What Skills Are Needed to be a PCB Layout Designer?

Zachariah Peterson
|  Created: September 4, 2022  |  Updated: October 24, 2022
What Skills Are Needed to be a PCB Designer?

To readers who have been working in the PCB industry for most of your career, you have probably seen a very diverse group of professionals with varied skill sets and backgrounds. My own background is odd, having come into the profession from optics and lasers, and then focusing on analog and RF electronics. Other designers might get started as engineers or as technicians, and some designers learn how to create beautiful PCB layouts in university. No matter how you got into PCB design, there are some important skills to know that will take you a long way towards advancing your career.

If you're a new designer and you're considering PCB design as a career, then this article is for you. The new designers out there reading this are probably wondering how they can stay at the cutting edge in a highly competitive industry, and even how they can stand out from the crowd. There are some important skills that every designer should have in order to, at minimum, succeed in PCB layout, routing, DFM, and all the other areas required to make a functional PCBA. Meanwhile, there are other important skills that will help you work as part of a team, dive deeper into more advanced projects, and be able to quickly come up to expert level in new areas.

Essential PCB Design Skills

I like to divide a PCB designer's skill set into technical skills and soft skills. I find that these apply across the board, from individual freelance designers, to teams of engineers working at large companies. 

Technical Skills

There are some basic technical skills PCB designers should have, and these tend to intersect with other engineering disciplines.

  1. Solving puzzles: All PCB layouts are like a big puzzle that needs to be solved. Each PCB layout comes with a set of constraints that you will have to conciously consider and manage as you create the PCB layout.
     
  2. Circuit design and reading datasheets: A PCB designer often needs to construct circuits in schematic sheets. While you don't need to know how to build ICs, it's important to know what various specifications in a datasheet mean so that you can make the right decisions regarding component choices.
     
  3. Basic electromagnetics: Designers don't need to know all the finer points about tough subjects like RF design or antennas, but they do need to understand basic electromagnetic behavior and interactions between fields, voltages, currents, and materials.
     
  4. Basic stackup design and DFM: These two areas are related and they are critical. A professional designer should know how to design a multilayer PCB stackup. A lot of boards in modern electronics have more than two layers, so it's important to understand why certain stackups are designed in particular ways.
     
  5. How to use PCB design software: This one should be obvious, but it's not just about knowing where commands are found in your design tool. It's about understanding the nuances of tools from different vendors, and it's important to know the workflow implemented in PCB design applications.
     
  6. Basic software/firmware development: Because so many devices today run on firmware or an embedded OS, it's important to know how to configure these devices and do some basic coding. You don't need to have a Ph.D. in VHDL or be a pro developer, but these skills are important in product design and they will help you work with diverse team members.
     
  7. How to measure and solder: It's important to know how to take some basic electrical measurements, such as with a voltmeter and a low-bandwidth oscilloscope. Soldering is another important skill that is sometimes needed as part of test and debug.
PCB design skills


In my opinion, a PCB designer that has prepared themselves for a professional career path will know how to use at least one PCB design application while also being an expert in one of these other areas. If you're still learning and you want to get access to professional-grade software before purchasing licenses to a paid program, read our guide on PCB software downloads.

Soft Skills

Unlike in video games where you can minimize and maximize your attributes to focus solely on the skills you need, being a PCB designer requires some of the most diverse combinations of skills that I know of. A large part of the designer’s role is to utilize their creative thoughts to problem solve board design challenges; however, this creativity is only enabled if a layout designer has the technical capacity to enact their ideas. Here is a list of what I find to be important traits:

  1. Great attention to detail: When your job entails trying to map solutions to minor adjustment changes, or has you working with materials that don’t fill your whole palm, you need to be able to focus on the details.

  2. Clear communication: When there is an important piece of information you need to communicate to a team member or a client, your communication should be very clear and concise.

  3. Ability to work as a team: Modern designers, both freelance and at big companies, will have to work with other people and engineering disciplines on most projects. 

  4. Time management: Between project management and communication with team members, it's easy to let important tasks get lost in your schedule. Make sure you dedicate time to design so that you can complete project requirements as needed.

  5. Keep up with industry trends: The electronics industry moves quickly, but designers will need to do what they can to stay up-to-date on industry trends. This involves having some understanding of new technology, keeping updated on new components that hit the market, and understanding broader trends.

  6. Self-learning: While this seems to be one of the most common-sense needs for a PCB Layout Designer, it can be easy to make a habit of your layout designing by finding a few techniques which work and applying them to your layouts. But this may encourage continuous errors, or enable new errors to pop up as your layouts become more complex.
     

Printed circuit board


 

Here's the Payoff

After everything that I’ve said so far, you may also be wondering why anyone would want to be a PCB layout designer. It still might not be for you, but these are some reasons why I love PCB layout design:

  • Your work will challenge you: Designing a circuit board so that it meets the manufacturing specifications and works as it is intended will keep you on your toes.

  • You will be exposed to new ideas: Technology is constantly changing, and you will always looking at better ways to accomplish your task.

  • Decent working conditions: More than likely, you won’t be designing boards outside in the rain or snow. While that might not be everyone’s goal, it certainly is one of mine.

  • Good salary: Most PCB layout designers make a good salary, and it isn’t uncommon to make a great salary. While I can’t give specific numbers, I hope these superlatives can offer some guidance.

  • Seeing what you create come to life: One of the greatest joys that I have is in seeing the designs that I create come to life in the products that my company markets. There is nothing better than seeing an appliance, computer, or cell phone work because it contains a PCB in it that I’ve designed.

  • Creating hardware: Although most people won’t understand what it is that you do, most everyone will be impressed when you can show them what you’ve created.
     

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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 2000+ 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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