How to Become a PCB Designer in Today’s World

Zachariah Peterson
|  Created: September 4, 2022  |  Updated: November 25, 2023
How to Become a PCB Designer in Today’s World

For the engineer that likes to solve puzzles, create something physical, and appreciates electronics, PCB design as a career might be right for you. Even if you're not a PCB designer or layout engineer, and instead you want to work as an electrical engineer, there is still room for you to work with PCB designers. Today's teams are multifunctional and they need to collaborate across disciplines. It's better to think of electronics development groups as product development teams, where engineers with different types of expertise work together to create a new product.

How about you? Have you ever thought about getting into PCB design, taking a PCB design course, or how to become a PCB designer? Perhaps you are already in school and headed for an engineering degree. Or maybe you’re an electronics technician or you are doing some kind of CAD drafting. Maybe you’re not even in the electronics industry, but the idea of mastering printed circuit boards sounds really good to you. If you've wanted to make a career change to becoming a PCB design, or you want to expand your engineering skill set, here's what you can expect.

The PCB Designer's Experience and Career Path

Printed circuits became popular in the 1950s and was originally something of a trade skill. PCB designers originally taped out board designs on plywood sheets and bakelite on a drafting board at four or even ten times the actual size using tape, knives, stickers, and a steady hand. When completed, those drawings would be recreated on film using a reduction camera, and that film would be used to make the PCB tooling at the fabrication shop. The PCB designer was as much an artist as they were a budding engineer that needed to master the fundamentals of electrical theory.

Today, PCB layout and routing are done on advanced computer-aided design systems (CAD), and their output files are used to create manufacturing tooling for a printed circuit board. A PCB designer creates everything from individual parts models (schematic symbols and PCB footprints) to the copper connections that appear on the finished board. Once all of the required footprints have been placed on the board, they will connect all of the electrical connections using lines that represent metal in a process called trace routing. PCB designer's also have to specify all other structural aspects of the board, such as:

  • Layer arrangements (or the PCB layer stack)
  • Circuit board materials used to build the layer stack
  • Where copper will appear through the outer layer solder mask
  • All printed legends and markings on the silkscreen overlay
  • Via designs used to route signals between layers
  • How all of these aspects appear in the files delivered to a manufacturer
PCB gerber file
The output from your PCB CAD software will eventually be turned into a set of Gerber files

From the above list, we can see that the PCB designer needs to understand how to use CAD tools, as well as how electronic components work, but they also need to understand the standard PCB manufacturing process, which includes bare board fabrication and PCB assembly. These are just some of the basic aspects a designer will need to excel in. As a designer becomes more experienced and familiar with the PCB design process, they tend to take on more of an engineering role and they become a critical part of product development. This includes circuit design and component selection, as well as placement in the PCB layout to ensure the final product will work as intended.

Some PCB designers are also embedded developers. In fact, this is a great way to get into PCB design while also learning programming skills. Many modern products operate with an embedded application (as firmware) or with an embedded operating system. PCB designers often need to work with programmers and developers to ensure the physical design requirements are translated into programming requirements.

What Kind of Education is Required to be a PCB Designer?

Any career path starts with education, especially in a technical area like PCB design. Today, PCB design is not something that is often taught formally in a university setting, and the level of quality in the instruction can vary across institutions. That being said, there are options for learning PCB design as part of an engineering degree, and there are industry-level courses designers can take to help them build their skill set. Most companies require a 4-year engineering degree, even for PCB design jobs.

In the past, PCB design was something you could pick up actively because it was something of a trade and there was a focus on drafting with scale drawings or models. Today, because the required breadth and depth of skills has increased significantly, it is recommended that PCB designers obtain an electrical engineering degree, or possibly a computer engineering degree. If you want to work in manufacturing or process development, a degree in materials science or chemistry is recommended. This will give designers access to a broad range of skills that are demanded in the modern PCB design job description.

Some of the courses you might need to take to learn PCB design in an engineering degree program include:

  • Circuit design and simulation
  • PCB layout classes, which are available through some community colleges
  • Basic electromagnetics classes
  • RF design and antennas classes
  • Power systems classes
Picture of diploma
Many companies are now requiring degrees for PCB design positions

What About Industry PCB Design Courses?

For those who are doing PCB layout specifically, there isn’t a degree dedicated to PCB design or printed circuit board creation. However, as part of your educational program, there are industry-level courses that can help bridge the gap between a typical university engineering program and an industry requirements for professional designers. Two industry-level design courses are the IPC Certified Interconnect Designer (CID) course, and the PCE-EDU course from the Printed Circuit Engineering Association.

Picture of a finger on a circuit board pulsing with blue power
The future is bright for PCB design

Finally, if you want to be a PCB designer, then you'll need to learn to use a CAD tool! If you're early in your educational path, an open-source PCB design software is a good option for learning the workflow involved in PCB design. However, if you want to work in any kind of professional setting, you'll quickly find that open-source CAD programs are not used and a more powerful CAD tool is needed. Courses on paid CAD tools are available with educational licenses, so if you're planning to pursue design as a career, make sure you look at an option like Altium Education, you can get a free license and training resources that will prepare you for more advanced industry-level courses, like the CID or PCE-EDU.

What is the Future for the PCB Designer?

The need to design current and evolving PCB technologies is growing. With more and more electronics such as IoT becoming prominent in everyday life, the future of electronic design is very bright. However, the pool of experienced PCB designers and manufacturing personnel is shrinking as many designers are approaching retirement age. New onshoring efforts and the wave of new design job openings makes PCB design an appealing career.

Do you have a passion for creating things and making them work? If so, then laying out printed circuit board designs may be what you are looking for. If you are ready to start a career as a PCB designer, take a look at Altium. Altium Designer® is the industry's most popular PCB design software application, made for the PCB engineer and designer to create world-class PCB designs. Not only will the software help you with all aspects of your design, but Altium offers training on its software that will help you to hit the ground running.

Would you like to find out more about how Altium Designer can help you gain PCB design experience? Talk to an expert at Altium.


Check out Altium Designer in action...

Powerful PCB Design

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 2500+ technical articles on PCB design for a number of companies. He is a member of IEEE Photonics Society, IEEE Electronics Packaging Society, American Physical Society, and the Printed Circuit Engineering Association (PCEA). He previously served as a voting member on the INCITS Quantum Computing Technical Advisory Committee working on technical standards for quantum electronics, and he currently serves on the IEEE P3186 Working Group focused on Port Interface Representing Photonic Signals Using SPICE-class Circuit Simulators.

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