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If you’ve got a great idea for a new electronic device, you’ll need to turn it from a circuit diagram into a schematic. Later, you’ll need to turn your schematic into a layout, and then you’ll need to turn your layout into an actual PCB. Different online software programs can help with different tasks, but only one type of software integrates all of these features into a single environment. Altium Designer gives you access to all of these features in a single program and can help you move through the entire design process.
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A fully unified PCB design package with a plethora of design tools.
It’s true what they say: hardware is hard work. Compared to a new piece of software, building a new piece of hardware takes several iterations of building a proof of concept, prototyping, testing, retesting, and redesigning, not to mention any of the other aspects of marketing a new product. The temptation to cut costs wherever possible is only natural, but it is more important to consider how cut-rate design software affects your productivity, design quality, and sanity.
There are plenty of freeware and freemium PCB and electronics design platforms available online. Some of these can be used in your browser, while others can be downloaded and run locally. Both options are convenient, but these programs tend to segregate features into multiple programs or not include critical design features at all. This can ruin your workflow and seriously hamper productivity.
Some of the greatest technological ideas were developed on the back of a cocktail napkin. The first step in bringing your design to life is building a set of schematics from your basic circuit diagram and flowchart. Your schematics define the basic structure of your device and provide the intimate details on how your components and power/ground lines are connected together in a coherent structure.
If you’re looking for a circuit CAD program for your pritned circuit board, then you might start your search anywhere. Computer-aided design should make your printed circuit board design process easy and enable you as a PCB designer to make the boards you’ve wanted. Whether it’s easily-navigatable PCB footprints, or making any electronic circuit CAD software should be there to help you.
Online schematics programs are typically only useful for exactly that: they can help you make a schematic and little to nothing else. You should count yourself lucky if these tools import real data from a component library and facilitate some type of analysis. Those that do will quickly block further progress with a paywall, forcing you to pull out your credit card just to continue using sub-par design software.
The best schematic software takes information directly from your components and checks your design against critical design rules, helping prevent any careless mistakes that might arise during the inevitable 3 AM design session. You can also use hierarchical design to link multiple schematics together into a single device, allowing you to segment groups of components into their own schematics.
Since design rules are important for preventing mistakes when creating schematics, you’ll need software that includes standard design rules for any PCB, as well as a tool allowing you to customize new and existing design rules for your particular application. A powerful design rules engine will interface directly with your components library, ensuring that your components are compatible with each other and your board performs properly.
Schematic creation in Altium Designer
PCBs can be complicated beasts, and transforming a schematic into a layout requires translating your components and connections into a CAD drawing. Your software needs to place component models that reflect their real footprint and lay accurate traces with predefined geometry. Your CAD tools need to be ultra-accurate and they need to access information directly from your component libraries.
If you’ve ever translated an electronics schematic into a layout, then you have a good idea of how long this can take. It becomes tempting to skip building a schematic altogether and just proceed directly to your layout. Instead, your PCB design software should include the capabilities to capture your schematic as an initial layout. Schematics are a critical document in electronics design, and schematic capture tools save you time from building a device twice.
More complicated devices with a large number of traces take a significant amount of time to route properly. Once you translate your schematic into an initial layout, you’ll need to route traces around your board to match your schematic. If you’ve already spent a significant amount of time routing traces around your schematic, the idea of repeating this process in your layout likely sounds monotonous.
Instead of routing everything manually, using great PCB design software includes automated routing tools. You’ll need to incorporate these tools with your stackup strategy so that you can create a compact layout and use your board real estate wisely. Most online design tools do not include these features, and those that do don’t compare to unified design software.
The CAD interface in Altium Designer
After finishing your design, it’s time to form a solid production plan if you ever want your circuit board to be more than a layout on a computer screen. You’ll need to generate deliverables for your manufacturer in a standardized format. These tools need to access data directly from your design and your component libraries.
Online and free design tools for bills of materials, Gerber files, and other deliverables require that you export and import your design data between programs, which hampers your workflow and creates the potential for errors. You should count yourself lucky if your bill of materials generator will read from your component libraries, which will force you to move data between tools manually.
Only Altium Designer integrates all of these critical design and deliverable generation tools together into a single software platform. Online and free tools leave you to scan back and forth between your design, component libraries, and a word processing program as you write your deliverables by hand. Instead of cobbling together multiple programs, try working with software that gives you access to all the design tools you need in a single design interface.
Online and free design tools usually include one or two of these features, but the quality and reliability do not match the tools in the best unified design software. Worse yet, online and free tools can block you from accessing critical features with a paywall, and just when you need them most. Instead of dodging paywalls and trying to get by with sub-standard PCB design software, try using the most advanced design package on the market. Try Altium Designer.
The design environment in Altium Design comes with its own challenges, and you might need some help getting started. Instead of leaving you to figure things out on your own, Altium gives you access to all the resources you need to design successfully. You’ll have access to the AltiumLive forum, podcasts and webinars with industry experts, and a thorough knowledge base with examples.
If you want to save time and sanity when designing your next electronic device, all of your design critical tools need to work together. Altium Designer includes all of your critical design tools in a single interface. These tools are built to work together using a rules-driven design engine. Don’t take the easy way out and use sub-standard online design tools. Invest in yourself and your future: invest in Altium Designer.