The Wheel Keeps Turning: Advanced Bill of Materials for PCB Design

Created: December 18, 2017
Updated: September 25, 2020

Iron and wood cornmill wheel lined with rocks

At a young age, my grandfather was trained in the repair and construction of wooden wheels, which was a necessary skill on the rural farm where he was raised. When modern times finally found Eastern Missouri, that highly skilled confluence of woodworking and blacksmithing was totally replaced by modern technology, save for the occasional historical re-creation. The change had been inevitable, so my grandfather proactively added machining, mechanics, and electronics to his repertoire.

While sometimes you can stall the need to advance your technology, it is usually inevitable that if a technology changes then so too will your relationship to the materials you work with. So while you might find it comfortable, and that is certainly an important part of any process, for your PCB design practices to still involve outdated methods, one area which is sure to be an easy, reliable, and immense time-saving technology upgrade is advanced BOMs.

What Is an Advanced Bill of Materials?

Spreadsheet software based BOMs have been the standard for decades. Many software packages use purpose built interfaces that filter and customize the document’s appearance, but the core is usually still some form of spreadsheet file. To many people, this familiar format may seem unremarkable but spreadsheets are incredibly flexible, highly customizable, and can leverage the awesome information and calculation capabilities of our modern computers.

Properly configured for PCB design, advanced BOMs can decrease workload, help reduce errors and keep information both current and relevant. Even the most primitive PCB design software packages will usually output some form of BOM with columns such as Quantity, Value, Designator (for example a particular resistor might be labeled “R5”), Description, Name, Part Number, Package (SMD or Through Hole package type), and possibly Cost. This is useful to a degree, but if these outputs are set in stone it can lead to difficulties, such as figuring out what parameter to use for organizing your BOM. Creating part naming conventions that help to keep component types together is one strategy, but being able to add an additional field for this purpose is a much more flexible option. This is one of many features available using a more advanced bill of materials software.

A man is doing calculations with his hands full
Don’t get caught with your hands full, save time and energy by keeping up with technology.

Part Number Conventions

Another challenge to using basic BOM formats comes from the fact that there is often only one field labeled “Part Number”. For most components, there is one part number that refers to a type of part such as “LM339” for a category of comparator. This gives a designer general insight into the parts function and general capabilities, but there is also an “order code” part number that is used by each supplier to determine variables such as the part’s package type, what kind of plating it uses and what kind of container it is supplied in.

At some companies, there may also be an internally created part number for each component that helps to organize part inventory and purchasing and is sometimes used to provide an impediment to competitors looking to copy a design. Which one should go in the “Part Number” field? They are all useful or necessary. The ability of more powerful software packages to add and define additional data columns, then integrate that information into a company overall database helps reduce confusion and save time.

Reducing Human Error in BOM Library Part Definitions

When it comes to defining part libraries, making sure that the methodology used to define each part stays consistent can be a challenge. When defining a BOM template structure, communication is key, though different experiences can lead to disagreements within a department. Working from a structure suggested by an experienced company in the industry can provide suggestions, help resolve disputes, and help avoid unforeseen difficulties.

Component price and availability are two factors which can slow down your design, and prove to be an expensive blunder. Advanced BOM software has the ability to keep your database updated with current prices and availability of components from various suppliers. In addition to both standard and customized data columns, this information can easily be added to a BOM format. A quick glance can tell a designer if a production run can go ahead as planned, or if an alternate part need to be considered. The ability to update a BOM with pricing information that automatically applies quantity discount information gives Purchasing the edge it needs to do its job quickly and competitively.

Old, wooden wheels leaning against a run-down wooden fence
Save your time and energy by reducing your capability to produce errors.

By using the advanced capabilities of BOM software, you can ensure real-time accuracy and effective information storage. Even my grandfather new better than to try to keep old, and outdated technology around. Don’t end up so far behind the technological trends that your pcb design process becomes half as efficient as more updated designers.

Whether you’re looking to optimize the way your organization handles information or to update your design software, Altium Designer will be sure to fit your needs. By using Altium Designer’s ActiveBOM software, you’ll have some of the most advanced BOM solutions at your fingertips.

Don’t reinvent the wheel. Call the experts at Altium and to learn more.

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