Make a PCB Online From Start to Finish

Using the right online PCB design software gives you flexibility and lets you collaborate with other designers.

Whether you’re a hardware or software person, you’re probably ingrained with that entrepreneurial spirit. You’ve got the vision and the knowledge you need to turn your electronics dreams into reality, but you’ve still got one more obstacle to overcome: you need to build it.

Sometimes budgets don’t measure up to the overall vision of your device. Unless they have the cash to spare, entrepreneurs have to operate on shoestring budgets and need to find the most cost-effective ways to reach their goals. Since the circuit board forms the central nervous system of your electronic device, you’ll need access to PCB design software that can meet your device requirements without breaking the bank.

That’s why online PCB design software might be the best choice to start designing your device. So what is the best way to get started? How do you get from a design on paper to creating deliverables for a manufacturer? The road from concept to product can be made smooth with a great online PCB design software platform.

Which Platform is Right for Me?

If you start searching for an online design platform, you might be unsure which platform is the best for you. So how do you pick the right platform? First things first, avoid the freemium sites. No one wants to spend hours designing their device, only to be told that they need to pay in order to keep their schematic.

When you find a platform, you should make sure it takes you all the way to generating your manufacturer deliverables. An online design platform should actually be a complete platform that includes schematic, circuit board layout, and bill of materials features. The platform should also be integrated with a thorough components library.

Just because an online platform is free doesn’t mean that it can’t contain advanced design features. The most powerful online design software should include rules checking and design constraint features. This will ensure that your designs will meet basic quality standards. Other features like a 3D viewer are extremely useful.

One great way to break into PCB design and bring a new device online quickly is to use a development board. These boards are very versatile and contain many features that can help expedite your design process. The documentation on these boards is very thorough, and tutorials for using these boards can be found online. These boards also mount easily to PCBs and make it easy to interface with other components.

Schematic and Layout

Whether you’re designing online or you’ve spent a bunch of money on a software package, you’ll start designing your product by drawing up a schematic. Your schematic will contain all the electronic components and display your connections between components. You can also write some important notes for yourself in the schematic. Think of it as a blueprint but without all the measurements.

At first glance, it may seem unnecessary to build a schematic of your design. Why not just jump straight into a PCB layout? Why should I have to build the device twice? Once you complete your layout, it may not be obvious how components are connected. This is where schematics are invaluable: they give you a broad view of your device. It is easy to see how components connect to each other, while these connections can be less obvious on a finished PCB layout.

Once you finish your schematic, your layout should be automatically captured and generated based on your schematic. The generated layout will include all the components in your schematic and will have pre-mapped connections between components. You’ll still need to route between components, place copper pours for power and ground, and arrange components to your liking.

When you view your layout for the first time, you may find that it is not how you imagined. Components might appear in odd places, and connections between components might not appear as you imagined. The layout might not initially meet your form factor requirements, and the schematic gives you the opportunity to rearrange your components to fit your packaging.

Once you are inside the layout, you might find that it becomes useful to use more advanced design and routing techniques to save space in your design. Placing traces in multiple layers is important in PCBs with a large number of components but strict form factor requirements. An online platform should include via placement capabilities so that you can route between multiple layers.

Enforcing Design Rules

PCB design is one of those fields where it is easy to start building simple devices. When you are not worried about high speed, high frequency, low power, high current, high temperature, RF communication, or mixed-signal capabilities, most designs you create will likely operate just fine. Designing in consideration of these other requirements is difficult to master and requires adhering to a specific design rule or many.

If you have not designed devices in any of the above areas in the past, you may not have all the relevant design rules memorized. That’s why your online design platform should have the capability to enforce standard design rules for different applications. Not all design rules are set in stone, meaning that certain design rules are meant to operate as constraints. Certain constraints on feature sizes and clearance need to be met in certain applications.

Certain features, especially those appearing in multilayer boards, should also be customizable in an online design platform. Trace sizes, pads, via dimensions, and copper pour areas should all be customizable. This is especially important if you work with certain parts like development boards, as the footprint of these devices cannot be changed. You will need to design your routing and copper pour features to accommodate development if you decide to use them.

Automated PCB manufacturing

Manufacturing Deliverables

It should go without saying that you should always build and test a functional prototype of your device before you start ordering fabricated prototypes. Ordering a large-run is only a good idea if you have tested your functional prototype and your fabricated prototypes, followed by completing any required redesigns. All prototypes should be thoroughly tested before moving to full production, and this will give you an opportunity to fix any problems in your design if needed.

