Printed circuit board (PCB) layout software is a critical tool in the designer’s toolbox. With functionality provided by sophisticated software, board designers can make quick work of designing basic schematics and prototypes, especially when templates already exist that can be reused for new projects.
Developing more complex circuits such as multi-layer and high-density-interconnected (HDI) boards can be accomplished with a much higher level of success and reliability when using layout software designed specifically for that purpose.
PCB layout can be completed with a much lower propensity for errors in the final board design through the use of layout software, saving design costs and improving manufacturing turn-around.
Selecting PCB Layout Software – Considerations
Cost is often a major consideration when considering the acquisition of any software package. Fortunately for electronic layout engineers, there are a variety of options available for free PCB layout software – but not all are the same. The issue then is to determine which software option most fits your needs, and evaluation of functionality and other factors such as ease-of-use.
Factors that should influence the layout software selection:
Price – free is obviously a great price, but this may be a perfect example of “you get what you pay for” with some software available online. Investigate functionality thoroughly and check reviews of the system by current users. Evaluate criticisms to determine if they apply to your circumstances or needs.
Ease of use – this is highly technical software, but it should include easily-used graphical interfaces and adhere to engineering standards for component selection and names, placement methods that include automatic placement, and drag-and-drop methods.
Productivity enhancements – a good free PCB layout software gives the designer a head start on any design project. Saving and reusing prior designs as a base can increase individual productivity as well as that of other design teams, through sharing of templates and successful projects.
Difficult designs can also be shared during development for collaboration among designers. Version control or change tracking is also a valuable function to be considered in the selection process.
Support – even free software should have a reasonable level of support available when you need it. If you need training in the use of the software, is it available online or even in-house? When a designer gets stuck with a function or encounters a software issue, is there a support technician readily available? Integrated help functions are also key attributes for getting up-to-speed with new software.
Functionality – if a free software is the stripped-down version of the vendor’s full software offering (available with a significant price tag), it is likely you will need to upgrade at some point. If that’s part of the design plan, it could be an acceptable option. Otherwise, looking elsewhere may be a better option.
Document creation – designers will usually require printed drawings of designs and schematics. Lack of this functionality may be reason enough to eliminate a potential product. Additional reporting tools should include a component list for the design, in a report or file format.
Standard content and output – effective use of layout design software requires a considerable selection of components to be included in layouts. As new components enter the market they should be added to the product offering. Completion of designs should generate files ready for the manufacturer (such as Gerber files).
Updates – rapidly-evolving technology in PCB development means that software must keep up with the demands of both designers and manufacturers. Verify that any programs being considered are enhanced regularly to provide future capabilities.
Add-ons – some free PCB layout software may require purchases for certain components that are requirements for many design businesses. It pays to understand the terms and conditions of those options in advance. All “free” software may not be so free, once additional options are added.
Making the Free PCB Layout Software Selection
The primary reason for selecting PCB layout software lies in functionality. Where some offerings are indeed pared-down versions of the vendor’s more robust and costly bundle, there are also knowledgeable providers of full-function free layout software.
Some layout software is made available from PCB manufacturing companies, ensuring that resulting designs will match the requirements of their fabrication processes. In many instances this can be to the benefit of the designer by reducing the all-too-familiar process of back and forth communication between designer and manufacturer.
By implementing free manufacturer-supplied software, PCB layout designers improve the likelihood that designs will get to the fabricator with fewer errors and in a format totally acceptable to the vendor. Designers are often up against immovable deadlines, cost constraints, and demand for reductions in turnaround. PCB layout software can make each of those more attainable, and the price – free – is right.