Advanced Circuits, Inc. (ACI)

As experts in the manufacture and assembly of printed circuit boards, we work to make our blog a helpful resource on PCB topics and the industries that we work with, including automotive, consumer electronics, aerospace and many more. Here you'll find insights into PCB design, tech trends, assembly issues, and trending topics in the general news media as they relate to printed circuit board technology.

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PCB Design Software: How to Choose the Right Option

With the explosion of consumer electronics, IoT devices, and wearable technology, the demand for high-quality, accurate PCB design software has grown significantly. PCBs (printed circuit boards) are at the heart of virtually every electronic device, no matter how simple or complex that device might be. From your Echo Show to your Apple Watch, your calculator to the digital clock on your range hood, circuit boards make the modern world possible. The challenge is designing boards that support our growing functionality needs, can handle the heat generated by more energy and smaller form factors, and that stand the test of time.

Why PCB Design Matters

Why is PCB design such an important consideration? Simply put, it affects all aspects of the electronic device. If the board is designed with the wrong materials, if the traces are not correctly routed, if the vias are not properly designed – the board will either not work, or will not work as expected. That could lead to problems as basic as a lack of functionality, or as dangerous as overheating.

The key to PCB design is software. However, the market has grown immensely in the last few years. How do you choose the right PCB design software for your needs? We’d like to offer a helping hand here by outlining the things to look for in PCB design software.

Ease of Use

The first consideration has nothing to do with feature sets, automation, or component libraries. Instead, we’re going to focus on how easy the software is to use. Of course, ease of use is a deep topic and touches on everything from the intuitiveness of the user interface to the ease of accessing tools and features. It is also one of the most difficult qualities to quantify.

We’ll limit our discussion here to a simple formula: the number of clicks, keystrokes, and mousing required to achieve a goal. The more clicks, keystrokes, or mouse movement necessary to complete a step, the less easy to use the software is. The fewer clicks, keystrokes, and mouse movements necessary, the easier the software is to use.

Why does this matter? Simply put, if you have to click, hit multiple keys, and then move the mouse several times to accomplish a common action, it will require a significant investment of time and effort. Instead, look for PCB design software that helps streamline common actions to save you time and hassle.

Learning Curve

This is tied directly to ease of use but also touches on other aspects, such as design language (not coding, but the way the software is designed with users in mind), and more. Shorter learning curves mean you can get started using the software sooner. Steeper learning curves mean increased time learning how to do things within the program. Shorter learning curves are always preferable, as this ensures you’re able to hit the ground running. However, make sure that you’re not sacrificing features for a shorter learning curve.

Feature Set

The feature set offered is a critical consideration with any PCB software. While features and capabilities vary dramatically from one software option to the next, there are some commonly needed features to look for, as well as nice-to-have options that make one option stand out from the others.

  • Component Library – A robust component library helps reduce design time by allowing you to drag and drop commonly used components from the library onto your board design. However, to get the most value from this feature, you must know the components your board will need and then verify that they’re included in the library.
  • Layers – How many layers can the software handle? While simple PCB designs might call for just a few layers, complex boards that support multi-functionality will require many layers. Today, most PCB software can handle multiple layers, but it is important to verify that the option you are considering matches your design complexity.
  • Simulation – Any PCB software worth considering should provide you with a simulation function. Essentially, once you finish designing the board, this feature allows you to test operation and model usage scenarios. It is important for identifying potential flaws in traces and vias, components set too close together, verifying heat resistance during operation, and so much more. Without an ability to accurately simulate real-world use, you’re relying on guesswork.
  • 3D Modeling – Three-dimensional modeling capabilities are vital to creating an optimized PCB. This feature allows you to get a bird’s-eye view, but also to zoom in on the smallest features of your board. From component placement to lamination, layering to design changes, 3D modeling offers powerful capabilities that every board designer needs, whether you’re creating a single prototype or gearing up for a full production run.

The Cost Factor

Finally, let’s touch on cost. Robust PCB design software can be costly. Those costs can rise even more when you factor in add-ons, such as multiple user licenses, or limits set on the number of signal layers or pins. However, many engineers assume that PCB software must come with a high price tag to be worthwhile. The truth is that cost is not always an indicator of quality or capabilities. In fact, free PCB design software can be both high-quality and highly capable.

Free PBC Artist Software

At Advanced Circuits, we’ve led the PCB industry for decades and understand the complexity of finding the right PCB design software. In addition to our groundbreaking production capabilities, we also offer access to PCB Artist at no cost. It supports native Eagle import, multi-page schematics, controlled auto-router, up to 28 layers, and comes with a library of over 500,000 parts. All that, plus it’s unrestricted and requires no licensing fees.

Contact us today to learn more about our free PCB design software or our capabilities when it comes to board manufacturing and assembly.


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