Once you finish your design, checked that it meets standard design rules, and decided you are ready to fabricate a prototype, it’s time to prepare deliverables for your manufacturer. Your design platform will need to generate certain documents based on your board layout. A great online design platform should quickly generate your manufacturer outputs. These documents include a bill of materials, Gerber files and Excellon files, and CAD/CAM files of your device.

All of these files will tell your manufacturer the information they need to plan out the fabrication and assembly process. The bill of materials is important as it contains sourcing and pricing information for components that appear on the board. It should also contain acceptable substitutes for your components in case there is a problem with sourcing. Always check with your manufacturer and get a list of required deliverables.

Collaboration

If you are putting together a team of designers or you are working in a remote organization, an online PCB design platform is perfect for team collaboration. A great online platform gives the design owner the power to add collaborators and document design changes. You should be able to switch between versions easily and download different versions of finished layouts.

Collaboration is extremely smooth and easy in an online PCB design platform. This type of collaboration is excellent for new designers as it gives multiple people an instant view into a project. When more people are collaborating, there is a better chance that design problems can be caught before a board goes to production.

You don’t need to be a large company with a massive budget to jump into PCB or electronics design. Now you can have access to the tools you need to build your dream device with browser-based design software. IoT 360 helps you achieve your design goals with built-in a ton of built-in components and an intuitive user interface. IoT 360 gives you the power to design professional-level devices while helping you stay within your budget.

Sign-up for our service and contact us for more information if you want to learn more about the capabilities of browser-based design and product development.

EE’s Dilemma – Design Parts or Boards

Most engineers would rather design PCBs than libraries. But how can you trust a library with other contributors?

Whenever I talk to electronics designers about what they dislike the most when it comes to creating electronics the answer is almost always the same. Part creation. It doesn’t matter if I’m talking to an experienced designer who’s been doing it for years or to a beginner whose been at it for 3 months, people don’t like “wasting” their time creating their components. Why is that?

There seems to be three basic reasons as to why people don’t like create their own components:

  1. Footprint, Symbol, 3D model Styles
  2. Trust
  3. Time

What if there was a way to solve all these issues and create a centralized database that we can all trust, agree on styling, AND not spend time creating? It may sound like a dream but I don’t think so, I think this is something completely within our grasp. Come with me and I will take you to the promised land.

Footprint & Symbol Styles

The first thing we need to do is to figure out how to solve the problem of style. We all have our preferred way of doing things, a way we like to view our schematics and boards. I propose we do the same thing that schools and the military do, uniforms. We take away the personalization of part creation and create a standard.

Now this isn’t a new radical idea, in fact its an old stale one but somehow it seems to be forgotten.  Way back in 1975 IEEE created the standard IEEE 315. This standard was made to fix this exact issue of how schematic symbols should look. I’m not sure exactly what happened but somewhere along the way people went their separate ways. It could be a new generation of designers or maybe people just didn’t want to change, either way that’s not the point. This standard was made for a reason and it should be followed.

The IEEE 315 standard is extremely comprehensive, so much so it includes schematic symbol elements allowing you to symbolize parts that haven’t even been invented yet. Let me explain. IEEE 315 gives a standard to construct any symbol, every line, dot, and feature has a meaning. With these tools available, one is able to construct any symbol for any possible component that does or does not exist.

IGBT Symbol Meaning

The next thing that we as designers need to come together on is the footprints / land patterns / decals for components. Just like with schematic symbols we don’t have a standard that we all are using despite there being a standard out there available to us. That standard is IPC-7351. IPC-7351 provides information on land pattern geometries used for the surface attachment of electronic components. This includes things like sizing and tolerance to insure there is sufficient area for all the appropriate solder fillets.

Caliper and CPU

So far we’ve taken a look schematic symbol and PCB footprint standards but there’s still one thing missing and that’s a standard for creating the 3D STEP model. And yes there is a standard for that as well, isn’t that great!? The standard for that is the JEDEC Publication No. 95. JEDEC 95 describes the dimensional and geometrical characteristics of “standard” component packages.

JEDEC_MO-012

Trust

Okay, so we’ve talked about how to standardize on schematic symbols, PCB footprints, and also 3D models. But what about the trust and time issue. We solve the trust issue by applying these standards. Once everyone or most people apply these standards to part creation as they should, we can all have a higher confidence that we’ve all done things correctly.

Of course nothing a person does is without error all the time. This is why we need an online database with everyone uploading their component models. And to be sure all components are up to standard we can crawl and verify each component as they’re uploaded. In addition to software verification, having users review and use components will give everyone a solid indication of which part is good and which is not.

