A Guide to Making Your Own Circuit Board: Design Time (Part 1)

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You might use some of these components while making your own circuit board

As a newbie, hobbyist, or even electronics enthusiast, you can easily get overwhelmed with some of the terminologies used in the electronics industry. We have seen cases where a lot of upcoming electronics enthusiasts quickly lose interest in this domain and drift to other sectors. If you’re planning to make your own circuit board, it can be difficult to figure out how to get started. It all starts with the right components, design software, and plan for assembly.

Making Your Own Circuit Board

Any new product or electronics project will need a printed circuit board (PCB) to support the electronic components that give your new project its functionality. All your components are connected with copper traces embedded on the board, as well as mounting pads and other conductive elements. If it’s your first time designing a PCB, you’ll need to think about how your components connect to each other and how they will attach to your substrate.

A PCB can be single-sided, i.e., one copper layer, double-sided (two copper layers), or they can have multiple layers, as seen in some complex development boards and computer motherboards. A board with fewer layers is usually easier to design and costs less to assemble. PCBs can be produced at home depending on the board complexity, or you can outsource assembly to a PCB manufacturer for a fee.

Anyone that wants to make their own circuit board can consider using some system-level design tools and building on top of a development board, like an Arduino, Beagle Bone, or Raspberry Pi. These boards provide plenty of features and are easy to program with open source software, especially if you already have some software experience. Whether you use a breakout board, development board, or you assemble something yourself, making your PCB involves going through some important processes.

Another great way to get started with using design software and getting some ideas for a new project is to take a look at some open hardware projects. Not all design tools will give you access to open hardware projects in a GitHub-style interface. If you can access and fork these projects directly from your design tools, you can easily expand on an existing project that you know works, rather than reinventing the wheel.

Schematic and Board Design

Before getting into the schematic design and board design stages, you’ll want to make sure you carefully define your board’s functionality. This should include specifying requirements at the functional level and determining which components you need for the job. If you’ve already gone this far, then you’re ready to jump into the design process.

Circuit Design

Circuit design is the first stage of producing a PCB, and it just happens to be the most crucial stage. No matter how well a car is designed, if you put a terrible driver in the front seat, someone is going to get into an accident. This same analogy applies to making your own circuit board; no matter how good the manufacturer is, the end product will perform poorly if the board and schematic are designed incorrectly.

schematic1

Getting started making your own circuit board with a new schematic

In this stage, you’ll need to create a sort of blueprint that describes how the electrical components will be connected to each other. To create your schematic, it’s best to use a schematic design program that includes a large electronic components database. After selecting which design tool you want to use, you can quickly jump into the schematic editor and start adding your desired components. Your job is to connect them together, define your power and ground pins, headers, and other required I/Os.

Most electronics enthusiasts aren’t in the business of hiring design engineers to build their boards. This is where your design tools can provide some major assistance as they can check to see whether your circuits will meet basic electrical design rules. If you’re familiar with a simulation tool like SPICE or Verilog, you can use your design software to run simulations directly from your schematic. This gives you an opportunity to test your board’s functionality before you actually build it.

PCB Layout

The next stage after the schematic design is designing the PCB layout. The PCB layout is all about allocating where the actual components will be placed on the final board. The PCB layout will also show how copper traces will be routed and connected between components. The easiest way to get started with a layout is to use a design platform with a schematic capture tool. This saves you a significant amount of time getting started with a new layout as CAD models will get imported into a new board directly from your schematic.

UPS_layoutAn example of a 5 V, 2.5 A uninterruptible power supply board

Component placement on any PCB is crucial. Some components might interfere with each other and cause unexpected behavior. For example, if you have both Bluetooth and Wi-Fi modules, they both operate at 2.4 GHz and can interfere with each other or with other components on the board if not placed correctly. Be sure to follow your component manufacturer’s guidelines if you’re unsure of how to work with some of these components. Some development boards, notably some Arduino boards, will already include these components in the layout, and you can rest assured that they will work properly. This allows you to focus on expanding your board’s functionality instead of debugging component placement.

Once your board has passed all your rules and constraint checks, it’s time to start preparing for manufacturing and assembly. By this point, you should have an idea of whether you want to assemble your board yourself, or whether you want to contract with a manufacturer. If you’re using a breakout board or development board, you’ll most likely be assembling your own board. More complex devices will require a custom board that can only be fabricated by a manufacturer.

Making Your Own Circuit Board Online

If you’re interested in accessing a top-notch electronic design automation (EDA) platform, Upverter is ideal for new designers that want to quickly get started with a new project. Unlike other plawtforms that separate schematic and PCB design into separate programs, Upverter provides a schematic editor, PCB layout editor, and even a 3D viewer that lets you see how your board will look once it is assembled. All these features are accessible in a single browser-based platform. You’ll also have access to some tools that help you prepare your board for manufacturing. We’ll get a deeper look at these manufacturing features in our next article.

You can sign up for free and get access to the best browser-based PCB editor, schematic editor, and component database. Visit Upverter today to learn more.

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