How an Integrated PCB Library Can Reduce Development Cost

April 10, 2018 Altium Designer

Electronic circuit board under glass

Editorial credit: MikeDotta /

I’m pretty stubborn when it comes to developing new recipes for my kid. Just last week, I insisted on preparing the bolognese sauce from scratch as I tried to whip up a decent pasta dish. I ended up taking more time than I should have, as my son grew in frustration and hunger by the minute. That’s when I decided to just buy off-the-shelf pasta sauce next time.

When I started working on electronics, I always got excited to design new devices. I quickly sketched out the schematic and got the PCB layout started. Then, my enthusiasm suddenly tanked, as I spent more time creating PCB footprints than working on the PCB design itself.

That was over a decade ago when PCB component libraries were limited to passive components and resistors. As PCB layout and circuit simulation software became more comprehensive with time, I stopped creating my own custom PCB libraries, which dramatically shortened my development time. If you’re still building custom PCB libraries, you should stop right now. Instead, you need to use an integrated library and PCB design data management system to keep track of design and component information.

Stop Wasting Time Hunting for Component Datasheets

You might encounter this scenario if you’re using a passive component or connector from your local electronics store. These components are usually  generic with little to no information about the manufacturer. The fastest way to create PCB footprints for these components for use in your PCB design software requires building a 3D model and manually placing it in a PCB library. Unless you spend a week working with a caliper, this isn’t as accurate as using the footprint diagram from the datasheet itself.

Back before the days of high-speed internet, searching for datasheets online was a pain. But even with today’s internet speeds, you'll spend as much time searching datasheets as you will creating your PCB layout. As a result, new design software and 3rd party services have started providing component data and sourcing information. Some of these services provide data directly through your integrated library management tools.

Working on a laptop

Do you want to spend more time browsing or designing?

Unfortunately, not all integrated library management tools are universally adaptable to every design platform. Many PCB layout and schematic design software platforms provide separated management and simulation features in different programs, forcing you to switch between different programs and leaving you prone to errors. Most 3rd party services will save you time from browsing distributor websites, but you won't have the ability to quickly import schematic symbol, PCB footprints, or sourcing updates into your design program. You'll have to manually download and install these updates yourself as part of a comprehensive PCB library management process.

Enter software that can support integrated libraries: this new generation of PCB design software allows designers to create their own libraries or manage standardized libraries directly within their PCB design software. This helps ensure your schematic symbol and PCB footprints are consistent and that all designers have access to the same set of data from a central repository.

There are some challenges to creating integrated PCB libraries directly from your PCB design and schematic data. If you have a large number of old designs you want to save, and you work with a large number of proprietary components, then it makes sense to create your own integrated PCB libraries. If you use standard components in your electronic circuits and products, it makes more sense to work with a software tool that grabs component updates directly from a managed resource.

Understanding Integrated PCB Libraries

Your integrated libraries are critical for improving productivity and collaboration in your PCB layout and design software, but you need to make sure that any integrated library contains fresh data. If a schematic symbol or your PCB footprints cannot be found or are outdated, it is important that an integrated library be updated with fresh data. This is particularly important if a new version of a component is released or if you need to swap out an obsolete component.

Manually searching for schematic symbol and footprint updates slows down product development; you'll spend time manually browsing distributor and component manufacturer websites when you could spend time building your new product. Instead, your software should quickly provide these updates to any PCB library in your repertoire.

In certain cases, you may not be able to find necessary components in your a PCB library, and you may be unable to find the schematic symbol and PCB footprint information from distributors or manufacturers. That’s when you might need to generate the schematic symbol and PCB footprint on your own.

Before PCB software was intelligent enough to provide the intuitive components creation feature, creating custom components involved manually laying down the outline and pads. You had to ensure that every dimension stated on the datasheet was transferred to the corresponding software component. While creating passive components like resistors is a walk in the park, a 208 pin TQFP package demands your full focus. Not only does it create unnecessary stress, but it also takes up precious time you should spend working on the design instead. If it takes an average of five minutes to create a single PCB component, it will take almost an hour to make ten. A smarter choice is to use an integrated library management system that comes with top-notch PCB software. This allows you to skip the entire component creation process.

You'll need to make sure that the component footprint you create is compliant with industry standards (such as IPC 7351). In the past, PCB designers had to rely on manufacturers or a mechanical design tool to create components with compliant footprints. Thanks to the highly standardized nature of electronic components and footprints, there are software tools you can use to expedite component creation and ensure that your PCB footprints are compliant with industry standards.

Stop Making Costly Mistakes

The moment you’re creating a component instead of using those from an integrated PCB library, you’re exposing your design to potential design errors. Even experienced designers can make careless mistakes, as it is all too simple to mismatch component pinouts or misread dimensions. Not all design houses have access to mechanical design tools as they only focus on electrical design. At this point, you won't be able to create a footprint or 3D STEP model for the component.

These mistakes can often escape design checks and result in defective prototypes. For example, I once created a narrow SOIC footprint for a wide SOIC component. Unfortunately, the mistake wasn't caught until we received our first run of manufactured boards. The manufacturer did not catch the mistake before fabrication, and we had to eat the costs of this manufacturing run. There was nothing that I could do except discard the manufactured PCB and quickly develop a revision. This valuable lesson carried a high cost.

When you create a custom PCB , your design is dependent on your file structure and backups of your design data. You have to be cautious and backup your custom PCB in case your computer or files get corrupted. I remember having to recreate at least 50 components in one case as Murphy’s Law struck home. If we had used a data management system to backup the data in our integrated libraries, we would have been able to easily restore our design data and continue development without a hitch.

Frustrated man in front of keyboard

Doing less means making fewer mistakes.

How Integrated PCB Libraries Lower Development Costs

So far, we've looked at how using integrated libraries alongside a comprehensive data management solution can reduce development time. As the saying goes, time is money. Eliminating the need to manually locate component data updates and install them into your PCB design software gives designers time to do what they do best: design new devices and product development.

Although the initial investment required to implement a system for data management and the learning curve might be significant, you'll soon see a return on investment. You'll find that your design team is more productive; you will have eliminated a real source of headaches and a historically inefficient portion of the product development process.

In certain cases, you may not be able to find necessary components in your integrated libraries. That’s when you might need to generate the schematic and PCB component. In such a case, avoid manually drawing components and use the intelligent footprint creator in Altium Designer®. This allows you to quickly create components with IPC compliant footprints and easily enter silkscreen information.

Would you like to find out more about how Altium's tools can aid integrated library management directly within your design software? Talk to an expert at Altium.

About the Author

Altium Designer

PCB Design Tools for Electronics Design and DFM. Information for EDA Leaders.

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