Time

As you probably have guessed having this online database where users and professionals can upload their component symbols and models will save time, for everyone. It may surprise you but this isn’t a fantasy, well not completely. EE Concierge is a service that will create a complete component for you including schematic symbol, PCB footprint, and also a 3D model. The EE Concierge component making process follows the above industry standards so you know what you’re getting is correct and transferable to anyone. As for an online database filled with components, that’s where Octopart comes in. Octopart is a search engine for electronic components and industrial products. It includes things like a BOM scrubber, pricing and a bunch  more. It’s definitely worth checking out.

 

Why EDA Component Creation is Broken

How painful and frustrating is it to stop working on a new hardware design because the component you need to add isn’t already in your parts library?  Not only do you need to switch your train of thought from being creative to being meticulous in transcribing the part details and designing a symbol and footprint, but you’re also aware of the fact that you’re going to have to check and re-check to make sure you did it 100% perfectly.  Since the design work and the sanity check are both prone to human error, there is a tremendous inherent risk involved with the undertaking of adding and using a new part.  This makes the whole process tedious and cumbersome, but necessary.

The first thought that then runs through your mind is, “Can I offload this work?” Of course, if you work for a large company with a big budget, you can just tell some intern to design the part for you, or outsource it to a company that specializes in part creation, but you’re still groaning inwardly at the prospect of re-checking the design once it is done.  Finding an online parts library to download will also sometimes save you some time, but again, re-checking the parts is necessary to maintain your sanity, especially from a mysterious online source.

Most people don’t have those luxuries, and if (and invariably when) they make a mistake and manufacture the PCB they have to eat the cost of a re-spin, delay shipping their product and have a difficult conversation with their manager.  Re-spins take time, cost money and as a result kill thousands of dollars in profit. This makes the risk of a re-spin kill a manager’s sleep.   This puts pressure on the design engineer to attempt to avoid that risk by spending more time manually re-checking designs and kills his or her life.  Working as a hardware designer tasked with designing parts is akin to working as a court stenographer, except even they are being automated out of business.

Maybe there are some easier “parts problems” to tackle… Like, why do we share part data sheets and not the designs for the schematic symbol and PCB footprint?  Or, if I go to the effort of finding the data sheet, why can’t my software magically create my part for me?  A standard file format is probably not in keeping with the business model for part suppliers or the various desktop EDA tool companies.  Speaking of which, why are so many people still using desktop software for this?  If more designers used a cloud-based tool that made collaboration and sharing this kind of information easier, wouldn’t that be a good first step?  In that collaborative forum, we could keep track of how many times a certain part was used which would give a numerical value to the risk in using the part design, saving time spent on re-checking it.

There has to be a better way.  A large majority of innovation has been centered around the idea of eliminating human error to drive efficiency and cost savings. Automated textile manufacturing in the 18th century helped drive the industrial revolution.  “Spell check”, something almost everyone with a computer takes for granted, first arrived on personal computers in the 1980s.  Google is now creating self-driving autos that eliminate the human error from driving a car! You’d think we could figure out a way to eliminate human error from designing schematic symbols and PCB footprints!

Self-driving cars? Yes.  Verified Parts Creation Service? No.

image

What do you think?  Does designing new components irk you the way it does me?  Do you find the work of designing a new part empty, hollow, tedious and wasteful?  Do you lie awake at night worrying if the pads on the PCB footprint you (or your intern) created are the wrong size?

Let us know in the comments section below…

Where are the Electrical Engineering jobs?

You’ve toiled away at school and earned yourself a shiny degree in electrical engineering. So where are the jobs? While there are many different factors that come into play when looking for a job that’s right for you, picking an area that employs a huge number of electrical engineers might be a good place to start.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the state that employs the most electrical engineers is (no surprise) California, with the most densely populated region being San Jose, Sunnyvale, and Santa Clara. Check out our map below for a state by state overview!

The Bureau is releasing the latest edition of the Occupational Outlook Handbook later this month so stay tuned for our in-depth breakdown of the current salary, demand, and occupational growth of electrical engineering positions!


Acquisitions in Hardware

6 Things they don’t teach you in school about being a hardware engineer

6 Things they don't teach you in school about being a hardware engineer

1. School gets you half way there. The rest is self-driven.

There’s really no school for hardware design. I’ve gotten way more out of self-directed learning than sitting in a classroom. Make sure to learn from mentors, regularly read articles written by industry experts, attend seminars, read white papers from big semi companies, and participate in forums. It’s good to look beyond what you think you know. Don’t just assume the way you’ve been doing it is the best way. The degree of collaboration and knowledge-sharing in hardware pales in comparison to the software world.

