How to Establish a PCB Library for Your Design Practice

July 11, 2019 John Watson

When we think of a library, we first think of a building which holds materials of some kind. In April of 1800, when the seat of the government moved from Philadelphia to Washington, one of President Monroe’s first acts was allocating $5,000 to purchase books for Congress to use. Once established, the Library of Congress originally held a total of 740 books and three maps. Now, it contains 32 million cataloged books and other print materials in 470 languages; more than 61 million manuscripts. It is the most extensive rare book collection in North America. It is by far the largest library in the entire world. For anyone who has ever visited the Library of Congress, when you consider the tremendous amount of knowledge and materials within those walls, it is incredible. However, what I find even more astounding is how all that material is kept organized to enable finding something very quickly. 

Library Defined

For PCB Designers, a library is not a building but rather an information or data collection structured for finding things quickly. The most common part of a PCB library is the PCB design process components stored in a database. For example, our company’s ever-growing library has over 7,500-components. Its most popular section is a list of PCB Resources where we place books, articles, video recordings, training materials, and anything else consider a good PCB resource. While some consider it small, we love having all that information readily available at our fingertips.

Importance of a PCB Library

Everything begins and ends with PCB design, and I fully believe that a PCB library is by far the most crucial piece. I have always followed the rule: ALWAYS be excellent friends with your PCB librarian. Most of the time, they are underappreciated, but they hold the most critical position on any PCB design team.

What does the PCB library Represent?

At first glance, your library is just a collection of design data and information for PCB components. However, it is much more than that. Your library represents MONEY. That’s right, cold hard cash. It just depends on which column of the balance sheet it falls on; an asset or a loss.

Static vs. Dynamic Information

Before diving into the different types of PCB libraries, we must understand the Static and Dynamic information of a component. Dynamic information changes while Static does not. Because electronics is a constantly evolving field,  there is very little that does not change in some way. 

Types of PCB Library Structures 

With the industry’s breakneck growth over the last decade, companies developed several types of PCB libraries to support various designs and changes. Here are a few:

Essential Libraries 

Essential PCB libraries hold your component’s essential data. We will discuss Library architecture and required component models in the upcoming Chapter 5, but the essential models for components are parametric information, schematic symbol, PCB footprint, 3D Model, and Simulation models such as SPICE or IBIS. An essential library stores this information using Schematic Symbols. However, these libraries are difficult to maintain and often grow out of control quickly. Once a library reaches this state, it moves to the LOSS money column. 

Integrated Library 

The second library type, the Integrated library stores component models in a single Read-only file. I worked extensively with Integrated Libraries throughout my career.  They have many advantages since they use read-only information. They do not change without an elaborate process, making them static which may or may not be the best option. Because of this, I sincerely believe there is no longer a viable solution for anyone in our dynamic electronics industry.  

Database Libraries

The third type, database libraries, is a much stronger evolution of the Integrated library structure based on Parametric information. More commonly known as a DBLink file, this library type is a simple Access database. Its advantage is its flexibility. You can organize your database library according to your requirements.

Component Libraries 

The best and culmination of all the other library types is the Component library. This library handles each component as a separate entity complete with its Schematic Symbol, PCB Footprint, 3D Models, Simulation models, Parametric Information, and Sourcing information. As we will see in chapter-4, the library also manages versioning and lifecycle information, making it the perfect package for the component. This system gives you the flexibility to grow your PCB library. Most companies store these libraries on a server, allowing for global availability. 

The Issue of Library integration and a Company PLM

As a young kid, I once got a fish tank for Christmas and, in my eagerness, I got a couple of beautiful fish to place in it. At first, everything seemed to be just fine, but within minutes, they began to fight. It turned out they were two male Siamese fighting fish, which are highly territorial and would kill each other if not kept separated. 

In the same way, I see significant problems develop when integrating multiple software packages for everyday tasks. For example, a PCB library and a company Part Lifecycle Management System (PLM) such as Arena or Agile. Like my watery friends, these systems are very territorial and could end up killing each other if left unchecked. 

In a bit, we will discuss library tools, specifically Altium tools for component and library management. We’ll see that library software is powerful and, most importantly, dynamic in nature. That, in every sense, is a PLM itself, and a rather good PLM I might add. However, most companywide PLM systems are static. Their information rarely changes and gets stale quickly like bread left open overnight. The other problem is not knowing when and if the PLM data does change. 

To keep these systems from killing each other, you must know their boundaries and dictate which system will do which procedures. In other words, identify the territory for each. 

Library Tool

Within the ever-growing PCB Design Software market. one of the best is the “little” company called Altium. As someone who worked with Altium tools for many years, I had the pleasure to watch them become the leader of the pack. An old saying, “the lead dog always has the best view.” Without a doubt, that position is held by Altium. 

Their extraordinary growth comes from how they work. While most companies react to industry trends, Altium takes a proactive approach to software development. 

Recently, Altium expanded beyond PCB design to develop Nexus and Concord. With a “spooky” understanding of industry trends, this consolidated software package lets us store, and more importantly, manage our library components through a single interface.

Moving to an Altium library has an immediate effect on our PCB design process. While I worked with every PCB library type and structure, Altium Designer lets us design with confidence like nothing else. The integrity of our PCB library became the foundation of our PCB designs as well as a selling point. With the development of several supporting principles, the library became a vital part of the success of our company. Now, I always look to Altium for library and component management.

Would you like to find out more about how Altium can help you with your next PCB design? Talk to an expert at Altium.

About the Author

John Watson


With nearly 40 years in the Electronic industry with 20 of them being in the field of PCB Design and engineering, John has stayed on the cutting edge of the PCB industry as a designer/Engineer and more recently as a trainer and mentor. His primary work has been in the Manufacturing field but it has also expanded to several PCB Service arenas. As a veteran, he proudly served in the Army in the Military Intelligence field.

John is a CID Certified PCB designer. Presently pursuing his Advance CID certification. Now as the Senior PCB engineer at Legrand Inc, he leads the PCB Designers and Engineers in various divisions across the United States and China.

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