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A Guide to Low-Cost PCB Tools

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darthbedder
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Can design productivity be free?
darthbedder   10/29/2013 7:56:48 PM
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I used Dip Trace for 2 years in my previous job. It is very intuitive and easy to learn. The autorouter that ships with the package is fairly decent but you can export your design to be routed with the powerful Electra autorouter. To simulate your design you can use the free LT Spice. The schematics and pcb pages are tabbed so you can easily go back and forth from sch to pcb and also they back anotate either way. In addition it has extensive component and footprint libraries and a very good component editor. Affordability is another strong point of this package, which offers a free version with limited functionality that can be upgraded to several versions depending on the amount of pins and layers that you need. Even if you decide to go for the more expensive combination of Dip Trace + Electra you will pay less than $2000.00 which is half the price of the cheapest high end EDA package.

There is a slice of the EDA tools market that provide free PCB tools. I often use PCB123 and PCB Artist offered by Sunstone Circuits and Advanced Circuits respectively. They both feature autorouting capabilities, Gerber and DXF import, Digi-Key real time linked BOM and libraries and the convenience of real time quoting and ordering plus DFM check. Recently they are offering assembly services that can be purchased also from the package menu. For being free EDA software, they pack a punch aimed at productivity. From the moment that you select a component in the schematic to the instant your DFM check gives you the green light you always know the overall cost of your proto in real time.

I will leave the high end tools for another comment, since I had to go shopping for one recently.

alex_m1
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CEO
Re: Funnily enough...
alex_m1   10/29/2013 5:21:10 PM
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What is this other groups keep track of ? sounds interesting...

Aeroengineer
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Re: How good are PCB 3D models?
Aeroengineer   10/29/2013 4:28:58 PM
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Ah yes, this is true, but you are also comparing a $4,000-$6,000 software against one that is free.  So not a totally apples to apples comparison.  Though, comparing SpaceClaim to SolidWorks/SolidEdge would be a more complete comparison.  There you will find that each has their niche.  SpaceClaim is much better for prep work for analysis.  It is head and shoulder above SolidWorks or SolidEdge in this area.

TonyTib
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Re: How good are PCB 3D models?
TonyTib   10/29/2013 4:23:46 PM
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I wonder how good those external sources are; if I had time, I'd do some experimenting myself, but I have a whole long To-do list of higher priorities.

TonyTib
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CEO
Re: How good are PCB 3D models?
TonyTib   10/29/2013 4:21:14 PM
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We basically agree DS Mech looks good for modeling PCBs.  My point is that, for example, it wouldn't be a suitable replacement for SolidWorks at my company (the lack of import & export options alone is enough to eliminate it -- we have to deal with models from various sources, create drawings, etc).

Aeroengineer
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Re: TinyCad and FreePCB, a pair of elegant PCB tools.
Aeroengineer   10/29/2013 3:49:58 PM
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VHB, Thanks for sharing.  One thing that concerns me is I am not personally a big fan of having to move things from one package to another.  This is a personal preference, but it is based upon me coming from the manufacturing world.  It can get very dangerous if data is not connected together.  A change can be made, but then not propagate through to the end design.  This then makes it hard to trouble shoot a problem.  This may not be a concern for others as they may be more organized than I am ;)

Aeroengineer
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Re: Funnily enough...
Aeroengineer   10/29/2013 3:47:03 PM
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I had looked at that one when making this list.  It does look like it could end up maturing into something very nice, but it did not quite have all the features that I was looking for.  I do appreciate mentioning it.  I do like to keep track of these groups.  There is another group that I am following as well, hoping that they can get some of these things together into a nice poilshed package.

Aeroengineer
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Re: How good are PCB 3D models?
Aeroengineer   10/29/2013 3:44:53 PM
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Most, but not all get their 3D information from an external source.  There is one PCB tool that I listed above that has its own simple Mechanical CAD package for designing of components. 

Aeroengineer
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Re: How good are PCB 3D models?
Aeroengineer   10/29/2013 3:43:14 PM
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Most of the PCB packages do not have built in modeling, though one does that I mentioned above.  Many of these still do not understand that STEP is the industry standard. 

 

That aside, I mainly do 3D mechanical package design in a cad tool and then attach it to the part library.  DesignSpark Mechanical is not as weak as you indicate.  In the base package compared to the base packages for SolidWorks and SolidEdge, I would say that it is pretty close to comparable.  The biggest thing, and I needed to get some understanding of this, is that the work flow is different in DesignSpark Mechanical.  Once I got to learning the new work flow, I have found it to be rather great to use.  If you are speaking of lofting and surfacing, the yes, both of the packages that you listed are better than DesignSpark Mechanical.  Thankfully, though, most of the people needing to use a low cost MCAD package for designing electronics components should find that DS Mechanical will do what they need.

VBH
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TinyCad and FreePCB, a pair of elegant PCB tools.
VBH   10/29/2013 3:35:41 PM
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I use TinyCad available at

http://sourceforge.net/apps/mediawiki/tinycad/index.php?title=TinyCAD'

as a schematic entry package.  It is an elegantly simple schematic entry program that makes it easy to create a library of your own symbols.  It has a nice design-rule checker for schematics.  I like the fact that you can use color in your symbols to create visually meaningful circuit designs.  You can also add metadata (e.g. Distributor, Manuacturer, Circuit Parameters, etc.) to each symbol or symbol instance and create both BOMs and Net Lists with this information.  I export the PCB net list into FreePCB to do the actuall layout.  I've found that it is also fairly easy to create part footprints in FreePCB.  The user interface in FreePCB is attractive to me becuase it seems to have been designed to make creating manual layouts easy.  A small number of aptly named keystrokes makes it easy change layers, run traces, wire and unwire segments, etc.  My collegues and I have created about 30 PCBs over the past couple of years using these tools and we've been very pleased with the results.

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