2. Mistakes are valuable.

Even if it takes you 7 days to figure out, causes hair loss, and many sleepless nights, you’ll come out of it way more equipped with hardware knowledge than before.

3. Every problem has a solution. Every single one.

That doesn’t mean you’ll like the solution. But it exists. And if you keep plugging away methodically, trying things, experimenting, trusting your intuition, seeking help when you can, a clue will appear that will ultimately be the turning point in figuring out a problem. Remembering this has helped me get through some despondent times when I was stuck on deep FPGA timing problems, power supply start up issues, and signal integrity mysteries.

4. Power supply problems can be like the chicken-or-the-egg conundrum.

Fixing a power supply problem can be extremely tricky. While debugging, you can be damaging your board and changing the very thing that you’re debugging. And just because a section of the board powered up and started to work, doesn’t mean it will continue to work.

Try to choose power supply devices that are debug-friendly (i.e. a digital controller that you can read status from). Be methodical and power up each supply one by one. Build in debugging test-points for all important circuit nodes and pins on controller chips. Power-up LEDs are super helpful. This way, fixing the problem won’t be like untangling one long piece of string.

5. Never underestimate the value of good hand-soldering skills.

Just like it doesn’t make sense to go to fashion school and not learn how to hand-sew, not knowing how to hand-solder will come with many limitations. You’re going to come across a number of instances where you’ll have to rework your board: parts have to be removed and replaced, passives have to be changed, jumpers have to be added, etc. Knowing how to solder by hand will open up a number of new debugging channels for you, allowing you to pinpoint problems more effectively.

6. There’s great knowledge value in imparting what you know to others.

Nurture a co-op student or intern. Teach them everything you know. You’ll be surprised at how hard it is to support and explain what you’ve always understood to be true. Not only will this be valuable for the listener, but verbally walking through things will deepen your own comprehension on the topic.

How 3D printing is changing the hardware revolution

How 3D printing is changing the hardware revolution

In the past 5 years there has been a huge swing in the popularity of 3D printers in the startup, maker and hobbyist communities. With the release of the Reprap – the first ever self-replicating ‘manufacturing’ machine – and Makerbot, thousands of 3D printers have followed to fundamentally change the world and face of the hardware revolution.


Rapid prototyping

3D printing’s most obvious benefit would be its ability to rapidly prototype an idea. Taking lead time from weeks to hours has changed the capital and time cost of prototyping a product. So far, the results have been profound. Never before have you been able to “compile” your project to real life. Ideas are becoming a real thing with the click of a button. With more iterations comes faster innovation.


Access and affordability to the masses

With Open Source 3D printers hitting the market, the price to own a printer has dropped an order of magnitude, making it actually practical to have your own prototyping machine. Just like when the printer (the regular paper variety) became a household item, 3D printers are changing the mindset of what you can do on your own. This is everything from making hard-to-order parts to an army of toy soldiers. Or building your own house. Some Dutch architects have already started the first 3D printed house in Amsterdam!


Open source industrial design

Think grabCAD and Thingiverse. Communities of designers have flourished from the plummeting cost of having something printed in conjunction with the explosion of free and open designs. Much like early open software libraries, open CAD models are making industrial design a collaborative industry where new products are freely created, while repetitive designs are crowd-sourced.


Manufacturing closer to home

The advantage of manufacturing in Asia is price. With the drop in equipment cost and minimal need for human interaction, the value gap is steadily closing. In the coming years, expect industrial manufacturing to move closer to where it is actually designed and being sold.


What’s next? 5 industries to be widely disrupted

The way we design and build electronics has already changed and will continue to evolve a tremendous amount: Printing circuit boards at home, not relying on an obscure manufacturer in China, etc. But other verticals will benefit from the technology and many of them have already started using it at a wide scale.

  1. Food

    Anything that exists in liquid or powder form can now be printed. That translates to around 75% of the ingredients that are most commonly used in industrial food supply chains today. Next Christmas, sales guys will 3D print chocolates and send them to their best clients (if they haven’t already started). Soon, making kids eat their veggies will not be an issue as their meals will be shaped like their favorite superhero. Disruption it is!

  2. Health / Medicine

    Taking 3D printers and combining it with other sciences is really, really cool. Take an emerging technology and combine it with leading edge science and you get magic: 3D printed organs and the first 3D printed skull… enough said.

  3. Military

    Replacement parts

    When you’re stuck in an isolated place where FedEx can’t deliver the replacement parts you need for the Apache, printing them on-site will be the fastest and cheapest way to move on. Roger that.

