Why Increasing Design Complexity Requires the Best Professional PCB Design Software

Created: June 2, 2017
Updated: November 27, 2023

Kids playing in a park

Didn’t everything seem so simple when you were a kid? No job to work at, no mortgage to pay, and no kids of your own to wrangle. My main occupation was to run around outside and try not to get too dirty while playing. Now life is certainly better, but also quite a bit more complicated. Similarly, the PCB industry is also growing up and become more convoluted. Gone are the days of large, simple boards. Now everything has to be small, sleek, and sometimes flexible. These industry trends are forcing designers to become more than just a layout or schematic boy, but someone who does it all. That’s why it’s important for you to have the best software at your fingertips to help you with things like: rigid flex design, ECAD/MCAD collaboration, stakeholder cooperation, and power delivery network analysis (PDNA). 

Rigid Flex Design

I was a lot more flexible when I was a kid, but now I can barely touch my toes. PCBs seem to be moving in the opposite direction, as the industry matures they’re getting more flexible.

While many different product types are pushing flexible design, the Internet of Things (IoT) and wearables are the main culprits. These kinds of devices have odd form factors and are usually tight on space. Flexible, or rigid flex, boards have turned out to be the perfect fit.

Designing a flexible board is easier said than done, though. There is a huge amount of factors to consider including: materials, routing, flex vs rigid flex, and mounting. If you’re going to make a successful board you’ll need software that can help you with all of these things. Good design software will have detailed documentation on materials and design techniques. It will also have features to help you keep track of layer stacks and check 3D clearances on your board. Everyone needs tools to help them complete their job. These ones will make rigid flex design as easy as playing hopscotch.

Flexible PCB
Flexible PCB design is a difficult task to tackle.

ECAD/MCAD Collaboration

Sometimes kids have problems working together. Little Jimmy wants to build a lego castle, but Sandra thinks a spaceship would be better. Both end up crying and the playdate is ruined. Engineers can have problems with collaboration as well. We like to stick to our own areas and leave the rest to someone else. However, as complexity increases, collaboration should also increase so things can get done faster and more easily.

It’s easy to forget about the enclosure that your board has to fit inside. This can lead to lots of back and forth with an overwhelming amount of engineering change requests. There’s software out there now that can import a mechanical engineer’s 3D enclosure model, render a 3D model of your PCB, and check clearances for you. This can really smoothen out the design process and lead to less head butting over which piece should stick out where.

The industry is trying to move forward into 3D printing boards and additive manufacturing. As those become more common, you’ll need to work even more closely with mechanical engineers to ensure that 3D designs will actually work. Better to go ahead and start collaborating now.

Stakeholder Cooperation

Just like how mechanical and electrical engineers like to stick to themselves, we often like to keep external stakeholders at arms length. I’m a design engineer, so I don’t need to worry about the manufacturer or supplier.

The thing is, when you include them more in the design process, things will get easier. Have you ever gotten a board with fake parts? This kind of thing can be avoided when you have a close relationship with your supplier. You shouldn’t have to do all the legwork, though. When parts go out of stock or been phased out you don’t want to have to call your supplier and make a whole new list. That’s why it’s nice to have software that keep tracks of what parts are available and can suggest replacements if you need them. 

This will be good practice for the future as well. More and more growing companies are vertically integrating their design and manufacturing processes. Think Tesla developing battery and solar technology. Vertical integration reduces overhead, allows companies to adapt more easily to the changing industry, and ultimately will allow them to produce better PCBs.

While you’re still working at becoming the next Tesla, you’ll need to communicate effectively with your manufacturer. Keeping them close will help you reduce defects during fabrication, saving you time and money. How do you go about communicating with them, though? They’re probably in another time zone, you don’t want to call them every time you have a question. That’s why it’s important to have good software that clearly communicates your board’s specification and keep the manufacturer up to date on your components. Then they can keep up to date on your designs without you having to call them every night.

Burning  board
Without a good PDNA tool, your board might end up like this.


I bet that as a child you probably never imagined that you would need to know how to analyze a power delivery network. As an adult you now realize that PDNA is essential to make sure your complicated boards work the first time, and also don’t explode.

PDNA is extremely important, as it can help you avoid voltage drops and overheating. It will let you see where you need to widen conductors to reduce voltage drop so that your circuit works in all circumstances. Current density analysis will show you potential hotspots. Then you can change things around to reduce temperatures without adding heatsinks.

The only problem is, PDNA is nearly impossible to do by hand. It’s easier to use a separate piece of software, but there’s still a learning curve. You may even have to learn a lot more about signal analysis. The perfect PCB design software will have PDNA integrated into what you’re already using.

Growing up is hard, but designing these kinds of PCBs is even more difficult. Trust me, you’ll need all the help you can get in order to deal with rigid flex, 3D modeling, HDI, and PDNA. Lucky for you, there is one solution that has it all. Altium Designer has a wide range of features that can help you solve just these kinds of problems. Not only that, but Altium is constantly working on new tools that will help you tackle whatever comes in the future. Your PCBs are on the cutting edge, so your software should be as well.

Have more questions about complex PCB design? Call an expert at Altium.

Start the journey to switch over to Altium Designer today.


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