If you’ve ever been curious about circuit boards, but unsure of how to get started, you’re not alone. The green PCBs (printed circuit boards) you see with countless traces and symbols can be intimidating when you first get started. Nevertheless, a curious and inventive spirit will never be stopped. Those with an inclination towards tinkering, hacking and creating continue to push the boundaries of what is possible with today’s electronics.
Anyone who creates circuit boards knows that perfection is unattainable, and that first attempts will usually have some flaws or glitches. However, having a better understanding of exactly how circuit board design works can help ease frustrations. By following these steps and knowing the importance of each, you can be more confident in your final product.
Think Like an Engineer
Before you even fire up your PCB design software, try spending some more time thinking like an engineer. Thanks to Silicon Valley, the term “design thinking” has become the buzzword of our times. This method isn’t just all hype, though; it is incredibly helpful before dedicating time and resources towards your product.
You can start your product by engaging in a discovery phase. During this time, make sure you’ve identified the problem that you want your circuit board to solve. This might not be a physical problem, but perhaps something that’s missing from the market or a niche that you think your innovation could fill. This will ensure that your circuit board is designed for a purpose from the start and will keep you from being side-tracked during the process.
Next, start to brainstorm the potential solutions. You can use this time to consult with the tinkering community and PCB blogs for what others have done with their designs. By tapping into PCB circles, you’ll avoid having to reinvent the wheel when an idea might already exist that just needs some refining for your purposes. Once you’ve done your research, spoken with others, and considered multiple approaches, you’ll be ready to start designing.
Create a Schematic
Even with the best idea in the world, you wouldn’t just want to build it immediately without planning. As the saying goes, it’s better to measure twice and cut once. Just like the blueprints to a building, schematics are a low-risk way to lay out your plans. You’ll probably want to first draw this out by hand to get an idea of the components involved. If you’re creating a more complex PCB, you’ll want to determine the function of each part of your circuit and group components accordingly.
At this point, you’ll want to bring in a free PCB design software, like Advanced Circuit’s PCB Artist. PCB design software will give you access to layouts and components used by other PCB creators. PCB Artist’s library includes over 500,000 components for you to explore and experiment with on your circuit board design.
As you design your virtual schematic based on your hand-drawn template, you’ll want to start by adding in and placing the components. The most common components you’ll add in are resistors, capacitors, inductors, diodes, and batteries, depending on your design. Make sure you keep in mind the size constraints of your PCB and not to overcrowd the circuit board. Placing too many components on a small area size of a PCB can cause overheating and, ultimately, failure. If your design does require a lot of components, be sure to plan on budgeting for a multilayer PCB.
At this point, you’re halfway done finishing your schematic! Once all your components are in place, you can now add your connections, connectors, and power sources. The last step to completing your schematic is to name your connections. Now, you’re ready to hit file and save or print it out so that you can double-check your work before converting it to a PCB layout.
PCB Design at Last
With most PCB design software, like PCB Artist, you’ll easily be able to convert your schematic into a PCB design. The schematic creates a netlist, which is data that helps build your PCB design. At this point, your screen will actually look like a circuit board. You’ll be able to determine the specifications of your product, such as how big your PCB will be and how many layers you need. You’ll also be able to add in routing directions. This is where you convert the connections from your schematic into the actual copper “tracks” so that PCB manufacturers know how electricity should flow from pin to pin. Pin-to-pin, daisy-chaining, star, and bus routings are the most common, and you’ll want to make your choice based on how your PCB needs to function.
Trust, But Verify
Even though you’ve done the planning and poured in a ton of research, you’ll still want to triple-check your circuit board design before sending a prototype off to be manufactured. Each prototype costs money to make and ship, and your budget probably isn’t infinite. While your design might not be perfect with the prototype, you’ll want to know you’ve done due diligence to make sure it’s sound. PCB design software, like PCB Artist, has a design rule check that you can run to make sure the manufacturer will be able to produce your design and catch any errors.
Start Creating Today
Creating a circuit board design has never been easier than it is now. Rather than struggling like past techies –– laboring over homemade cardboard PCBs –– you can get a high-quality product with less hassle and more support. Free PCB design software, like PCB Artist, has made the art and science of producing a circuit board accessible and fun.
While your first few circuit board designs might not come out perfectly, following these steps will help make sure you’ve covered all your bases. You’ll also find you’ll become more comfortable as you get familiar with PCB design software. The only way to improve, though, is by continuing to learn about circuit board design, whether through online blogs, forums, or tutorials. And of course, practice makes perfect.