Design the Perfect PCB

Breadboards are amazing for prototyping and are an invaluable tool to any electronics tinkerer, but when you really want to get serious you will need to learn how to create your own PCB.

Making a PCB is no simple task, however, with the right commitment, a little bit of time, and this guide you will be able to make a working PCB the first time around. If you are persistent it will even look good!

Anatomy of a PCB

When you are on your computer, everything is at kind of an abstract level and it can be easy to forget that you are working with a physical medium. Before you just start throwing together a design, I think it is useful to know what you are actually doing.

In order to better understand your physical medium of choice see my article on the anatomy of a PCB. If you are already familiar with PCBs then feel free to skip on to the next section.

Designing Your Circuit

Before you can consider any physical designs or schematic connections you must have a clear idea of what you want your design to do. This means taking some time to sit down and define what you want to accomplish, consider the challenges, and pick the right components for the job.

Determining Your Goals

The first step in designing the perfect PCB is to have a well-defined set of goals that you would like your design to accomplish. To steal a little bit from the business world, you should always set SMART goals for your project, this means:

As a personal example, I have started working on another side project for my own use. The bathroom in my apartment is too dark in the evening for me to get around in, but when I turn the light on it is way too bright and wakes me up.

To fix this little issue I thought I would just go buy a small lamp. Unfortunately, I am a little bit too picky and couldn’t find a lamp that I liked. That is when I had the idea to design one of my own. Of course, I’m not talking about just any lamp. I wanted a multi-color, adjustable brightness, wirelessly controlled lamp.

Sounds cool right? Of course it does! So before the idea was able to leave my head I jotted it down in my notebook and began planning.

At this point, my goals were pretty broad, let’s take a look at what I had:

Unfortunately none of these goals are very specific at all:

Revising the project goals to be SMART led me to the following list of goals:

2016 Michael here, I never completed this project and just ended up buying a bunch of Philips Hue bulbs instead, but it’s still a good example.

With the exception of “time bound” these goals meet all of the criteria of a SMART design and allow me to proceed forward with a clear vision of what I want to accomplish.

By doing your research first and setting SMART goals for your project you place yourself on the right track to create that perfect design.

Visualizing Your Design

Now that you have a clear idea of what you want, it is time to start designing it. Before you start scouring the internet for parts or drawing crazy schematics in your notebook, I would advise you to take some time to develop a clear picture of how you want your final design to function.

Try to determine how your parts will work together to achieve the goals you set. This is a good time to be thinking about your design from a system level.

System level design for bluetooth LED lamp
System level design for bluetooth LED lamp

You may not know specifics like what supply voltages you will need or what connections need to be made, but you will be able to consider how each component will rely on the others and what additional components they will add to your design.

This is also a good time to consider the aesthetic aspect of your design. Are you trying to fit a certain form factor? Do you need to consider ergonomics (for example if you are designing a game controller)? Will you be able to pick up your design a year from now and understand exactly how it works? These are the types of details that, while seemingly insignificant, can be the difference between a good design and a great design.

I know all this talk of visualization may sound cheesy and like it won’t really get you anywhere, but I assure you it is worthwhile. If you don’t want to believe me, consider this quote from Nikola Tesla’s autobiography where he describes his creative process:

My method is different. I do not rush into actual work. When I get an idea I start at once building it up in my imagination. I change the construction, make improvements and operate the device in my mind. It is absolutely immaterial to me whether I run my turbine in thought or test it in my shop. I even note if it is out of balance. There is no difference whatever, the results are the same.

Of course the vast majority of us aren’t at the level of crazed genius that is Tesla, but the idea behind this method is all the same. By visualizing your design beforehand you save time, money, and frustration.

Tesla turns on a Nightlight
Tesla turns on a Nightlight

Choosing Parts

This is perhaps the most tedious step in the design process, but is crucial to a successful design. Choosing the right part for your design could be the difference between finishing your project and giving up in frustration.

See my article on choosing electronics components for my suggestions.

Sketching Your Connections

The final step before we switch over to software is to get a “first draft” of your design onto paper. Nikola Tesla would not approve, but he’s not around to stop you so don’t worry. This is a good way to get the specifics of your project organized in a coherent manner. I like to separate each system level block on a new page.

