The Essential Tools You Need for PCB Design

Zachariah Peterson
|  Created: May 5, 2019  |  Updated: April 17, 2020

Complex trace routing and landing pads on a green PCB

Whether you’re building a house or building a PCB, you need the right tools in your toolbox. Every designer needs to have CAD tools for component placement, but even command line-based CAD software can be used for accurate component placement. With modern electronic devices becoming more complex at all levels, designers need tools that help expedite essential design tasks.

Choosing the right set of PCB design tools requires weighing a number of potential options. There are many software packages on the market with different capabilities, and no one has time to work with a free trial of every software package. Some of these design platforms still work with the same outdated workflow they were using 20 years ago. With this in mind, let’s take a look at some essential tools every designer needs to have in their PCB design software.

Schematic Design and Capture

Your electronics schematic is like the foundation of a house. Everything you place on your board is based on this foundational document. This important document shows what components you need for your board, how they are connected, and the location of power and ground connections. With the right schematic editor, you can easily plan your layout and annotate your boards.

Working with a schematic editor keeps your board organized, but working with a single schematic can become unwieldy once your designs start becoming more complex. Once you start including multiple capabilities on your board, you can keep things organized by working with hierarchical schematics. This allows you separate components into different schematics based on how they fit into functional blocks, and you can define parent-child relationships between your schematics.

Working with multi-channel PCB design tools not only helps you stay organized, it allows you to easily duplicate groups of components within hierarchical schematics. Once you capture your schematic as an initial layout, these duplicate groups of components are transferred to your new board. You can then start routing traces between components, as well as place your power and ground connections.

Hierarchical schematic PCB design tools

Hierarchical schematics help you define relationships between different blocks in your PCB

Routing Features

Once your schematic is captured as an initial layout, your CAD tools will be standing by to help you place your components and route traces. Routing is that critical task that defines the physical connections between components on your board. With simple designs, it is an easy matter to route each connection by hand and check your layout against your design rules. But as your board becomes more complex and the number of required interconnects increases, tools that can automate the routing process can save you a huge amount of time.

The debate between the merits of autorouters and interactive routers seems eternal. For simple boards that do not involve differential pairs, a large number of signal nets, or constraints on the number of vias on an interconnect, autorouters can still produce a decent layout. Note that, in these cases, your autorouter will produce a better layout if you can define an appropriate routing strategy.

This is where auto-interactive routing becomes an important PCB design tool. An auto-interactive router mixes the best aspects of an autorouter and an interactive router. You can manually define waypoints along an interconnect for a given signal net, and the tool will automatically route traces in the net between the source component, these waypoints, and your load component.

Dense trace routing on a green PCB

Creating this type of layout is much easier with an auto-interactive router

Signal Integrity and Power Delivery Analysis

When it comes to signal integrity, modern digital ICs switch fast enough that ensuring signals remain clean becomes an important consideration for almost any designer. Ensuring signal integrity really requires designing the right layer stack, trace geometry, and ground plane for your particular application. All of these are tasks for CAD, routing, and board design tools.

If you work with the right signal integrity package, you can examine reflection and crosstalk waveforms in different nets. This helps you determine when termination is necessary and which matching network you should use in different traces.

When it comes to power delivery and thermal management, working with a power delivery network analyzer (PDNA) allows you to determine IR losses throughout your traces, power and ground planes, and vias. Your PDNA should produce voltage and current density results using an intuitive output format. The best tools will show you an interactive color map, allowing you to visually inspect your board for potential power thermal problems and excessive IR drop.

Power delivery analysis in Altium Designer

Color map showing power delivery throughout a PCB

PCB Design Tools Built on a Rules-Driven Engine

Perhaps the most important part of PCB design is ensuring that your design complies with basic design rules. Your design features should check your design data against these rules as you create your layout, allowing you to quickly identify problems and correct them as needed. Your design rules can also constrain the functionality of your CAD and routing features, helping you comply with important standards on your design.

Other PCB design packages separate these important features into different programs, forcing you to export and re-import your data as you move between programs. You’ll be left to devise a complicated workaround when new versions are released and there is a real risk that your old data suddenly becomes inaccessible. The workflows and interfaces in this environment are inconsistent across design tools, which exacerbates the learning curve and reduces design productivity.

Altium Designer® contains all of the critical features outlined here and many more in a unified, rules-driven design platform. You’ll have access to all of these PCB design tools in a single program. If you’re interested in learning more about Altium Designer, you can download a free trial and get access to the industry’s best layout, routing, and simulation features. Talk to an Altium expert today to learn more.

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 1000+ technical blogs on PCB design for a number of companies. He is a member of IEEE Photonics Society, IEEE Electronics Packaging Society, and the American Physical Society, and he currently serves on the INCITS Quantum Computing Technical Advisory Committee.

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