My grandfather taught me to always use the right tool for the job. He told me that because I broke one of his screwdrivers while using it as a pry bar. Sorry grandpa. You might not break something by using the wrong apparatus, but you are guaranteed to take too long finishing your work. The same principle applies to PCB design. As boards becoming increasingly complex, designers need more advanced tools to build them. You can try working with the same old program you’ve been using, but you’ll waste a lot of time on a design that’s subprime. High density interconnect (HDI), thermal management, and high-speed PCB design are all areas that need specialized tools. Lots of developers offer software that can help, but you need software with documentation and training that can get you up to speed quickly. In addition to short-term speed, you need long term return. Equipment is an investment, and you need tools that grow along with your needs.
To a man with a hammer, every problem is a nail. It’s tempting to take that approach with PCB design and attempt to use low or mid level design tools for high-level boards. Sometimes that may work after a fashion, but there are a few circumstances where anything less than the best just won’t do. When you’re dealing with HDI boards, thermal management, and high-speed circuits you’ll need specific tools in order to make the best board possible.
HDI - High density interconnect boards are the most dense and use special techniques like blind, buried, and micro vias to save space. You may also need to breakout fine pitch ball grid arrays (BGAs) or quad flat packages (QFPs). These things require finesse that ordinary software just doesn’t have.
Thermal Management - One tool my grandfather always used was a fan to keep him cool. If you’re having problems chilling out your boards, things like power delivery network analysis tools can help. Some software also comes with lists for and passive cooling components, like heat sinks. However, you won’t find this functionality for free.
High-Speed Design - High-speed circuits can make your head spin faster than a Dremel tool. These kinds of circuits have all kinds of EMI concerns that dictate trace lengths, conductor configurations, and ground types. Again, these tools exist, but they’re not cheap.
So, you know you’ll need high-level software in order to tackle these challenges, but what should you look for? You need to choose software that can serve you in the short term, but that has long-term viability.
Use a tool with training resources to help you get up to speed.
Climbing the Learning Curve
Sometimes the software itself can seem more complex than the circuits you’re designing. That’s why you need software that has lots of developer documentation, an community, and training tools to help you learn quickly. That way you won’t have to put current projects on hold while you switch programs.
Whenever I have to learn a new piece of software I like to check out how much company and user documentation is out there. MATLAB, for example, has excellent documentation on Mathworks’ website that can answer lots of questions. If the person who made the software doesn’t have documentation out for it, it doesn’t give me much confidence in their product. Forums can also be a great source of information. Joe Schmo on the forum will likely have the same problems as I do, and we can help each other find a solution. If you’re looking at something without much documentation, forget about it.
In addition to simple documentation, it’s nice to have training tools to use. Things like walkthrough videos or onboard tutorials are great and can help you quickly learn how to use your new tool. Altium Designer® happens to have a lot of documentation, excellent forums, and great training resources.
Software is an investment, make sure you get a good return.
Return on Investment
My grandfather also taught me to buy tools that would last. Sure maybe I could save some money on something cheap today, but it will break tomorrow. He invested in excellent tools, some of which I still own and use today. You want your software to serve you in the long term as well. What use is it if you buy a program that helps you for 2 or 3 years, and then starts lagging behind the times. You need software that has add-ons that you can use as needs arise. You’ll also want the developer to be on the cutting edge of new technology, so they’ll keep building the tools you’ll need in the future.
As I said earlier, you might someday find yourself needing a power delivery network analysis tool. You could buy a third-party add-on, but it’d be much better if you could use something that was already integrated into your main design environment. You need to make sure that whatever software you purchase has some expandability, so you can upgrade your tools as you move into more complex design.
You also want to be sure that your developer is forward thinking. The electronics industry is changing quickly, and you need a company behind you that already knows what you will need next year. Take rigid-flex design for example. It’s really exploded in recent years, and there are some companies that were caught off guard. Altium is always thinking about the next generation of technology, and what tools designers like you will need to build the future. They’ve shown this in their development of 3D modeling, rigid flex, and power delivery network analysis tools. Several of these features are available as add-ons, along with great resource management systems like Altium Vault®.
Take the advice of my grandfather and get the right tool for the job. With its excellent short-term resources and long-term functionality, Altium is a great product for up and coming designers. You know that their current PCB tools will help you today, and their long-term vision will bring ensure you have what you need tomorrow.
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