Best PCB design software

Best PCB design software

Printed circuit boards (PCBs) are used in all but the simplest electronic products. They are more costly to design but they allow automated manufacturing and assembly. As a result, products become faster and cheaper to manufacture, while being more reliable.

Here are a few of the best PCB design software programs available for personal use. They aren’t listed in any specific order, the project’s requirements will determine which one will be better suited to that project.

ZenitPCB

A great tool to create professional printed circuit boards. It is flexible and an easy to use CAD program which allows you to create your project in a shorter time frame. ZenitPCB is completely freeware for personal or semi-personal use, limited to 800 pins, which is the distinction between a hobby and a professional job.

FreePCB

This is a free, open-source PCB editor for Microsoft Windows, released under the GNU General Public License. It was designed to be easy to learn and use, while being capable of professional-quality work. FreePCB doesn’t have a built-in autorouter, but it can use the FreeRoute web-based autorouter.

TinyCAD

TinyCAD is an open source schematic capture program for Microsoft Windows. It comes with symbol libraries to get you started quickly. Able to simply print your designs, you can also use TinyCAD to publish your drawings by copying and pasting them into a Word document or save them as a PNG bitmap for the Web.

Osmond PCB

Osmond PCB for Macintosh allows you to design boards of any size and shape with as many layers as you choose. The resolution of 10 nanometers gives you all the precision you need. You can place parts anywhere on the board with any orientation and run traces of any width along any path and at any angle.

BSch3V

BSch stand for “Basic Schematic”, the program is designed to run on Windows and it has only basic functions in order to simplify the operation.

ExpressPCB

This free PCB software is easy to learn and use for beginners who are designing circuit boards, while being efficient enough for a professional.

Kicad

An open source (GPL) software for the creation of electronic schematic diagrams and PCB artwork. It can be used by anyone working in electronic design, including schematic diagrams and Printed Board up to 16 layers.

gEDA

This software runs on Linux and has created tools used for electrical circuit design, schematic capture, simulation, prototyping and production. The gEDA project offers a variety of free software applications for electronic design, including schematic capture, attribute management, bill of materials (BOM) generation, netlisting into over 20 netlist formats, analog and digital simulation, and printed circuit board (PCB) design layout.

Eagle

A powerful and affordable schematic capture and PCB design software package. CadSoft offers user friendly, powerful and affordable solutions for PCB design, including Schematic Capture, Board Layout, and Autorouter.

DesignSpark PCB

With unlimited schematic sheets per project, up to 1M squared of board size and no limits on layers, which allow you to get your creativity flowing without restraints. The software can be used for schematic capture, PCB board design & layout, generating impressive 3D View to visualise your design in real time and generating manufacturing files.

BONUS: Building Your Own PCBs

Building your own PCB

So you are working on a DIY electronic project. You have designed your own circuit and are now ready to put all the pieces together to create your own printed circuit board (PCB). Knowledge of creating a PCB is useful and even considered an art form by some. The PCB layout can decide whether your project is a success or a failure and practicing proper design principles can save time and money. Here are some tips and tricks for building your own PCB that will ensure your project’s success.

Schematic

Before you can even begin laying out your PCB design it is important to have completed an accurate schematic diagram of the circuit you plan to create. PCB design is a lot easier if you start with a clean, neat and logical layout of the circuit. Signals should flow from input to output in an organized layout with all of the components, their respective capacitors and pins clearly labeled. Notes can make your job much easier in the future when it comes time to actually layout the PCB. By incorporating good design practices into your electrical schematic you will be well on your way to creating PCB designs that are both organized and efficient.

Know Your Mechanical Prerequisites

Next you need to be aware of any mechanical prerequisites required for the PCB layout. Does the board have to be in a specific shape? The dimensions of the board become a mechanical constraint. The shape will also determine where mechanical components like the potentiometer or switch have to be located. Understanding how the signal is going to flow, where the inputs and outputs are going to be, and how the power is going to get in, is crucial in this step.  At this stage it is important to draft the locations of any USB jacks, barrel jacks, slide switches, RF jacks or the RPSMA. This will define the constraints of your build. The layout will help you understand where the different circuit sections need to be located.

Copper Weight

Once you understand your constraints, copper weight is the next factor to consider when creating your PCB.  When purchasing copper it is usually designated by weight. The weight is defined as how thick the copper would be if it were pounded flat to cover one square foot. The resulting thickness for one ounce copper is 1.37 mil, or a thousandth of an inch. One ounce copper is universally less expensive and acceptable for most jobs, making it the material of choice.

Layers

Two layer boards are inexpensive and adequate for most PCB applications. Sometimes it is worth investing in a four layer board which provides a dedicated VCC plane and ground plane in the middle. This allows you to place traces more efficiently. Four layer boards also provide additional capacitance between the two layers, which acts as a filter that provides decoupling across the board.

