In this article you’ll learn how to design your own PCB step-by-step.
Printed circuit boards (PCBs) are a type of electric circuit that connects components by etching them onto copper layers. They’re essential to every electronic device we use, from the computers inside our smartphones and laptops to the fully automated cars of the near future.
So it’s no wonder the global market for PCBs is expected to balloon $10.6 billion by the end of 2024. But how do you go about creating your own PCBs?
Steps to Design Your Own PCB
- Create a PCB schematic
- Design your PCB
- Build your PCB
Step 1: Create a PCB schematic
Before you do anything, the important part is to have a PCB schematic or blueprint. This can be obtained in two ways: by finding a ready-made diagram online or drafting one from scratch. For the former, there are many free schematics available on resource websites like Circuit Basics and All PCB.
If you want to create your own schematic, however, then you need to determine two things: the type of PCB you want to build and the components that you’ll be using. For example, if you want to create a robot, you’re going to need sensors, motors, and even a ball caster in the design. Of course, this process requires intermediate knowledge in electrical engineering, so only attempt to create your own schematics if you can confidently put all the right components in the PCB design.
Step 2: Design your PCB
After you have your blueprint, it’s time to create a 3D model of it so that it’s ready for printing. It might be a bit complicated, but the process can be simplified using PCB design software. Below are some of them.
Perhaps the most popular PCB design software today is Autodesk’s Eagle, a free design and schematic software that’s compatible with all of the aforementioned operating systems. It’s a type of PCB software that’s designed for everyone, which means that it’s not only free; it also comes with everything you need to create a complete PCB design. At the same time, the more complicated the design becomes, the less user-friendly the software becomes for beginners.
Altium Designer solves the problem above by unifying the separate but connected elements of PCB design, from schematics and component placement to routing traces and the generation of design files.
Furthermore, Altium Designer’s compatibility with Eagle Software makes it easier to use for those already familiar with the latter. This interoperability is important when you’re basing your designs on existing schematics, combining designs, or inputting more complex connections into basic schematics or PCB layouts.
But if you’re an absolute beginner, you might have better luck using Geppetto. Developed by Gumstix, Geppetto brings drag-and-drop functionality to PCB design. While Eagle is free and Altium Designer is for everyone from beginners to veteran designers, Geppetto is also an online service that you can use to design your PCB, have it tested, produced, and delivered to your door.
Picking the right PCB design software will determine how efficiently you can arrive at the design you need.
Step 3: Build your PCB
Once you have your PCB file ready, you can now create it at home or send it to manufacturers. If you’re doing the former, first ensure that you have the following materials:
- Photo or glossy paper
- Copper board
- Ferric chloride solution
- PCB drill
First, print out your PCB design on glossy paper and stick the glossy side onto your copper board. Iron it and it’ll “print” onto the copper.
The next process, etching, is simple but needs caution. This involves submerging your copper into a ferric chloride solution so that the unmasked copper (which is non-conductive) present on the outermost layer dissolves off the board.
A study published in the Journal Nature warns that ferric chloride is very acidic, so make sure that you’re always wearing gloves. And don’t throw it into the sink! It could corrode your pipes. Instead, dilute the solution with (a lot of) water, seal it, and dispose of it into your garbage bin.
Once it dries, grab a drill and carefully trace the lines left by the photo paper. Then, you’re finished. You can now buy the components that you need to get your PCB functioning and solder them onto the board.
Sending the Design to a Manufacturer
Again, if this process seems daunting or you don’t have the materials, you can always send your design to a PCB manufacturer like Seeed Studio to print and sometimes assemble the components onto your board (for extra charges).
Just make sure that your PCB file format is in .gerber, as that makes it easier for them to determine how to print your board. Some manufacturers like OSH Park accept other formats like KiCad. In any case, always best to check what their requirements are before you send your file over.
Expect to spend around $50 on the board, though it could be lower if it’s not that complex. If you’re letting the manufacturer solder the components as well, you’ll need to pay for each component used. Don’t forget to include their service fees and delivery charges in your computations.
Although all of the design software mentioned differs in some way or another, they all follow the same essential steps: schematic creation, blank PCB layout, PCB design, and component placement.
It might be a challenging task, especially for beginners, but if you know what you’re doing, you can recreate PCB designs to repair your electronics at home, improve upon PCB designs to make devices even smaller and/or more efficient, or create your own PCBs from scratch for your own inventions.
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For more circuit guides and other electrical engineering posts, check out the other articles on The Engineers Post.