Choosing CAD Software: Privileging the Circuit over the System

Created: August 20, 2018
Updated: January 4, 2021

Electronic circuit on a PCB

Choosing the right CAD tools for your next PCB is all about selecting a software package that gives you the adaptability you need to build your device. Different electronics applications will require different routing strategies and tolerances, as well as customized electronic circuitry. You’ll need CAD tools that give you the capabilities to satisfy any device requirements. Your CAD tools are critical to building a device that can meet your operating requirements.

Since specialized PCBs require unique electronic circuitry and have particular layout requirements, your CAD tools need to be adaptable to any type of PCB. Whether you are working with high speed, high frequency, multi-layer, or multi-board devices, your CAD and design tools should function the same regardless of your application.

CAD Tools in PCB Design

When you’re designing your PCB, your CAD tools are the primary tools that help you layout your circuits. There are a number of parameters that need to be defined in your board layout during the design phase, and your CAD tools need to make this easy while still allowing accurate placement of traces and components.

Layout accuracy is especially important when connecting circuit elements in PCBs for specific applications. High-speed devices, high density interconnect PCBs, and differential pair routing require ultra-accurate trace layout in order to ensure that your signals are synchronized throughout your circuit and signal integrity can be maintained. Your PCB design software should always contain ultra-accurate CAD tools that are adaptable to any application.

Not all electronic circuits are neatly packaged as ICs, and highly customized circuits that give your device its critical functionality need to be laid out directly on your PCB. When you opt for a PCB design software package with clunky CAD tools, your layout process takes an excessive amount of time and a lead to inaccurate routing between components in your circuits. The old adage that “less is more” does not apply to PCB CAD tools.

2D and 3D CAD views in Altium

2D and 3D CAD views

Realizing Where the Pain Comes From

Different PCB design software programs give you CAD tools with different capabilities. While all CAD tools let you route traces and place components in your circuits, each program implements its own process for using the CAD tools. Different design programs are not created equal, and not all programs contain the advanced layout and routing features you need for every application.

Not all CAD programs for building and viewing PCB layouts synchronize easily with your other design tools. For example, it is not uncommon for schematic and layout tools to have different behavior. CAD tools for schematic and layout can require different sets of commands to execute the same task. This creates a more difficult learning curve when working with a program for the first time, and it forces you to re-learn commands when you move between interfaces.

Lack of integration between CAD tools and other design tools only creates more workflow constraints. Most design packages offer different tools within different modules or programs, and each program has its own design workflow when building your circuits. Other PCB design packages attempt to integrate various design capabilities in a single interface, but each set of tools still uses different sets of commands and still requires learning multiple processes for similar tasks.

But it doesn’t stop there. Some PCB design platforms only focus on certain design aspects rather than take a holistic approach to these complicated systems. When your design software only focuses on component and IC design, the CAD tools won’t be adaptable to PCB layout, and vice versa. Building design tools around specific tasks is no way to create PCB design software.

Using Your CAD Tools For Circuit Design

Circuits designed for certain applications require different capabilities of your CAD tools. High speed design requires precise length tolerance matching and trace meandering. Differential pair routing requires precisely placing traces in parallel with specified spacing. Working on multi-layer boards requires accurate via definitions and placement, as well as a customizable layer stackup. More likely than not, you’ll have to impedance match most of these elements, requiring you to use precise analysis tools in the process.

Your CAD tools should also allow placement of each circuit element with high accuracy. Working within a unified design environment unifies your layout and rules checking features within a single interface and provides a consistent workflow. You can focus on designing the circuit you need for your application’s critical functionality without sacrificing accuracy. Your ultra-precise layout then easily translates into device simulations so you can see your design in operation.

Adaptable CAD tools are not built around a specific task. Instead these tools should be designed to work with any design tasks, whether it is component design, circuit design, or laying out components. You need a single interface and command set that is adaptable to the entire design process.

Interactive routing in Altium

Interactive routing in a multi-layer board with Altium 

Circuit and System Design in Altium’s Unified Design Environment

Working in a unified design environment means that your design tools give you the capability to design at the individual component level up to the system level. A unified design model integrates your simulation definitions with your customized components, allows you to build circuit blocks from components directly on your PCB, and lets you link everything together into an entire single board or multi-board electronic system.

With ® , Altium’s slightly toned-down version of Altium ,  you’ll have access to the only PCB design software platform that integrates all these features within a single program. You’ll work within a unified interface that uses a consistent workflow. Since all the design tools were explicitly built to work together, you’ll be able to avoid the headaches that arise from using other PCB design software platforms with inconsistent interfaces and separated design modules.

does more than just give you the world’s best design tools. You’ll have access to simulation and analysis tools, design rule checking that is consistent across the platform, bill of materials and Gerber file generation tools, and much more.

If you have trouble taking advantage of all the CAD, layout, and routing capabilities available in , you’ll have support from a community of professional engineers and designers. You can get access to the AltiumLive forum, user groups, video, and webinars at any time. Relying on a support network in a pinch can help you succeed as a PCB.

Building ultra-accurate PCB layouts that focus on circuit design and trace routing is easy when you use a software package like CAD Software. The CAD tools and advanced routing features in are easily to use and are designed to help you maximize your productivity. Information in your CAD layouts will feed directly into your simulation and analysis tools, and all within a single design interface.

Now you can explore the capabilities of by downloading a free trial. To find out more about and how its CAD tools and advanced routing features can help you design electronic devices for any application, talk to an expert at Altium today.

Start the journey to switch over to Altium Designer today.

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