What are the PCB design software

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Types of PCB design software

There are several different categories of PCB design software available, each suited for different design needs and user skill levels:

Software Type Description
Entry-level/Hobbyist Simplified interfaces and limited feature sets for basic 2-layer PCBs, suitable for beginners. Examples: Fritzing, Eagle.
Mid-range More advanced features like auto-routing, 3D viewing, simulation. Support 4-16 layer PCBs. Examples: DipTrace, EasyEDA.
Professional Full-featured with schematic capture, advanced routing, signal integrity analysis, etc. For complex PCBs. Examples: Altium Designer, OrCAD.

Entry-Level PCB Design Software

Entry-level PCB CAD tools like Fritzing and Autodesk Eagle provide an approachable way for hobbyists, students, and makers to get started with PCB design. These programs have streamlined user interfaces that focus on core functionality for creating simple PCB layouts.

Common features of entry-level PCB software include:

  • Schematic and PCB layout editors
  • Familiar, user-friendly interfaces
  • Component libraries with common parts
  • Design rule checks (DRC)
  • Gerber and drill file export
  • Limitations on board size and layer count (usually 2 layers)

Entry-level PCB design packages are a great place to start learning electronic design. However, their limited capabilities mean most will outgrow them as their designs increase in complexity.

Mid-Range PCB Software

Mid-range PCB design tools offer extended capabilities beyond entry-level software. They support larger board sizes, higher layer counts (typically 4-16 layers), and include advanced features to improve productivity.

Some standout features found in mid-range packages:

  • Multi-sheet schematic capture
  • Auto-routing and interactive routing
  • 3D PCB viewing
  • Simulation (analog/digital)
  • Import/export in various CAD formats
  • Version control and design collaboration

Mid-range PCB CAD occupies a sweet spot between capability and cost. Tools like DipTrace and EasyEDA pack in professional-level functionality at affordable prices for small engineering firms and serious hobbyists.

Professional PCB Design Software

At the high end are professional PCB design platforms used to develop the most complex and high-performance circuit boards. These are the tools used by major electronics companies to design critical systems like smartphones, computers, medical devices, and aerospace hardware.

Professional PCB CAD software leaves no stone unturned, with extensive capabilities including:

  • Rules-driven layout and routing
  • Multi-board design
  • Hierarchical schematic entry
  • FPGA and PLD design integration
  • Signal and power integrity analysis
  • Electromagnetic simulation
  • 3D mechanical CAD integration
  • Automated manufacturing outputs

Altium Designer and Cadence OrCAD are two of the most popular professional tools. But with great power comes a steep learning curve and eye-watering price tags that can reach tens of thousands of dollars per license.

How PCB Design Software Works

While PCB design tools vary in their specific implementation, they share a common workflow:

  1. Create a schematic – Placing the components and drawing the connections that define the circuit’s logical functions.

  2. Associate footprints – Assigning a physical land pattern to each component showing the pads, holes, and silkscreen.

  3. Define mechanical constraints – Setting the overall board shape, dimensions, and drilling/mounting holes.

  4. Place components – Arranging the parts on the board and orienting them to minimize trace lengths and crossovers.

  5. Route traces – Drawing the copper connections on the various layers according to current carrying and manufacturing requirements.

  6. Run DRC – Verifying spacing, trace width, hole sizes, etc. are compliant with PCB fabrication capabilities.

  7. Export manufacturing files – Generating the Gerber, drill, and Pick-and-Place files needed to produce the physical PCB.

Throughout this process, the PCB CAD software manages connectivity between the schematic and physical layout. As you draw traces in layout, it consults the netlist to ensure the right pads are being connected. If you update the schematic, the software flags and re-routes any changed nets.

Key Features to Look for in PCB Software

With so many PCB design tools on the market, it can be daunting to choose the right one for your needs. Here are some of the top features and capabilities to look for:

User Interface and Ease of Use

PCB design brings together many different disciplines – electronic, mechanical, manufacturing – each with their own terminologies and concepts to learn. The best PCB software presents these in a logical, intuitive interface that minimizes the learning curve. Look for contextual help, tooltips, and clear icons/menus.

