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Best Design Software For Automation PCBs?

I believe creating custom break out PCBs for automated equipment is often a very good idea.  In fact, I’m getting ready to design several new ones that will replace a lot of laborious hand wiring.

However, if you have never created a PCB before, it can be pretty scary, with complex design software (that has to handle fine pitch surface mount packages at high speed), design rules, different Gerber formats, all kinds of questions from the PCB fab house (1 oz copper?  2 oz copper? HASL?) and all that.

Designing a typical automation break out PCB shouldn’t be that hard, since the requirements aren’t complex: through hole parts, low speeds, large traces, etc.  (OK, if you need to handle a lot of current, you have to start calculating and think about fancier boards).  The problem is finding a tool that can handle these simple requirements with simplicity.

I don’t know which software is best; I’d like to hear about any real world experiences.  If I had time, I’d like evaluate different PCB software from an automation OEM’s perspective, but that’s not going to happen for a while.

My suggestions right now are:

  • Look at popular hobby-oriented software; it’s likely to be simpler or have more support.  For example, although both Eagle PCB and KiCad are still pretty complex, there is a lot of support available on-line, and a substantial number of board houses will accept Eagle board files (so you don’t have to deal with Gerbers and such).
  • On-line (“cloud”) software such as 123D Circuits or Fritzing might be a viable option:  I’m pretty sure they’re a lot simpler than Eagle and KiCad, but I haven’t done enough research to know if they can create good break out PCBs.
  • Consider an integrated solution, using software provided by a PCB board house (such as PCB123 from Sunstone).  You might pay more and loose some flexibility, but gain simplicity.


1 Alex P { 02.08.14 at 11:33 am }

KiCad works great for me. It’s fairly easy to quickly make footprints and circuit symbols for the parts you want to use. I think I was pretty good in it by the time I did my second board with it and knew all the keyboard shortcuts for all the common tasks. I am not doing anything greater than 2 layers, and haven’t run into any gotchyas yet.

2 Tony { 02.10.14 at 1:08 pm }

Thanks for the input; KiCad is on my to-try list, but no promises on when I get around to trying.

3 Dave M { 02.25.14 at 11:56 am }

Tony, I’ve had limited experience with a few packages but will comment anyway. I have used Protel DXP (now Altium), as well as KiCad and ExpressPCB.

Of the three, I used to think that ExpressPCB was the easiest — after all, you can design a schematic and PCB without even reading a manual or tutorial, it’s that straightforward. Ordering is a simple matter of clicking a button and entering your credit card.

There are a few issues with this solution, however. First, at the time I used it, I don’t recall finding an exhaustive repository of footprints and symbols, so I created them myself (it’s really easy). Secondly, you’re locked into their file format, as the software doesn’t export into others. Third, it’s really expensive to get your PCBs made.

Altium is something for professional board designers — at least that’s what I’ve been led to believe and am more than happy to just take that at face value. I remember it being a bit complicated when I used it back in 2001, and getting a PCB made seemed overly complicated, with having to export layers and gerbers and component BOMs. But that’s likely not an issue anymore.

My most recent experience has been with KiCad, and I find it to be pretty intuitive, also navigating the various tools in the chain confuses me pretty often. It’s usually when I have to update a schematic or footprint and want my board changed that I have to re-lookup the steps to regenerate the layout. There are numerous excellent tutorials, and my favorite one on YouTube is from Contextual Electronics.

And happily, board fabbing is super duper easy now. DorkbotPDX offered a service that would array designs from people around the world and do one batch order at ridiculously low prices — about $1 per sqin shipped! I got (3) 1sqin board shipped to me for $5 flat. DorkbotPDX recently changed its name to OSHPark, and it’s even easier to order now — you literally click a button, upload your gerbers, and it gives you an image preview of what your board is going to look like. It’s a total win.

I’ve been a big fan of your blog for the past 4+ years — keep on posting!

4 Dave M { 02.25.14 at 11:57 am }

I forgot to add that when I used ExpressPCB a few years ago, the boards were pretty poor — no silkscreen or soldermask for that super high price.

5 Tony { 02.26.14 at 9:22 am }

Thanks for your feedback and the kind comments. I am slowly working on my next post, but it’s been slow since I’ve had to do a lot of learning.

I really like the fab freedom Gerbers give you, but again, it’s not an intuitive process. I think it’s good to have a short list of several good fab houses; the best one might be different project to project. I hope to do a couple simple PCBs projects this year, and I think I’ll try OSHPark and Seeedstudio (in the past, I’ve used Sierra Proto Express for a 4-layer board, and Gold Phoenix for a set of 2-layer boards)

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