Starting Out in PCB Design with the Right Board Layout Software

Created: March 23, 2018
Updated: September 25, 2020
Starting out image

Recently my daughter-in-law posted a picture of my grandson’s feet along with the following statement: “I wonder where these feet will lead you in life my son, you are so full of curiosity and determination already.” As his grandfather, I already know for a fact that he is destined to become the most brilliant person ever to ever walk the face of the earth.

Seriously though, wondering where our paths will take us in life is something that we will all ponder at some point. For some of you, this question may be focused on starting a career or a career change. If your path is taking you down the road towards printed circuit board design, then I’ve got a couple of thoughts here that you may find helpful. PCB design is a truly rewarding career as you get to be part of an industry that is inventing today and tomorrow.

You will have the opportunity to work with the industries brightest people and be part of designing the latest emerging technologies. PCB design is a great realm to build a career, and you will find a lot of options in this career path. You may be focused on electrical engineering, or hardware design, or manufacturing engineering. You may even find yourself in a career that requires you to be involved in all three.

There are many different aspects of a PCB design career that you will have to consider such as education, experience, design technology, and even specific jobs and places of employment. I obviously can’t cover all of that, but one thing that I can help you with is to understand PCB design software. A good portion of your success will depend on the type of software that you eventually use, so it is good to understand what specific capabilities you should expect.

PCB Design Tools Start with the Schematic and the Library

When you design a printed circuit board, the first step in that process is creating the schematic. To create the schematic though, you first have to have a library in place for your CAD tools. There are design service bureaus and CAD library services available where you can purchase schematic symbols and layout footprints. The best way to get started though is to invest in PCB design tools that come with or have access to CAD libraries.

Another aspect of your schematic design to consider is finding and organizing the components that you need for the design. CAD tools have really progressed in this area lately and the best ones now have the ability to use functionality that will allow you to connect with the cloud with part vendors for real-time part information. This gives you the ability to make informed part choices based on cost, availability, and performance while you are working on your schematic.

Then there’s the schematic itself. You will want to make sure that the PCB design tools that you use have a schematic editor that is easy enough to use for when you are first starting out and powerful enough to handle the more complex designs that you will eventually be doing.

Altium session with schematic and layout on itYou should look for PCB design software with powerful schematic and layout tools

To Create the Physical Design, You Need the Best Board Layout Software

Once you’ve designed your schematic you will next need to design, or layout, your circuit board. As with the schematic you need to use a PCB layout tool that is easy enough to learn with, yet is also powerful and versatile enough to handle any level of design that you can throw at it. Here are some important features of a layout tool to keep in mind:

  • It needs to have an intuitive user interface so that you spend your time designing the board instead of trying to figure out how to use the tool.
  • It needs to have a well-defined and easy to work with system of design rules so that you can quickly set up the constraints for your design.
  • It needs to have many different utilities to help you place parts. You will want to place some parts by coordinates and others by drag and drop. You will want to auto-align parts and manage your parts by cross-selecting between the schematic and the layout.
  • It needs to have all different kinds of manual trace routing capabilities. You need to be able to quickly route simple traces as well as complex differential pairs and other critical nets.
  • It needs to have automatic routing functionality to reduce your design time. This routing technology needs to be easy enough to use yet advanced enough to give you manual looking trace routing with the speed of an auto-router.
  • It needs to have drawing and report generation utilities to help you with the task of creating all of your final manufacturing output deliverables. It should also have utilities to automate many of these functions to also help you to reduce your design time.
  • It should also have access to different analyzers and simulators. The best PCB design software systems often have tools built into them to analyze specific areas of your design such as your power delivery network and signal integrity.

Altium session on curved monitorTo be the best you need the best design software that will handle all of your needs

PCB Designers and Design Software Together

The last thing to mention about PCB design software may be one of the most important features of all. You should look for software that has all of these different tools built into the same system where they are designed to work together in the same design environment. Mixing different tools from different software vendors can create a huge headache for you if you aren’t careful with it.

Why spend a lot of time trying to force tools to work together instead of spending that time on your design instead? Having all of your design tools working together under the same umbrella will provide you with a much more efficient PCB design system. This will save you time, money and effort, and greatly help you as you come up to speed as a PCB designer.

When you need the best layout tools to help you stay productive, look to the complete set of PCB design features in Altium Designer®. In addition to the best PCB layout and routing features, all users have access to an Altium 365 workspace, where it's easy to collaborate, share projects, and release files to a manufacturer.

We have only scratched the surface of what’s possible with Altium Designer on Altium 365. Start your free trial of Altium Designer + Altium 365 today.

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