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The PCB design process – how circuit boards are developed

Published Tuesday 28th August, 2018

Just like anything in the world of electronics, PCB design has come a long way over the years – but fundamentally, the circuit board design process is the same however simple or complex the product it's powering.

However, while the process stays the same, the actual design itself will vary hugely depending on the device its being developed for, and the mechanics of that device.

While PCBs supply power to allow the device to work, they also route signals to act as the 'brains' of the electronic product - so the more actions/variants/elements that device has, the more layers of information the board will need to support.

PCB design basics

A printed circuit board can consist of 1 layer or more, and may be single-sided or double-sided. Additional layers or double-sided PCBs provide space for more copper - the material that connects components - so basic devices may only need a one-sided, single layer PCB, where devices with multiple capabilities will need a multilayered circuit board.

Prior to manufacturing and testing, the PCB design process requires 3 essential stages:

  • Product analysis
  • Schematic design
  • PCB design using EDA/ECAD software

Product analysis

In today's competitive marketplace, OEMs need to ensure that their products operate as efficiently, effectively and reliably as possible – and getting the right functionality delivered through the most appropriately designed PCB is probably the most crucial step in delivering this.

We work closely with our OEM clients when engaging in the design process, starting with a full consultation to facilitate our understanding of the device’s objectives. This enables us to make the best decisions on the PCB design, keeping the boards as small as possible (where required) without compromising functionality, while also delivering the most cost-effective solution.

It's also common to re-design or re-work circuit boards used in existing products to incorporate SMT (surface mount technology) in to reduce the size of the PCBs, improve functionality and sometimes even for compliance purposes.

Once we’re sure of a client’s requirements, we move on to the next stage...

Schematic design

The PCB and its individual layers act as the base for the circuitry placed on them that sends the signals to the relevant parts of the device, telling them what to do when a certain switch is pressed, button pushed, or internet signal is received.

The circuitry itself consists of various components such as:

  • Switches
  • Diodes
  • Nodes
  • Resistors

These must be arranged and organised in a specific design to provide the right information to the right parts of the equipment, at the right time – and the schematic is the layout that shows where these components should be placed to get the right results.

Once the designer is happy with the schematic, we move on to the final stage of design...

PCB design using EDA/ECAD software

In order to prepare the PCB ready for manufacture, the schematic needs to be converted into a computer-based design using electronic design automation (EDA) software. At Daletech, we use Proteus as our software of choice but we can work with pretty much any alternative if required.

Regardless of the software used, the final, generated PCB design created will be written in 'Gerber' - this is the universal, industry standard software language that ensures all components are called the same thing, so the design can be understood by any electronics engineer.

Once inputted and processed, the software programme outputs the required information in the right format, so that the PCB can go to manufacturing stage. The machinery (also powered by PCBs of course!) will follow the instructions from the software and place and solder all components in the correct place.

If you'd like to find out what happens after the PCB design stage, check out our articles on the assembly and testing processes - or give us a call if you’d like to speak directly to one of our electronic engineering experts.

LMFLMANatWestGoldman Sachs