How to Become a PCB Designer in Today’s World

Altium Designer
|  Created: November 16, 2017  |  Updated: January 1, 2021

Space, the final frontier

What did you want to be when you grew up? When I was a kid, I wanted to be Scotty on Star Trek. No joking, I really did. The idea that someone could fiddle around with electronic and blinking lights to create some gizmo that would save the day was really appealing. A few years later I tried to imitate Scotty by taking all the components for a kit radio and soldering them together on a thin sheet of wood. Without realizing it, I had designed my first board at the wise old age of 12 years old.

How about you? Have you ever thought about going into PCB layout 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 and become the next Scotty sounds really good to you.

Whatever your level of PCB design experience may be, keep reading. I’ll tell you a little bit about what it means to be a micro via PCB, what kind of education will help you, and what the future holds for our industry. You may never become an expert in warp drive on a starship, but you may find out that you have a talent for designing a board.

What Exactly is a PCB?

Printed circuits became popular in the 1950s and the need for PCB designers to create PCB layout designs for electronic circuits took off. Originally, circuit board concepts were designed, or “laid out,” 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. Today rigid-flex PCB layout is done on advanced Computer-Aided Design systems (CAD), and their output is used to create the printed circuit board tooling.

The PCB Designer will create the models (footprints) for that will be included on the print board within the CAD system. Then they created the board design within the CAD system using the footprints that have been created. 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.

A good PCB designer is part electrical engineer, part manufacturing expert, and part computer guru, with a touch of process engineer thrown in the mix as well (PCB designers are sometimes called PCB engineers because of this). Mostly, however, a PCB designer sees beyond the lines and shapes of components on their computer screen to visualize the final application of the PCB layout. A good PCB fabrication can create something from nothing while solving many different puzzles along the way.

Picture of diploma
Many companies are now requiring degrees for PCB design positions

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

Many engineers are laying out their own printed boards today. To become an electrical engineer or a mechanical engineer, you will need a BS in those related fields. Traditionally, PCB designers layout the board rather than "engineer" circuit boards or components of the board. As such, the educational background differs some.

For those who are doing PCB layout specifically, there isn’t a degree dedicated to PCB design or printed circuit board creation. You will also find that there are still many positions that do not require the PCB designer to have a degree of any kind. However, you will have much better success as a PCB designer with experience or a degree that includes courses in drafting, computer-aided design, electronic design, hands-on printed circuit board work, or other related areas of study. As PCB designs become more complex, more companies will begin to require degrees for their PCB engineers and prototype designers.

There are many certificates from PCB design courses that are very helpful with the instruction for how to become a PCB designer. Some companies offer specific high speed or multi-layer PCB design courses and CAD training classes. There is also the IPC Certified Interconnect Designer (CID) course which is an absolute must for someone with no PCB design experience.

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

What About PCB Design Courses?

Most people do not realize that they are surrounded by a dozen or more PCBs at any given moment. Despite the fact that so many PCBs are found in everyday life and in most new products, many universities do not include sufficient classes on PCB design in their engineering curricula. Some technically-focused colleges still place greater focus on disciplines like PCB design, embedded systems design and development, additive manufacturing, and other upcoming technologies.

If you're considering pursuing a career in PCB design and you have yet to begin your career, you can give yourself a head start by finding a college that teaches some basic design classes. Even if you've already completed an engineering degree and you still want to learn more about PCB design, you can give yourself a major head start by taking a few classes. You'll get a chance to gain some hands-on circuit board experience working with typical design software, which will help you understand how these software tools generally work. You'll also have a chance to learn about the overall product and PCB design workflow.

If you don't have access to PCB design courses through a university, you're not completely out of luck. There are some organizations that provide online PCB design courses. Perhaps the best known is Fedevel Academy. You'll get a hands-on curriculum from an expert designer, and for a much lower price than most college courses.

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 manufacturers is shrinking as many designers are approaching the age of retirement. The industry needs more PCB designers, and those that are currently involved are reporting that their compensation and job satisfaction are on the rise.

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 PCB design software that is 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 Designer.


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PCB Design Tools for Electronics Design and DFM. Information for EDA Leaders.

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