and a set of advanced simulation features will calculate these important effects directly from your layout.

In addition to these important simulations and analysis features, manufacturing preparation requires generating important documents directly from your PCB layout files. Your manufacturer will need Gerber files, assembly drawings, bills of materials, and more in order to get your board into production. In addition to these important circuit CAD and manufacturing features, you need a set of MCAD tools as part of enclosure design for your new product.

Why You Need MCAD Capabilities in Your PCB Design Software

Advanced products with complex mechanical requirements take more than just ECAD tools. Including MCAD capabilities in your PCB design process gives you a full 3D view of every aspect of your design. You’ll be able to see how your product looks before it comes off the assembly line. You can verify enclosure dimensions, clearances, and the overall arrangement of components on your board. You can even get a 3D view of your trace layout and routing.

If you use proprietary components or nonstandard components, you’ll need to include footprints and STEP models as part of the mechanical design process. The right PCB design package allows you to link STEP models to your components as part of your design process. If you’re working on rigid-flex boards or a multi-board system, using MCAD software takes the guesswork out of design and helps ensure your boards will meet your packaging requirements.

Screenshot of multiple CAD circuit tools in Altium Designer

You’ll find multiple circuit CAD tools in Altium Designer

A Unified Design Environment in One CAD Software Download

As PCB design software offers more capabilities to designers and engineers, CAD PCB design tools can no longer sit separated from simulation, visualization, and manufacturer deliverable generation tools. The new PCB design paradigm unifies your design tools in a single environment, keeping your productivity high and allowing you to seamlessly manage your design data. Circuit CAD tools in this environment are created to interface with more all the advanced features you need. Working with unified design software instead of separated design modules ensures that your PCB meets the goals of your design.

Design Tools That Were Created to Work Together

When your design features are integrated in a single environment, your CAD PCB design tools are built to interface with more advanced design features, making your tools adaptable for any design application. Keeping all your capabilities in a single software program lets you move through the entire design process efficiently. Data from your CAD PCB design tools feeds directly into your simulation and analysis features, helping you verify your device functionality and allowing you to diagnose problems before you begin production.

The integrated MCAD/ECAD design features interface with powerful PCB design tools that expedite layout and production planning processes. The collaboration and data management tools improve the quality of your designs and your workflow. Altium Designer includes the best design features you need to create the most intricate PCBs without using outdated workflows in multiple programs.

Screenshot of multiple CAD circuit tools in Altium Designer

The native 3D design utilities in Altium Designer give you access to ECAD and MCAD functions in a single platform.

As an engineer, you need CAD software for PCB design that will give you complete control over all aspects of your PCB design. Altium Designer is a complete CAD software system that unifies design across electrical and mechanical design domains. No other design platform includes all the ECAD and MCAD design tools you need in one place.

Altium Designer on Altium 365 delivers an unprecedented amount of integration to the electronics industry until now relegated to the world of software development, allowing designers to work from home and reach unprecedented levels of efficiency.

We have only scratched the surface of what is possible to do with Altium Designer on Altium 365. You can check the product page for a more in-depth feature description or one of the On-Demand Webinars.

About Author

About Author

Zachariah Peterson has an extensive technical background in academia and industry. He currently provides research, design, and marketing services to companies in the electronics industry. Prior to working in the PCB industry, he taught at Portland State University and conducted research on random laser theory, materials, and stability. His background in scientific research spans topics in nanoparticle lasers, electronic and optoelectronic semiconductor devices, environmental sensors, and stochastics. His work has been published in over a dozen peer-reviewed journals and conference proceedings, and he has written 2500+ technical articles on PCB design for a number of companies. He is a member of IEEE Photonics Society, IEEE Electronics Packaging Society, American Physical Society, and the Printed Circuit Engineering Association (PCEA). He previously served as a voting member on the INCITS Quantum Computing Technical Advisory Committee working on technical standards for quantum electronics, and he currently serves on the IEEE P3186 Working Group focused on Port Interface Representing Photonic Signals Using SPICE-class Circuit Simulators.

Related Resources

Related Technical Documentation

Back to Home
Thank you, you are now subscribed to updates.