    On the flip side, the fact that 3D printed guns became a reality is probably one of the most scary consequence of the printers’ spread. And the first gun that was made – the Liberator – is both dangerous when it works and when it doesn’t.

  4. Toys

    Remember as a kid when you thought about all the cool upgrades you could apply to your toys? Kids won’t have to experience this frustration of never being able to play with a Spiderman action figure that wears a green cape, has a black horse, and a huge laser gun.

    They will just download open source models, modify them and 3D print them. Broken? No tears. Just press Cmd+P!

  5. Automotive

    I was on the phone with Don Carli the other day and we talked about 3D printing applications to the automotive industries. He told me BMW was already doing it, which surprised me a little, but it makes a lot of sense. Bentley also 3D prints small and very complex parts for their new models.

Changing the way manufacturing is done will benefit a number of different industries as well as economies . They will no doubt become faster and more agile as 3D printing becomes more precise and affordable.

Resistance to Schematic and Layout Review

Resistance

The team lead or line manager enters the room and calls a department meeting or a design review session. Suddenly, almost everyone on the team starts mumbling or reacting with groans.

You’ve probably all experienced this situation. As a hardware guy, you have little tolerance for interruption, especially for long and tedious meetings that impede your productivity. The idea of having to sit and listen to other people discussing a blurry projected schematic, or working through a printed PDF booklet just so that your design-challenged colleague at the other end of the room can find out what he’s doing wrong, can be really upsetting.

The concept of design review has been around for a long time. Everyone knows the value of double-, even triple-checking your work (think back to elementary school). Every discipline has worked out a formal or informal collaborative process for checking and validating work: Writers have editors, accountants have auditors, and software engineers came up with pair programming a decade ago.

Software’s got it right.

There used to be a time when the conceptual design phase for software development lasted much longer than it does today. But it eventually became widely recognized that the static, non-iterative model of development (school teachers call it the waterfall model) was not effective in producing quality products on a competitive schedule.

So software development evolved to what it is today: agile and iterative. Its rapidly-changing nature creates continuous opportunities where peer code review is valuable and necessary for quality results.

In the same light, regular peer schematic and layout reviews should be seen as a logical component in the hardware development process. Some direct benefits to incremental design review include:

  • Fewer defects and errors in final design
  • More errors caught early on when they’re cheaper to fix
  • Improved communication and knowledge about design content (bus factor)
  • Mentorship of junior members of the team

And some longer-term, indirect benefits:

  • Lower number of revisions & re-spins
  • Faster time-to-market
  • Less time spent on debugging

Egos, isolationists and crappy toolsets.

Reading those lists of benefits, it should be a no-brainer to implement design review into the development cycle of every project. And yet, many hardware companies still don’t have peer review as a regular and mandatory part of their design process. Why? There are two very straightforward answers when you dig into the basics of human psychology.

  1. Ego
  2. Outdated reviewing methods

Let’s start with ego. We’re talking about hardware engineers right now but this applies to a vast majority of people at their workplace. We naturally feel like our work is an extension of ourselves. Someone judging our work is like having them judging us.. Two different types of people/engineers emerge at this point: The first class consists of collaborators, team players, and those who see it as constructive. When confronted with a problem they can’t solve, they will naturally turn towards a peer who knows the answer. For these guys, peer review is a beneficial process.

The second class is made up of isolationists. When confronted with a problem they can’t solve, they would rather unproductively try to find a workaround for hours (even days) rather than reach out to their peers for help. These guys can’t admit that someone else may know something they don’t.

Attitude over aptitude

In 2002, it was reported that the average career in high-tech lasts around 8 years. The isolationists are doomed for a shorter one, as their body of knowledge exclusively lies in what they are able to figure out on their own.

Overinflated egos can’t be good team players because their faculty to share with and learn from others is impaired. On the other hand, collaborators showing a continuous interest in learning will increase and sharpen their skills, remaining productive (and employable) in a constantly-changing field.

Design review can be painless.

Reviewing hardware designs has not been commonly included in the standard development cycle in a majority of companies for another reason: The tools are not adapted. PDFs, projectors, meeting rooms and highlighters are completely outdated ways of reviewing design. Back-and-forth email threads and over-the-shoulder methods are also inefficient and a waste of time. The key is to introduce a technique which allow each member to contribute to a review when they’re focused and willing to do it. It also shouldn’t include an archaic, middle-step that slows down the execution of fixes.

If you’re thinking about implementing an efficient design review process within your team, let us know. We’re happy to help. There’s no longer an excuse to not review designs!