Through It All: PCB Tools and What Experience Has Shown

January 31, 2018 Altium Designer

An open door with blue light coming in




I have always been aware that places exist in the world where the January gray skies and chills never happen, but I’m still not entirely sure where they are. Whether it’s picking up a new hobby, being invigorated by your resolutions, or rewatching some of your favorite movies under a heavy, comfortable blanket, January has a lot more to offer than the cold, wet, and gloomy weather that is on the other side of most of our windows.


As the doorstep to all kinds of new possibilities, January continues to surprise me, even after the hundreds of centuries I’ve been alive. Especially in the adapting and evolving printed circuit board design industry growth always has new opportunities tailing shortly behind it. My personal PCB design career has enabled me to travel, meet some great people, and work behind-the-scenes on some really cool stuff that I’m quite proud of.


I’ve learned how to best meet the needs of the different clients that I have worked with and witnessed how PCB design tools have changed and grown to accommodate new design technology needs. These experiences have helped keep me active and engaged with the industry. It’s always hard to predict the future, I sometimes have difficulties imagining what I’ll have for breakfast the next day, but here are some suggestions of experiences to keep track of.

Client Experience May Vary, PCB Tools Remain

Because of my time working at different service bureaus over the years, I have had the opportunity to work with a lot of different technologies. Years ago, I designed the boards for a company experimenting with some of the first touch screen applications (think CRTs, not flat screen monitors). I have also designed large industrial power panel boards and small tiny wearables, and just about everything else in-between it seems.


With these different design technologies in my pocket, one of the key points that I learned is consistency. The different clients that I have designed boards for were all over the map in how they approached their design process, so I needed to provide some basic foundation to their projects. Listing necessary data, regulating reports and reviews, and providing their deliverables on time were a few of my practices. No matter what, my job was to provide them with the best design that my CAD tools could produce.


Picture of unified design environment 

PCB CAD tools are now providing a total design solution in one unified design environment


Constantly Evolving Design Environment

Speaking of CAD tools, being able to work with some of the most advanced PCB design systems over the years has definitely been a huge bonus. I’ve even been accused of having more fun working with design tools than with playing a computer game, and I would have to say that there’s a lot of truth in that statement. Working on these systems has given me a bird’s eye view of their growth as well, and there have been some very interesting changes over the years.


Originally there were around three-thousand different CAD vendors out there. OK, I may be exaggerating a little, but there were a lot of them. We would take schematic or netlist data from a variety of different tools, and then input it into our layout tools. This was a manual process prone to error but essential to conform the data to the needs of our software. Then we had to reverse that same process in order to return the data back to the customer.


It has been very interesting, and a huge relief, to see how today’s PCB design tools have been moving towards a more unified design environment. CAD tools now offer schematic capture, CAD library functions, PCB layout, bill of materials control, and even manufacturing output file generation all from the same CAD platform. This has reduced the confusion of working with multiple tools from different environments as well as reducing the possibility of human errors.

More Complete Design Features

A unified design environment isn’t the only evolving aspect of PCB design tools, there have also been some amazing advancements in features and functionality. For instance, tools that highlight the ability to design multiple PCBs in the same project to support system level design, auto-routing and, in turn, the ability for the user to auto-interactively route their design. This gives the designer manual routing control at the speed of a traditional auto-router.


Early auto-routers generated more fear and loathing than they did usable routing, and multi-board design wasn’t even a consideration because it just wasn’t possible. Now it is all becoming the new standard of PCB design. Even the ability to manage components from a bill of materials manager instead of getting a text file BOM report is a huge improvement; manufacturing data and report generation provides greater content and meaningful detail.


Picture of routing on a PCB

Advanced routing capabilities are just one of the enhancements in today’s PCB CAD tools



All of these enhancements are a result of the growth of PCB design tools in order to accommodate the needs of PCB designers like you and I. And these tools today do not disappoint, they provide the power and functionality that today’s designs require. In addition, today’s tools will give you the confidence that you can complete the design task in front of you on time, on budget, and without error.


ActiveRoute gives you the control over auto-routing that you need while designing multiple boards in a multi-board project will give you the system level design that you have been hoping for. Even bill of materials management with ActiveBOM will help you to have greater control over your entire design. If your CAD software is looking like January then updating it might be the first step for you to get out of the gloom. With the unified design environment and this other constantly improving functionality built in, PCB design software like Altium Designer is a great choice.


Would you like to find out more about how Altium can help you with all of this functionality in your next PCB design? 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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