10 Easy Steps to Comprehensively Designing a Circuit Board in Altium Designer

September 3, 2018 Altium Designer

Follow the yellow brick road

How to design PCB boards is not easy to figure out so it helps to learn from other engineers and their journey. Following the 10 steps presented below using Altium Designer® you will arrive at a comprehensive design for your circuit board quickly and easily. Here's the full list of PCB layout and design steps:

  • Create the Schematic

  • Create and Setup a PCB

  • Link the Schematic to the PCB

  • Define the Board Size and Layer Stack

  • Place Components

  • Insert Drill Holes

  • Route Traces

  • Verify Circuit Board Layout

  • Add Labels and Identifiers

  • Generate Design Files

How to Design a Circuit Board in 10 Steps

When designing a circuit board it may sometimes seem as though arriving at the final design is going to be a long and arduous journey. Whether it’s the basics of micromanaging your copper and solder, or trying to ensure that your circuit board ends up printed after all, or going into more specific design problems such as through-hole technology or layout design with vias, pads, and any number of signal integrity issues, you’ll want to make sure you have the right design software.

If you’ve been doing this for decades, you don’t need me to tell you how valuable knowing your design software is to getting your printed boards designed right. Laying out traces for routing and copper placement, or managing the layer needed for solder can become difficult without an accurate and reliable integration from schematic capture to layout. 

If this is your first rodeo, or you are just beginning your PCB design career, you’ll find that Altium Designer’s user-experience focus rewards you with a design environment that is built from the beginning to make it easy and reliable to move anywhere you need to in your design without the threat of having different iterations of your design file. 

Step 1: Create the Schematic

Whether you are generating your design from a template or creating your board from scratch it is probably best to begin with the schematic. Not only, is the circuit interconnectivity easier to define and edit, but converting a schematic to a board layout is much easier than designing directly on the board. For components, Altium Designer has an extensive database of parts libraries. Additionally, you can utilize the Altium Vault, which provides access to thousands of component libraries and adds flexibility to your project management and product development. However, you can also design your own schematic symbols and create footprints. Or, if you would like to have a part created for you, try Altium’s EE Concierge service.

Step 2: Create and Setup PCB

Creating your board design requires that you generate a blank PCB document, PcbDoc. This is easily done as shown below. 

New project options in Altium  dialog

Starting a new PCB project in Altium

If the PCB shape, dimensions are known you can set them now. Otherwise, the board layout can be fixed later along with the layer stackup. Schematic information is made available for the PcbDoc by compiling the SchDoc. The compilation process includes verifying the design and the generation of your several project documents that allow you to inspect and correct the design prior to transfer to the PcbDoc, such as those shown below.  It is highly recommended that you review and update the Project Options at this point, which are used to create the PcbDoc information. 

 Project Options for Conversion to PCB

Project Options for Conversion to PCB

Step 3: Link Schematic to PCB

Altium Designer is an united design environment, where the schematic, PCB and BOM are interlinked and can be accessed simultaneously. To transfer the compiled SchDoc information to the created PcbDoc click on Design » Update PCB {Filename of your new PCB}.PcbDoc. An Engineering Change Order (ECO) dialog will open listing all components and nets from the schematic similar to the one below.


Engineering Change Order example

Verify the changes (addition of the SchDoc information to the project without error) by clicking on the Validate Changes tab. If the status for all items is green, then click on the Execute Changes tab. To complete the process, close the dialog.  

Step 4: Define Board and Layer Stack

When you transfer your schematic information to the PcbDoc the component footprints are shown in addition the board outline specified. Prior to placing components you should define the PCB layout (i.e. shape, layer stackup) using the Layer Stackup Manager, shown below.

Defining layer stack

Defining layer stack

Step 5: Place Components

The software provides a great deal of flexibility which allows you to quickly place components on your circuit board. You can have your components automatically arranged or you can place them manually. You can also use these options together, which allows you to take advantage of the speed of auto-placement and also ensure that your board is laid out according to good component placement guidelines. An added advanced feature of this latest version of Altium Designer is the ability to arrange components as groups that you can define on the PCB itself or on the schematic using Cross Select Mode, which is accessible from the Tools menu.

Component Placement using Cross Select Mode

Component Placement using Cross Select Mode

Learn more about component placement and rotation in circuit board design with Altium Designer 19


Step 6: Insert Drill Holes

Before routing your traces, it is a good idea to place your drill holes (mounting and vias). If your design is complicated you may need to modify at least some of the via locations during trace routing. This can be done easily from the via Properties dialog, shown below.

Drill Hole Options Dialog

Drill Hole Options Dialog

Your preferences here, just as for component placement and trace routing should be guided by the design for manufacturing (DFM) specifications of your PCB manufacturer. 

Step 7: Route Traces

Now, you are ready to route your traces. Be sure to utilize good routing guidelines and take advantage of Altium Designer tools to simplify the process, such as highlighting nets and color coding via routing, as shown below. 

Color Coded Via Routing

Color Coded Via Routing

Step 8: Verify Circuit Board Layout

Verify your circuit board layout by running a design rule check (DRC). The number of rule categories is extensive and in you may not need to use all of those available for every design. You can select/deselect individual rules by right clicking on the rule in question from the list in the PCB Rules and Constraints Editor, below.

 PCB Rules and Constraints Editor

PCB Rules and Constraints Editor

The rules that you do use, especially for manufacturing, should be inline with the specifications and tolerances for your PCB manufacturer’s equipment. If necessary, you can create new design rules by following the steps of Altium Designer’s Design Rule Wizard.

Design Rule Wizard

Easily create new design rules

Step 9: Add Labels and Identifiers

With the circuit board layout verified you are ready to add labels, identifiers, markings, logo or any other imagery to your board. It is a good idea to utilize reference identifiers for components, as this will assist in PCB assembly. Also, include polarity indicators, pin 1 indicators and any other labels that are helpful in identifying components and their orientation. For logos and images, it is best to consult with your PCB manufacturer to ensure that you are using readable fonts. 


Labels added to silkscreen

Labels added to silkscreen

Step 10: Generate Design Files

Now, that you have completed designing your circuit board you need to generate the design files for your CM. The design files should include all the information and data necessary to build your board; including any notes or special requirements to ensure that your CM is clear on what you require. For most CMs, you will be able to use a set of  Gerber files as shown below; however, some CMs prefer other CAD file formats. 

Gerber files

Set of Gerber files

By following the above steps, the process of creating a comprehensive design is as easy as counting to ten. Using a systematic approach such as this ensures that all aspects of your design are accounted for inherently during the process, with minimal need to retrace your steps. 

As shown, Altium Designer is an advanced PCB design and development package that provides you with many tools to simplify otherwise challenging design tasks. But, the functionality and capabilities discussed here only scratch the surface of what is available to you. To explore these and other options, test the program yourself with a free trial. Or for more information on designing a circuit board using Altium Designer, talk with an Altium PCB design expert. You can also continue your learning journey by listening in to the Altium Podcast

About the Author

Altium Designer

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

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