There is something quite satisfying with designing your own PCB. It doesn’t matter if it is your first design or your hundredth, as soon as the PCB comes in from the manufacturer everyone in the lab will gather round to have a look at your artwork. It is even more satisfying when all of the components of your design fit perfectly on the board, and you haven’t swapped the VDD and VSS pins of your microcontroller. Whether your design contains a handful of components or hundreds, it is vital that any design errors are caught before you and your colleagues ogle over the final product from the manufacturer. The best way to avoid design errors is using the right software for the job.
There are a number of software packages that can be used for PCB design. At EPG, we are very fortunate to have access to Altium Designer through our partners at Premier EDA Solutions. I have been using Altium for several years now, and have been recently impressed with some of the features they have added. The two features that have stuck out for me this past year are the Altium Vault and BOM Manager.
Altium Vault: In the past, when adding very basic components like resistors and capacitors to your design, the process was very tedious. You would search for the resistor, find the right footprint, look for the part from a distributor like Digikey, compile all of this information in the schematic design, and then move onto the next component. With the Vault, you can simply select the resistance and package you need, and add it to your schematic. Searching for the component from a distributor is taken care of with the new BOM Manager.
The Vault also has many components with non-standard footprints, another pet-peeve of mine. As soon as you start making your own footprints, especially if you are new to PCB design, you increase the chances of errors in your final design. The Altium Vault does not have every component, so there will be instances where you will have to make a custom footprint or two.
BOM Manager: The new BOM Manager is fantastic – it will automatically find parts from a list of favourite distributors, and tell you how much they cost, and if they are in stock. The BOM Manager also uses information from Vault components to make sure it finds the right component for your design. It has greatly reduced the possibilities of making mistakes, and greatly simplified the process of choosing all of the part numbers for your design.
In summary, you don’t want the satisfaction of a new custom PCB ruined because the holes in your through hole components are slightly too small. The best way to avoid this is by using an appropriate CAD tool which has all you need in a single program: schematic capture, PCB design, circuit simulation, and distributor integration.