How to Build a Circuit Board With Altium’s PCB Design Software

Zachariah Peterson
|  Created: November 9, 2020

Your printed circuit board (PCB) design might be designed to be electrically correct, but you also need to be assured it can be manufactured. Even though you need a PCB manufacturer to fabricate and assemble your board, you need to implement design for manufacturing (DFM) to ensure your board can be manufactured at scale. Making sure your design is manufacturable is all about encoding DFM specifications in your design rules.

With the rules-driven design features in Altium Designer, you can implement DFM specifications as design rules for your PCB, and you can produce new products at scale. The design features in Altium Designer make it easy to prevent fabrication problems and unnecessary redesigns before you produce your PCB. Here’s what you need to know about defining DFM rules in PCB design software and how Altium Designer can help.


A comprehensive software package that guides you through how to make a circuit board and design successfully.

Some PCB layouts begin as a proof of concept on a breadboard, and creating a fully manufacturable printed circuit board can be a challenging task. PCB design software is what lets you place electronic components, place solder mask, and choose copper foil on your electronic circuits. Starting with a schematic diagram, you’ll need to recreate your breadboard design and transfer it to a PCB layout to begin creating a real circuit board.

Placing interconnections between these components within the confines of a PCB structure needs to be done while obeying design for manufacturing (DFM) rules as specified by your PCB manufacturer. Traces need to be etched with ferric chloride or other etching solutions, and electronic components need to be soldered without creating shorts in your board. With the design tools in Altium Designer, you can ensure your board passes DFM checks and can be placed in the manufacturing process successfully.

How to Build a Circuit Board and DFM Guidelines

The first step in having your PCB manufactured is fabrication. PCB fabrication consists of making the physical PCB stackup, which comprises the core, substrate, prepreg, and surface coating or solder mask, as well as the surface trace routes and drill holes that may include vias. Defining the parameters for all of these elements are requirements for the designer.

It is essential that the physical constraints of the fabrication and assembly equipment and processes of your PCB manufacturer be incorporated as limitations on the PCB layout design. The process of synchronizing the designed PCB structure with the one manufactured is known as DFM. Having a PCB software design package where you can see how your circuit board is made during design allows you to set DFM guidelines as design rules.

A PCB is made by etching pads and traces into a laminate material covered with copper foil. The copper foil is masked with a stencil, which is created from Gerber files for your PCB layout. After the board is etched, drilled, plated, and pressed into a full PCB layer stackup, the components are attached by soldering. Some circuit boards may need a conformal coating if they will be deployed in harsh environments. There are also cleaning processes to ensure no residues are left behind that can cause corrosion or short circuits.

Your board will also need to be designed to fit in your enclosure. For some boards, this is as simple as measuring the limits imposed by the largest components. However, for rigid-flex boards and boards with complex shapes, you’ll need mechanical tools to finsih your design and ensure it fits its packaging. This lack of ECAD and MCAD collaboration in most PCB design programs continues to be the root cause of the many issues that cause board redesigns, extensive turnaround times and sometimes board failures once deployed in the field.

MCAD PCB design Altium Designer

3D views of a finished printed circuit board in Altium Designer show you what to expect from manufacturing and PCB assembly.

Incorporate DFM Rules in Your PCB Layout Tools

Enforcing DFM requirements means defining specific manufacturing tolerances in your PCB design rules before you create your layout. Some design rules that govern signal integrity and PCB assembly are specified in your high speed signalling standards or your component datasheets. Be sure to check these resources before you start your PCB layout to ensure you can get to manufacturing without delays.

Design for Assembly (DFA) Guidelines for Your PCB Layout

The PCB assembly process is the last stage of the manufacturing process, and it is more complicated than simply attaching components. Some boards can be assembled with solder by hand, but complex devices need to be put through wave soldering to quickly assemble boards. Your board needs to be designed to accommodate the specific process that will be used to assemble your circuit board.

Another major consideration is component packaging. If you choose through-hole technology, then you may have significant fanout which reduces available space for copper traces on the surface. Conversely, if you select surface-mount technology components with pads underneath the device, you will have to include vias if you need to route traces in the inner signal layers. Your DFM and DFA requirements must work together to ensure you do not create mistakes that could delay manufacturing or cause your board to receive no-bid status.

Rules-Driven Design Software Aids DFA

Your understanding of how these and other DFA specifications affect the assembly of your board will determine the quality and reliability of your manufactured PCB. With Altium Designer, you can view the impact of your DFA specifications during design. This allows you to make any needed corrections before manufacture and avoid circuit board defects or component problems, including warpage.

View your circuit board in 3D

Each circuit board in a multi-board system can be inspected in 3D with MCAD tools.

Prevent Manufacturing Defects with Altium Designer

Altium Designer provides multiple ways to set parameters that impact fabrication and assembly of your circuit board. These include the PCB Rules and Constraints Editor and multiple management dialogs. The high quality CAD tools in Altium Designer interface with your design rules to all your PCB layout parameters do not violate DFM guidelines. Everything you need to create a complete PCB design, and to prepare your design for manufacturing and PCB assembly, can be found in Altium Designer.

Altium Designer Guides You Throughout the Design Process

The entire design process is easy thanks to the schematic editor and PCB layout editor in Altium Designer. You can also view PCB layout elements while viewing your design in 3D. In addition to these capabilities, Altium Designer includes a suite of advanced functions for creating panels and manufacturing documentation for your design.

Panelized PCBs for manufacturing

3D view of your panelized PCBs before manufacturing

The success of your PCB design and development depends on coordination with your PCB manufacturer to ensure you follow their DFM guidelines on copper placement, routing traces, solder defects, and much more. With Altium Designer, you can see a realistic view of your circuit board during design and define your application requirements in your design rules.

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 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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