I also think it is useful to make a note here of what each important pin on the component does. It probably wouldn’t hurt to get started on your bill of materials as well, this may change as your design evolves, but it at least serves as a good starting point.

In addition to the basic information, you may also want to include some more detailed info about the part that you think may be important. For example, it may become tedious to refer back to the datasheet for I2C address information or possible pin configurations, these are good details to include in your notebook.

For sketching my designs, both electrical and mechanical, I like to use this excellent Maker's Notebook from MAKE.Amazon Link

My Maker's Notebook
My Maker's Notebook

With a well-defined grid, a page marker, the included organization features, and the extra pointers they include in the back, this isn’t your average notebook. The Maker’s Notebook is specially designed by makers, for makers, and I love mine.

2016 Michael here, while I still appreciate the Maker’s notebook, my current preference is the Baron Fig Dot Grid Confidant.

After you have finished sketching your design, you have completed all of the pre-layout checks and are ready to move on to the physical design of your PCB.

Putting the Design into Software

When I set out to design my first PCB I was told “Well, it’s your first PCB so it probably won’t work anyways, but that sounds interesting.” Even though this was discouraging to hear, I didn’t let it stop me and I ended up with a working design. I now want to take my experiences as well as the experiences of others and make it as simple as possible for you to design your own PCB.

Now that you have an idea of how you want the project to turn out, it’s time to start moving the design onto your computer

Choosing a CAD Package

The first step is to choose what CAD package you will be using in order to design your PCB. If you don’t already have a preference then see my suggestions here.

During the remainder of this article I will be using KiCad for explaining concepts of PCB design. I will do my best to cover the topics at a high level so you can easily transfer these ideas into the CAD package of your choosing, but if you are undecided I wholeheartedly encourage you to try KiCad for your next design.

Best Practices for Electrical Schematics

The difference between a good schematic and a bad schematic is a matter of how easy it is to understand. See this article for my thoughts on schematic design best practices.

Final Preparations for PCB Layout

Now that you have your schematic entered into the computer and all the connections have been validated, you can move on to physical layout of your PCB. This is the most complex part of the design process and there are far too many different possibilities for any single guide to provide a full list of guidelines in a sensible manner. That being said, I will do my best to provide general guidelines for producing a manufacturable and electrically sound PCB.

Choosing a Manufacturer

I’m sure it may seem like a strange suggestion to choose your manufacturer before you begin board layout, but I assure you there is a good reason for this, which will become clear in the upcoming sections.

No two PCB manufacturers are the same and each one has different limitations. See this article for my thoughts on choosing a PCB manufacturer.

Defining your Design Rules

After choosing a manufacturer you should make note of their manufacturing constraints. As an example, at the time of writing the minimum specifications for OSH Park were:

This means that these should be the smallest features you use under any circumstances. Using smaller features will likely result in broken traces, overlap of traces and copper fills, or busted vias.

Once you determine these rules, you should head into your CAD software and define them. This will enable some design for manufacture (DFM) checks to take place as you design so your program will not allow you to perform operations that will cause you to have non-manufacturable boards.

This is one step of the process where EAGLE generally has a distinct advantage over KiCad, most board houses provide a design rules file that can be imported directly into EAGLE. This saves a few steps in defining design rules, and reduces the chances that you will end up with incorrectly defined rules.

Note: Just because your fabrication house can do a 6 mil trace doesn’t mean you should use exclusively 6 mil traces. You should use the largest traces possible that will still allow you to fit your design in the required space. Using larger traces improves reliability, decreases parasitic resistance, and as a whole results in a better circuit.

Do I Need a Ground Plane?

One of the more debatable topics in designing a PCB is deciding whether to include a ground plane or not. While it is nearly standard practice to include a ground plane in your design, this is not always required and can in some cases actually result in worse performance. But how can you know when you should and when you shouldn’t?

First, it helps to know what a ground plane is. Simply put, a ground plane is a copper layer on your PCB that acts as a common ground to many devices. It is called a ground plane because it often occupies an entire layer, which creates a planar surface to conduct charge.

