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What is PCB Design?

Collage of four distinct Gerber PCB designs

PCB design refers to the process of creating a blueprint for manufacturing for electronic circuits on a printed circuit board. Using advanced CAD tools, PCB design involves translating electrical schematics into a 3D layout, determining component placement, routing signal paths, and ensuring the board functions as intended once manufactured.

PCB design goes beyond mere layout creation; it’s a multidisciplinary endeavor that necessitates knowledge of electrical engineering principles, software proficiency, and real-world manufacturing constraints. Designers must consider factors like electromagnetic interference, thermal management, and component compatibility as they work towards designing boards that function reliably and efficiently in their designated applications and are reliable.

PCB Design Software Tools

free pcb design software tools

Many computer-aided design (CAD) software packages are available, some free and others requiring payment. Altium DesignerPADsAllegro, and OrCAD, are the most commonly used PCB design software tools. For more simple designs, engineering students, and hobbyists, free CAD tools such as Kicad and ExpressPCB. These tools are limited in handling more complex designs and have limited features in comparison.

Features and capabilities of PCB design software can vary quite a bit from tool to tool. An engineer or designer may often choose a particular tool because it has the necessary features that other agencies do not. The more basic PCB design tools provide many more basic functions and features. Software that companies must pay for offers more features and abilities, such as complex routing with design rules specified and routing signal simulation.

As PCBs become increasingly more complex and often on a much smaller footprint, paid-for software packages are often preferred, if optional.

Schematic Capture

One of the first steps in electronic product development is the creation of a design specification. This document describes the board’s requirements and identifies critical components, signal speeds, differential pairs, etc. Once the specification is complete, schematic capture can begin. PCB schematics used to be drawn by hand and sometimes still are, but most schematics are drawn or “captured” using CAD software.


A PCB schematic is a two-dimensional drawing that shows which components connect to other components and provides instructions on how to layout the traces on the board. Using CAD software, schematic symbols are created by the engineer for each component, which is then linked to a PCB footprint or land pattern. The PCB Designer creates the footprint and defines each component’s physical dimensions, pin locations, and if it is SMT or thru-hole.

Component Placement

PCB design is taking two-dimensional schematics and creating a three-dimensional rendering. Once the schematic is complete and mechanical specifications such as board size and shape, constraints, and drill information have been set, component placement is the first step in the PCB design process. PCB footprints must have all required information input before they can be placed in the design; they must have all relevant information defined.

Illustration of Incorrect Component Footprints Leading to Alignment and Soldering Issues

Before delving too deep into component placement, it is essential to roughly place components, often in related groups, to get an idea of where they will be located and whether or not they will all fit on the board. It is essential to consider how different components will communicate and the speed with which signals need to be maintained. A rough placement exercise can also help determine how many layers will be required to obtain a stackup. Next comes critical routing, meaning traces with very tight constraints that the PCB designer will not move later. A more general placement is done once the vital routes are locked down. The final placement must be thoroughly reviewed because placement changes after routing has begun can result in having to rip up and redo work.


Altium pcb design routing

Routing is connecting the components with traces as directed by the schematic. Some software tools allow the designer to input a set of design rules for complex designs with many constraints and requirements. If a rule is broken, it will be flagged during a design rule check. Then a netlist, a text-based file, is generated from the schematic. The netlist contains information such as reference designators and pin numbers. It also shows which components need to connect to other components.

The first step of routing is to lay down the critical routes. These are routes where signals must travel at a particular speed, make the connection within a required time constraint, or differential pairs. These will be locked down when complete. Critical routes are completed first, where the size and length of the trace are crucial. The rest of the routes are then laid down, usually in the order of difficulty or complexity. These traces often move up and down through layers through different types of vias. The PCB designer must do a final detailed review, and all DRC violations are either fixed or cleared.

Manufacturing Outputs

manufacturing files

Once the PCB design process is complete and approved, the data for manufacturing are generated. The Gerber files are images that show the different layers and will be used with a photo plotter for fabrication. Other files needed for fabrication are silkscreen, soldermask, and NC drill and routing.

For assembly, a whole other set of files is used to program the various machines involved in the process. These include a bill of materials (BOM), so the components can be sourced and purchased, a pick-and-place file used to program the pick-and-place machine, and the netlist for functional testing and inspection.

911EDA offers PCB design services using Altium, PADs, Allegro, and OrCAD.

What is PCB Design?
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What is PCB Design?
PCB design is the process of creating detailed plans for electronic circuits on printed circuit boards. Using CAD tools, it translates electrical schematics into 3D layouts, managing component placement, signal routing, and addressing manufacturing challenges to ensure boards function efficiently and reliably.
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