Schematic Capture

Schematic entry is the first step in PCB design. A good schematic editor should offer:

  • Easy drawing of components and connections
  • Buses for organizing related signals
  • Hierarchical blocks for modular design
  • Tools for managing power supply and ground
  • Real-time design rule checks
  • Bill of materials (BOM) generation

Layout and Routing

PCB layout involves component placement, copper pour zones, trace routing, footprint/pad design, and silkscreen/assembly drawing. Important layout capabilities include:

  • Interactive and automatic routing modes
  • Board stack-up and copper pour tools
  • 3D viewing and collision detection
  • Length matching and tuning
  • Multi-board and Flex PCB design
  • Variant management
  • Mechanical CAD integration

Analysis and Simulation

As PCBs increase in speed and density, signal integrity (SI) and power integrity (PI) analysis becomes critical. Analog/mixed-signal designs may also require circuit simulation. Leading PCB design software integrates SI/PI and SPICE simulation to let you virtually prototype your designs.

To maximize analysis accuracy, your PCB CAD software should be able to import IBIS models and S-parameter data for critical components and materials. It should also offer a fast, seamless flow between layout and simulation domains.

Library Management

A good part library is essential for productivity in PCB design. Your PCB software should include an extensive library of pre-made schematic symbols, footprints, and 3D models for common components. It should also provide easy tools for creating and managing your own custom parts.

Look for features like:

  • Integrated content from part vendors
  • Schematic symbol wizards
  • Footprint builders and calculators
  • 3D model generation and export
  • Library revision control
  • Part search and filtering tools

Manufacturing Preparation

Ultimately, a PCB design must be fabricated and assembled to serve its purpose. PCB design software plays a key role in preparing manufacturing outputs, including:

  • Gerber files for each layer
  • NC drill files
  • Assembly drawings and pick-and-place files
  • Automated DFM checking
  • 3D visualization/export for enclosures
  • Direct integrations with PCB vendors

By automating the creation of manufacturing files, PCB CAD tools help you get reliable, high-yielding boards with fewer errors and less back-and-forth with your fabrication partners.

Choosing the Right PCB Software

With a basic understanding of PCB design tools under your belt, how do you go about selecting the right one? It depends on your needs and budget. Here are some key factors to consider:

Factor Description
Design complexity How many layers, components, and board area do you need? Entry-level tools are fine for simple boards, but complex designs demand professional software.
Team size If working solo, a single license will do. But collaborative design requires a package with multi-user support and version control.
Skill level Are you a student or hobbyist looking to learn PCB design? Or an experienced engineer needing power and efficiency? Choose software that matches your abilities.
Budget Cost is always a factor. Entry-level and some mid-range PCB tools offer free versions. Professional packages require a greater investment. Pick what you can afford.

It’s a good idea to try before you buy. Most PCB design software offers free trials or demo versions you can use to test drive the tool. Experiment with different packages to find one that fits your design style and workflow.

Remember, PCB design is a skill that takes time and practice to master, no matter how good your tools. The best way to improve is through hands-on experience bringing your boards to life. So don’t get too hung up on picking the perfect software – find one you’re comfortable with and dive in!

PCB Design Software FAQ

What is the best PCB design software?

There’s no singular “best” PCB design tool – it depends on your needs and budget. For complex designs, Altium Designer and OrCAD are top professional choices. Mid-range options like DipTrace offer excellent bang-for-buck. And for beginners, Fritzing and EasyEDA are great free options to learn with.

Is PCB design hard to learn?

PCB design does have a learning curve, as it involves skills in electronics, mechanical layout, and manufacturing. But modern PCB software provides an approachable way to get started. By beginning with simple designs and working your way up, it’s a learnable skill for the determined!

Can I design PCBs without software?

Yes, it’s possible to design PCBs manually using tape-up techniques on paper or film. But PCB CAD software offers major advantages in efficiency, precision, and ease of making revisions. It also automates critical steps like design rule checks and generating manufacturing outputs. Using software is recommended for all but the simplest PCB designs.

What skills do you need for PCB design?

At a basic level, you’ll need to understand:

  • Electronic circuit theory and schematic symbols
  • PCB Materials and manufacturing processes
  • Component packages and footprints
  • Layout guidelines like trace width/spacing

The best way to build these skills is a combination of studying theory, getting hands-on practice with PCB software, and tapping into the wealth of web resources on electronics design.

How long does it take to design a PCB?

PCB design time varies widely based on the complexity of the board and your experience level. A simple 2-layer board with a few dozen parts might be doable in a few hours for a seasoned designer. But a complex 16-layer board with BGAs, high-speed interfaces, and tight space constraints could take weeks of careful design and simulation. In general, plan for design to occupy 25-50% of the total time from concept to completed boards.