Introduction to High Speed PCB Designing: Signal Paths

Created: November 22, 2017
Updated: September 25, 2020
Picture of airliner and two travel tickets

Have you ever planned an airline trip where there isn’t a direct flight to get you to your destination? I have, and as you probably already know, it isn’t a problem. I use the travel planner on my airline’s website and let it figure out every detail of the trip for me. All I have to do is plug in my origin and destination, and the planner determines my itinerary—with enough time to make my connections. It’s a piece of cake.

Can you imagine how much of your time it would take if you had to do all the travel planning yourself? You would have to research the different airlines, flights, departure and arrival times, and then compute all of that information together to figure out the best route.

An airline trip requiring multiple connecting flights is very similar to a signal path on a printed circuit board. A signal path has a start and a finish, with several connections between them, just like the airline trip. And just as you need to time your itinerary, trying to route a signal path on a PCB requires determining the lengths and parameters of all the individual nets—a time-consuming proposition at best.

Fortunately, though, we have PCB layout software tools that can manage signal paths in the same way that airline websites use travel planning tools to set up trips. Let’s take a look at signal paths and how today’s PCB layout software tools can help you work with them. I can’t promise you a trouble-free trip to some exotic desert isle, but I can promise you a better understanding of how you can work with signal paths in your next high speed PCB design.

Sign advising you to stay on the path
Designing high speed transmission lines – Stay on the path!

What is a Signal Path?

A signal path is a path that a signal takes from its origin through multiple components and nets to its destination. For example, consider a simple transmission line between two parts that have an inline terminating resistor. The first net connects the driver pin to one end of the resistor, while the second net connects the other end of the resistor to the receiver pin. In the CAD system this is two different nets, but for high speed design purposes, the two nets form one signal path.

When you design a high speed PCB, you can control the impedance of your routing through the width of the trace and how you designate the board layer stackup. You can also control the length of the trace routing and match those trace lengths with other traces. The next step in developing your high speed PCB design skills is routing signal paths. Not only will you still need to route controlled impedance and matched trace lengths, but you will have to do that for the entire signal path instead of for individual nets. Fortunately, the CAD tools in use today can offer you a lot of help with signal path routing.

Configuring a Signal Path for Routing

To configure a signal path that maintains good signal integrity, you will create a signal path class in your CAD tools and assign the appropriate nets to that class. When assigning the nets to the signal path class, you can assign them manually or, if your software has this option, let the CAD tools automatically assign the nets based on the drivers and receivers that you specify. Whether you assign the nets manually or automatically, you will still need to confirm that they are in the correct sequence. This is important so that the routing topology of the signal path nets is in the correct order. Many designers automatically assign the nets in their signal classes, and then manually re-order them if needed.

Once the nets are assigned to the signal path class, you will then be able to specify other parameters for signal path class. These parameters include the maximum and minimum lengths of the routing that is allowed and the maximum and minimum amount of the vias that can be used.

3D image of PCB routing
Take your design to the next level

The Benefits of Signal Paths in High Speed PCB Designing

Working with defined signal paths will yield significant benefits to your high speed PCB design. You will be able to specify the signal path topology for the best connection order, route using trace length constraints for the entire signal path instead of individual nets, and match those signal path lengths with other signal path lengths as well.

In the past, PCB designers would have to track the net lengths individually while routing. Then they would have to compile those lengths manually in order to know how long or short to make the desired signal path length. With the signal path defined in today’s CAD tools, you now have real-time length reporting and checking while you route. The nets are still treated as individual nets for connectivity purposes, but all the nets in the signal path are calculated together for length and other high speed parameters. Like allowing an airline to organize your travel itinerary, using signal paths in your layout tools can help ensure smooth travels across your board by organizing high speed routing.

PCB design software like Altium Designer has advanced functionality to define and route signal paths built into it. The xSignals feature can help you define and manage the individual nets that make up a signal path. With the help of xSignals and the powerful routing utilities in Altium Designer, you will be better prepared for your next high speed PCB design.

Would you like to find out more about how Altium Designer can help you with signal paths and other high speed design challenges? Talk to an expert at Altium Designer.

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