How To Learn PCB Design
Printed circuit board (PCB) designers are needed now more than ever, and this need is only going to increase in the future, as more and more veteran PCB design engineers retire, while the challenges and complexities of PCB design increase. No longer is PCB design simply about ‘connecting the dots’ but rather an intricate science, that if neglected, will leave you with a non-functioning product.
Unfortunately, PCB design is not typically part of an electrical engineering university curriculum. In fact, even at top universities – one of which I was fortunate enough to complete my engineering degree at – had next to no mention of PCBs, and the main bulk of our course seemed to be concerned with solving long, difficult equations by hand.
Luckily, a university friend of mine at the time introduced me to PCB design – purely by chance. On the one hand, the path from that point on, to where I am now was insanely rewarding, opening up a plethora of opportunities. On the other hand, however, it was rather tough, as I had no guidance or mentor along the way.
PCB design is such a broad and intricate topic, and anyone looking for a PCB design job these days will need to be familiar with many aspects. From HDI designs, to RF layout and mixed-signal boards, design for manufacturing, and anything in between.
In this blog, I’ve compiled a list of resources (both free and paid) that helped me and brought my PCB design skills to the next level.
In particular for younger engineers and engineering students, my number one tip is to gain practical experience. Simply pick a project, or a problem you would like to solve (that involves electronics), and attempt to solve it.
Nothing teaches you more than hands-on experience, seeing what works and what doesn’t, and ultimately making mistakes.
In addition, the cost for PCB manufacturing and PCB design tools has decreased rapidly over the last decades, and is therefore within reach of a typical student’s budget.
YouTube has grown to be an incredibly useful platform for a multitude of engineering topics. This is true in particular for PCB design, as you will find plenty of useful and detailed information. From PCB design basics, tutorials on how to use Altium Designer, through to advanced topics such as HDI design, BGA fanout, and more.
Be wary though – as useful as YouTube is a resource, care must be taken to avoid misinformation. To help you out, my top three resources for PCB on YouTube are the following:
Altium’s YouTube channel contains a broad spectrum of videos including podcasts with industry experts, AltiumLive coverage, and more.
However, two videos in particular stand out, which I have recommended to absolutely anyone interested in PCB design.
Both of these videos feature my personal PCB design hero Rick Hartley and are a must-watch:
‘How to Achieve Proper Grounding’
‘What Your Differential Pairs Wish You Knew’
Trust me, the way you look at and design PCBs will never be the same after watching those videos.
- Altium Academy
Another fantastic resource provided by Altium for PCB design engineers of many different experience levels. Both novice and experienced engineers will pick up something new here.
Predominantly featuring content by Zach Peterson and Phil Salmony, Altium Academy covers a broad spectrum of topics from Altium Designer how-to’s, PCB design best practices, podcasts, and more.
- Robert Feranec
Robert’s channel has many videos on more advanced features of Altium Designer, as well as more advanced hardware designs (for example, DDR memory routing). He also features many expert guests (for example, Dr. Eric Bogatin) on his channel that explain in detail more advanced concepts.
- Phil’s Lab
Please excuse the shameless self-promotion on my part. My personal YouTube channel caters to a broad selection of engineers. From PCB design, to analogue electronics, to digital signal processing, and beyond. You’ll see real-world electronics come alive here - from theory to implementation.
Leaving the free domain of YouTube, another highly-recommended way of learning PCB design is via dedicated courses. Here, three offerings stand out:
- PCE EDU
The Printed Circuit Engineering Association has tried and succeeded to address the lack of professional training materials available for PCB design engineers with this course. Designed in collaboration with Rick Hartley and Mike Creeden.
- IPC CID/CID+
IPC offers two Certified Interconnect Designer courses with accreditation (CID, or the advanced CID+). These courses have a particular emphasis on design for manufacturing, and as the name suggests, on IPC’s standards.
- Fedevel Academy
Not only does Robert Feranec run a very educational YouTube channel, but he also runs Fedevel Academy. A platform specifically designed to offer courses for hardware design, with a particular focus on PCB design and Altium Designer.
Seminars, Webinars, and Conferences
PCB West and PCB East are the largest, annual conferences on PCB design, with multi-day training sessions, exhibitions, and networking opportunities. A great way of staying up-to-date on the latest PCB design trends, as well as improving your PCB design skills.
Also, keep your eyes open for webinars offered by PCEA. I’ve attended several of them, again featuring Rick Hartley, for example on RF routing or DDR PCB design.
Last but not least, books make for a great resource to level up your PCB design skills. Rick Harley has a fraction of his reading list publicly available right here on Altium’s resource site.