Manual Routing vs Using an Automated Router: Why Auto-Interactive Routing Is the Ideal PCB Design Solution

Created: September 27, 2017
Updated: October 23, 2020

Picture of routing on a PCB

I have been designing printed boards for a long time. Like most experienced PCB designers, I have my reservations about autorouters. Autorouters have a reputation for being difficult to set up and run, taking a long time to work, and giving questionable results. Often you would put your board into the router in the evening only to find the next morning that the results were not worth saving. I knew designers who would spend hours and hours “cleaning up” the routing that the autorouter had created. Often their cleanup wasn’t done to correct circuitry problems, they just couldn’t stand how it looked. Traces that would circle around the edge of the board, instead of going down a layer for the easy connection, were just one of the problems that an early router bit would produce.

As a result, it is not unusual for PCB designers to avoid using automation and to stick with manual hand-routing instead. However, there is a whole new world of opportunity out there with today’s auto-interactive PCB routing technology that you may not even be aware of. Let’s look at some of the reasons why designers opt for hand routing and then balance them with some of the benefits that today’s auto-interactive routing technology can give you.

That’s the way I’ve always done it

Let’s face it, we are all creatures of habit to a certain degree. I myself have often pushed back on using newer board design tool technologies because I had MY way of doing it and was resistant to automation change. That attitude, though, has only made me late to the PCB design party. The following examples are instances where designers often prefer to manually route their board.

Short connecting traces: I usually route short connecting traces from pin to pin by hand. Let’s face it, hand routing is cathartic. You can turn your brain off and just click-stroke-click-stroke-click-stroke all afternoon. I’ll admit it, there have been several times where I’ve spent a lot of time hand-routing in these short little connections so that I can later say to anyone who would ask that I have been busy working. Yes, it was busy work but it was gratifying to know for certain that you are in control and each connection was 100% accurate.

Complex circuits: Then there are the more complex areas of the board to route, which can be very fulfilling to the route. Visualizing the routing in your head as you go, and making it all happen on the screen is not only fulfilling, it’s a lot of fun.

But all of this hand routing vs automated PCB routing takes time, and that time could be spent on other aspects of your design rules or to help you get ahead. Here’s how the benefits of auto-interactive routing device can help you to save time in your device design.

Hand drawing signpost that says “same old” and “change”
Auto-interactive routing - a great change from the same old way

Auto-interactive routing, all the benefits without compromising the fun

One of the big perks of auto-interactive PCB routing is that it will route traces using the design rules that you currently have set up. This saves you time, especially compared to previous experiences when “prepare your design for the autorouter ” was as tedious as it was futile. With an auto-interactive PCB router, you tell it where to go, along the guide path you would take. It will route in the same manner that you would have.

With those designed short point-to-point connections, you can select the nets and engage the auto-interactive PCB router. The auto-interactive router will give you manual routing results without you spending the time to actually manually route the traces.

For more complex routing you have the option to select the nets and then draw in a path that you want the routes to take. The auto-interactive router will use the layers that you’ve enabled to route the nets from pin to pin. You will still be directing the routing, but the auto-interactive router will be doing the heavy lifting of putting all the traces in for you.

Picture of finger activating PCB circuitry
Put the power of an auto-interactive PCB router to work for you

Putting auto-interactive routers to work for you

Auto-interactive routers are not the solution for every situation. You will still want to exert more manual control over your critical PCB routing, and sometimes you will want to override the decisions that the auto-interactive PCB routing provides. You are still the PCB designer and it ultimately falls on you to make sure that the PCB layout is correct.

Auto-interactive routing, however, can save you a lot of time and effort in manually routing a lot of your traces. If you’ve been avoiding auto-interactive routers because you don’t trust the technology or you don’t want to give up that portion of the job, break the habit and give them a try. You probably will end up finding that they are a PCB layout design aid that you really can’t live without.

Altium’s ActiveRoute® can give you these auto-interactive benefits. Haven’t heard of it before? It’s a PCB design software tool featured in Altium Designer®.. Get excited.

Would you like to find out more about auto-interactive routing?  Talk to an expert at Altium Designer.


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