Traces

Traces are the conductive tracks and other features etched from copper sheets and soldered onto a non-conductive substrate. They are the lines you see completing the circuit between the different components lying on a circuit board. A useful heuristic is to use 10 mil traces for low current paths 20 milliamps or less. A ten mil trace becomes resistant at 30 milliamps. You can use circuitcalculator.com to figure out how thick your traces need to be for a given copper weight and current.

As a general rule, try to avoid auto-routers since they tend to create messy trace lines, it is better to keep your traces clean and simple. Another useful rule of thumb is to avoid right angles in your traces. This can round your edges which will increase the probability of issues in programs like Logic which need to be able to read edges. Finally, you want to keep tracks as large as possible, only using thinner tracks to meet space requirements. The process of alternating between different trace thicknesses is called “necking”, this gives you the flexibility to use large low impedance tracks when necessary.

The Logic Behind Part Placement

Parts are placed according to their position in the signal chain which varies depending on the systems you need to build. For example, if you had a system with an accelerometer, a microcontroller and a USB, the accelerometer would be your input and the USB would be your output. These three parts would need to be placed in that order and within close proximity of one another on the board. You want to keep components related to a certain circuit section close together in order to keep the traces short and reduce noise.  Keep in mind that resistance, capacitance and inductance increase with total track length, so it is important to keep tracks as short as possible.

When building any PCB it is easiest to start with the power supply or regulator circuit. This circuit section usually consists of a regulator, a switch, a fuse, and decoupling caps. Usually the switch will be close to the power jack and serve as a hard stop that allows you to cut off all power to the circuit board. You will typically follow the schematic and place a cap on the input, a regulator and a couple more caps on the output to create the regulator circuit that will feed power to the rest of the board. The idea is to find a good secluded location for the power supply components to be placed. Make sure that components which are electrically close on the schematic are physically close on the board.

Star Configuration

Next you want to proceed with a modified star configuration, which means arranging the traces so that each section gets its own dedicated line back to the regulator. This is much easier on a four layer board where there is a second layer of copper underneath that you can punch down to for power, but with a two layer board a little more planning is involved.

Say you had three sections on a circuit, an RF section, a microcontroller section and an op amp section. Rather than feed each section’s components through a tandem line, the star configuration would involve drawing a trace up to a certain point before drawing lines to each component within the section. That point is your star and allows for the Vcc feed to be split evenly across the different components within a section. In our three section example, three direct lines would be drawn to three stars which would in turn distribute power evenly across the various components of each section.

The star configuration prevents the noise that would be introduced if you were to simply chain components together along a single line. If instead we had chained the three sections together, and the first in the chain drew too much power, the other two further down the chain would experience a small voltage drop.  As a final note for the star configuration, keep in mind that the initial trace feeding power directly from the Vcc may need to be thicker than the other traces if it is carrying greater than 20 milliamps.

Ground Plane and Design Rule Check (DRC)

The ground plane on a PCB is a large layer of copper foil connected to the circuit’s ground point. The ground point is typically one terminal of the power supply which serves as the return path for current from various components. In multilayer circuit boards, a separate layer is often entirely covered with copper allowing the designer to punch down from a component to complete the circuit. When laying down your traces it is advised to lay down all of your signal traces first.

Since you would ideally want to keep the bottom ground layer clean, some traces will inevitably end up needing to be placed on this level. This is why it is important to run the Design Rule Check (DRC) function which will tell you if you have any dimensional problems or error wires. The DRC will not tell you if your return path is inefficient. If you have any traces on the ground layer, make sure that the path from a given component to ground is as straight a line as possible.  If it is a low current return, you may be able to get away with simply punching down to ground as the current will follow the path of least resistance. However, keep in mind that for higher currents, any traces within the path from the component to power supply can interfere with the return path. You want the path to be as clear and as short as possible.

Final Tips

When you have completed your PCB design your next task is to handle the aesthetics or silk. It is important to remember to use labels and headers on all your components, signals, pins, inputs and outputs since it will take time for a manufacturer to create your board. Many programs like EAGLE will label components like resistors by default. This can be benefit if you ever need to get in there with probes or a soldering iron to re-work the circuit. Once you have your prototype and are ready to test it, make sure to set a limit on your power supply slightly above your maximum current but not enough to cause anything to burn. 100 milliamps is an acceptable standard, not too high above the typical 30-40 milliamps of a circuit board.  This will let you know that your circuit is robust enough to handle any rail or limiting situations.

You may also use a meter and put it from ground to Vcc and make sure the currents run as expected. If things do not perform as expected you may have to redesign the layout of your board.  PCB design is as much a skill as it is an art, and hopefully these tips and tricks will help save you time and money in your DIY projects.

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