Illustration showing the difference between a trace, the PCB, and the copper plane
Illustration showing the difference between a trace, the PCB, and the copper plane

What are the benefits of a ground plane? There are several benefits to using a ground plane in your design, the most common are to provide electromagnetic shielding, lower the resistance of the path to ground, and to assist with heat dissipation across the board. These benefits are excellent for the vast majority of designs, but there are also some drawbacks to using a ground plane in your design.

What are the drawbacks of a ground plane? Perhaps the largest drawback of using a ground plane is the increase in parasitic capacitance. Parasitic capacitance is an undesirable effect that will essentially cause your circuit to be less “responsive” than intended. For most applications this is just fine, but for exceptionally quick response circuits it may be worth removing the ground plane.

Ultimately, it is up to you to decide whether you need a ground plane or not. Here are a few guidelines to help you make the decision:

Special Considerations

In addition to considering the ground plane and adhering to design rules there are some other special cases in which you may need to consider other effects.

Once you’re absolutely certain that you should be capable of designing the circuit yourself, you can move on to the next step.

Get to Work!

Finally, what we’ve been working towards the whole time. Now that you are a few hours (or days, or weeks) into the design process, you can finally start working on what you have been planning so carefully for.

At this point, you want to start converting your design from the schematic connections into a manufacturable board. See my article on PCB layout best practices for my suggestions on how to make this process as smooth as possible.

Final Design Checklist

Before moving on to the manufacturing phase I recommend that you run through my PCB Final Design Checklist to verify the design. This will take roughly an hour but can save you a lot of heartache later.

Manufacturing The Board

Since you should have chosen a manufacturer by now, this part of the process is going to be relatively easy.

The first step in preparing your design for manufacture is of course to perform the final design checklist. Since we covered that in the last section, it’s okay to go ahead with the rest of the manufacturing process.

Run a Design Rules Check

Before going any further, you will want to run one final DRC. This generally checks that your PCB layout matches the schematic and that your layout follows all of the design rules that you defined. If the DRC catches errors, you should review each one individually and either fix the problem or mark it as a false warning.

Another thing to check is that all of your connections have been made. Sometimes the DRC tool does not check connections, or your ratsnest may be too small to notice. You want to be extra certain that all of the board connections are complete before moving on.

Generate the Bill-of-Materials (BOM)

A bill-of-materials (BOM) is used by the assembly house, or for your own use. Either way, it is important to have a good list of your parts. Here are the important details to include in a BOM:

Most CAD software can export a BOM automatically, but you will generally want to format it and make sure that everything is correct.

One reason to make a good BOM, even if you are not using assembly services, is because many parts suppliers will allow you to upload this file directly to their website and automatically purchase components. I know Mouser and Digi-Key support this, others may as well. This method will save you hours of time searching for components and adding them to your order.

Export the Board Files

Each fabrication house will have different requirements for how you should submit your design but nearly all of them accept one common file format called “Gerbers.” Some will even accept your CAD files directly, but this isn’t universal and you shouldn’t rely on it.

Each software has a different process to follow in order to get Gerber files out, here are some tutorials that show you how to export Gerber files from EAGLE or KiCad.

Final Manufacturing Checklist

As one final check before sending your design for manufacture I recommend verifying that you use the PCB Final Manufacturing Checklist before submitting your design.

Send it to Your Manufacturer

That’s it! Depending on the service you chose for manufacturing, the instructions will vary, but from here on out the process is relatively straightforward. Upload your files, cross your fingers, and hit submit.

The End

That brings us to the conclusion of this guide, I know you’ve been hit with a lot of information. If you read this entire article and the suggested supporting articles then you soaked up over 11,000 words of PCB designing goodies. That’s more information than a silverback gorilla retains in its whole life1!

I hope you’ve found at least parts of this guide to be helpful and that you will make use of it in your future designs. I attempted to make it general enough to be useful for any CAD package at any point in time. When searching how to do stuff like this it is incredibly easy to stumble across information that just isn’t relevant anymore, so I hope this will help.

I worked on this post off-and-on for about two weeks, even though I reviewed it several times before posting, I don’t make any claim that it’s perfect. If you see issues in my writing or think my advice is bad then feel free to let me know.

  1. Maybe, I have no idea.