Design Your Small Circuit Board in Altium Designer

Zachariah Peterson
|  Created: January 18, 2021
Design Your Small Circuit Board in Altium Designer

Large circuit boards, small circuit boards, and anything in between might seem like they need separate sets of PCB layout features. In reality, your PCB design software shouldn’t delineate your PCB design based on size. Whether you need to design a large or small circuit board, a design application with high-quality CAD tools will help you get the job done quickly and prepare your board for production.

Small circuit board designs are much easier to create when you use high-quality CAD tools like the kind you’ll find in Altium Designer. The PCB design and layout features in Altium Designer are adaptable to boards of any size, shape, thickness, copper weight, and material. In addition, the DRC engine in Altium Designer helps ensure your layout complies with basic electrical and mechanical design rules. Here’s how you can design high-quality circuit boards of any size with Altium Designer’s complete set of PCB design tools.


The only PCB design package for large and small circuit boards, as well as high-density layout and routing for a range of electronics applications.

As a circuit board gets smaller, component layouts get tighter, and routing becomes denser. To prevent problems with signal integrity, shorts during assembly, mechanical interference, and dense routing, designers need full control over their design rules and layout tools. Some design programs enforce the same rules, routing settings, clearance settings, and stackup limitations for every circuit board, regardless of its size.

Altium Designer is different. The layout and routing features in Altium Designer were created to work with circuit boards of any size and density. Designers have full control over an online DRC engine, which allows a designer to specify application-specific design rules for small, high-density circuit boards. When you need to take control over design and layout of a small circuit board, look to the design tools in Altium Designer.

Getting Started With Small Circuit Board Design

There is no specific size that qualifies a circuit board as “small,” but smaller PCBs tend to have some common characteristics:

  • They tend to use smaller surface mount components (0402, 0201 packages are common)
  • Density tends to be higher and trace width tends to be smaller
  • Integrated circuit packages tend to be smaller
  • Board shape and thickness may be non-standard
  • Via and mounting hole sizes tend to be smaller
  • Tracks between components tend to be shorter
  • Plane layers may be omitted in favor of polygon pour to allow routing density in internal layers

Because these boards may use more specialized layout techniques and practices, designers need tools that give them full control over multiple design aspects. These include clearances, hole sizes, trace width, impedance tolerances, and much more.

Take Control Over Your Small Circuit Board Layout

When you have a flexible set of PCB CAD tools, you can take control over all aspects of your PCB as you create a small circuit board. By setting the right clearances, creating your via and padstack templates, and setting appropriate trace widths, you can create a small circuit board layout that meets your spacing and density requirements. You can also ensure that your board will comply with your application requirements and design rules as you create your PCB layout.

Small circuit board design and layout in Altium Designer

Altium Designer makes it easy to route high-density connections on a small circuit board and place shielding with high-quality CAD tools.

Small Circuit Board Designs Have High Component Density

When you make your circuit board smaller, you inevitably increase component density in your PCB layout. You also create a situation where components can become so close that they may interfere with each other mechanically. They can also come too close electrically, creating the potential for shorts during assembly, signal integrity problems, or an inability to route copper traces without increasing board size or decreasing trace width.

When you need to layout components in a dense circuit board, you need rules-checking features to help you catch unintended interference and clearance violations in HDI boards. Any HDI board should comply with manufacturer DFM guidelines, and your design rules checking tools should let you define custom design rules for high-density layout and routing. Your layout tools then need to automatically check your layout as it’s created, rather than waiting until after a PCB layout is finished.

DRCs for Small Circuit Boards in Altium Designer

Whether you’re designing a high-density board or just a small circuit board to standard fabrication capabilities, the online DRC engine in Altium Designer helps you create a layout that satisfies all your design requirements. The CAD features in Altium Designer integrate directly with the online DRC engine, which ensures your layout will satisfy your design and fabrication requirements while maintaining the component and routing density you need.

PCB design for a small circuit board

Small circuit boards like this power regulator can be designed with Altium Designer.

Other Tools for Small Circuit Board Design

There are other important features needed to design high-quality circuit boards, including small circuit boards and high-density designs. In addition to a standard set of ECAD features, designers need full control over their stackup, plane and polygon designs, and component orientation to ensure everything can be fit onto a small PCB. Once designs need to be evaluated, everything in the PCB layout needs to be quickly checked to ensure manufacturability, and manufacturing documentation needs to be generated for fabrication and assembly.

Altium Designer includes all these features and many more in a single program. While other circuit board design platforms separate these important features into different applications, Altium Designer gives you access to everything you need in one application with a consistent workflow. Take your next PCB design from concept to finished product with Altium Designer.

The Power of Rules-Driven in Altium Designer

The rules-driven design engine in Altium Designer is the glue that allows every design feature to be integrated into a single program. The comprehensive toolset in Altium Designer checks all aspects of your schematics and layout against your PCB design rules as you create your design, which helps you catch errors early in the design process. This also helps you stay productive as you create your circuit board layout.

Small circuit board design in Altium Designer

Complete schematic design, PCB layout, and component sourcing in Altium Designer.

Whether you need to design a very large or very small circuit board, you can use the complete set of CAD tools in Altium Designer to create high-quality PCB layouts and prepare your boards for manufacturing. Altium Designer’s circuit board design features give you everything you need to create cutting-edge technology and prepare your new designs for full-scale manufacturing.

Altium Designer on Altium 365 delivers unprecedented 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 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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