Hi Adam...I really look forward to your blogs on this subject. As I said in my DIY PCB article, I've been using a program which is essentially a PC version of Bishop Graphics - totally manual. But it works well for what I do, and is very easy to use. Your comments about footprints is what has put me off getting into something else, as I use a lot of non-standard bits. So you will have at least one avid reader....
David, I am glad that I have at least one reader ;) I do really hope that this is useful to others. It is always hard to decided where to start with jumping to this world so hopefilly this gives people an idea of what is out there.
MP, I am glad that you have enjoyed the articles, and yes I have seen that I have a few mechanical guys and gals following along. I really do appreciate the support. If there are topics that you would like me to write on, please let me know. I am always open to considering new things, or perhaps I may already have some experience in these areas.
As to the mention of KiCAD, I had not see that thread that you mentioned. Thanks for pointing it out. I look forward to seeing the promised blog posts. I have heard that KiCAD is planning on making a few upgrades. I had heard that they upgraded their 3D viewer and I hear that they will soon have a footprint generator. This was the biggest thing for me. I am not a fan of having to go and dig up something similar to make a new part. It is just a poor workflow.
Where does the PCB software get its information for the 3D model? Also, can they output the 3D model is a useful file format (e.g. STEP, not just STL)?
At work, I design our PCS (which are pretty simple) in Eagle PCB, and then pass a DXF footprint over to the ME's, who use 3D models from the manufacturers (typically STEP or IGES) to model the board (occasionally they have to model a new part) This process works well for us; the ME's can model a board pretty quickly, and we don't do it that often.
@TonyTib typically one has to define the package dimensions and store in the library for 3D visualization. At the bare minimum, one has to define the component height.
Regarding usable output formats like STEP or IGES, very few or none(?) do that at the moment. Cadence's Allegro does have 3D visualization of the board assembly but the current version does not export to the mentioned formats. STL is good for 3D printing (as are the other models) but not ideal for importing to CAD assemblies.
Yup, that's fine for chips and such (which are pretty simple mechanically), but pretty useless for connectors (which I use a lot). Here's a model of a break out board I designed in Eagle PCB, and then did the 3D model in Alibre Design (now Geomagic Design Elements).
How easy is it to create an equivalent model in PCB software only?
BTW, I haven't got played with it yet, but my quick impression of RS Design Mech is that it should be pretty good for PCB modelling, but not competition for traditional MCAD (e.g. Solid Edge, Solid Works)
@TonyTib I agree... one other tool that is more CAD-friendly is Rittal / ePlan's harness & connector design tool, ePlan3D. One nice thing about this tool is that it lets you calculate the equivalent length of straightened cables (nail board model) before you can shape it in 3D. It supports all major CAD tool formats.
That doesn't make sense for us; our machines are pretty small, and I'm working on replacing discrete wires (typically running in wire duct) with standard or easy to make cables connecting to custom PCBs.
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.
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).
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.
I would add for ease of use Abacom's SprintPCB 6.0. While it does not have a full autorouter or a linked schematic input at $55.00 or so US it is a very powerful tool for doing up to 4 layer PCB's with auto groundplane on each layer. No limitaions on components or connections. The original board size limitation is 12 X 12 inches but I think that has been increased with the current version.
While not free, it is a little more than free but with real support. Not that you need much support as their slogan is "Just draw it". Footprint and component creation is a snap. Several other useful features like turning inported 274X gerbers into editable PCB's. This feature alone has save me when dealing with old inherited designs. Another is flotable bitmaped layers for dealing with scanned layouts that appear in magazines. I have used dozens of packages and this one is my go to package for cranking out quick and easp PCB's as well as some fairly complex designs. It even has the ability to output isolation type HPGL files that can be used to output to a CNC PCB router (you know. the PCB "Santa Claus" machine that you always say that you are going to build...).
I have done a couple of dozen board designs with the product and I can say that it is well worth the 55.00 USD (Note the program is downloadable from their EU site. This means that they will send you an invoice payable by PayPal and if you are not in the EU the EU cost is discounted by 19% (the VAT). That is how I arrived at the $55.00 US (49.9 euro -19% at the time I checked the exchange rate).
They have a companion schematic program splan7.0 also at 49.9 euro (see a theme here).
Definately worth a look. Demo (save inhibited) versions available for download along with free viewers as well.
The other free one is DesignSpark PCB. Looks very powerful. I think one can get up to 12 licenses for free. Sponsored by RS Components I believe.
If you need more power at a moderate cost I don't think that you can beat the full blown DipTrace package (900.00 or so for the unlimited version).
I believe that the next step up would be the entry level OrCAD PCB and Capture Schematic (node locked pepetual license) I think I was quoted something like 2500.00 for that but I have not used the OrCAD PCB package so I can not comment on that but I do still like Capture.
Link for SprintPCB, Splan7.0 and other cool inexpensive stuff.
P.S. I went looking for a low cost, run on any Windows machine PCB program when I could no longer get my favorite DOS PCB program (Tango PCB Series II+) to run on a Win7 machine. The only thing I miss is my libraries but creating components SprintPCB is easy.
Sam, I have heard that SprintPCB is a nice package, though it was missing a few features that I was looking for in my search. It is one that I will be watching. I have heard many say that they particularly like some of the features.
Max, I am glad that this was able to point them to a useful starting point. All have their own opitions, but this was a good starting point for me as I was trying to narrow down the choices that are out there.
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.
One thing that all of them need is better integration with a spice program. It would be nice to pull a schematic capture from, say, LTSpice, and use that as the netlist for the PCB CAD software. Or visa versa...
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.
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 ;)
I missed any reference to gEDA which must be the first open source schematic capture tool. It's still available with PCB layout tool at
along with KiCad, which was mentioned. It was originally designed to run under Linux, but versions are availalbe that run under other operating systems.
Someone asked for Spice compatibility, and gEDA goes one better with it's own improved version of Spice - ngspice - which offers native digital and mixed mode simulation.
I've not used any of these packages for any serious work - I've downloaded them from time to time whenever I up-grade to the next version of SuSE Linux, and created the occasional schematic, but that is as far as I've gone.
Bill, I did actually look at that one, but it did not come close to meeting the things that I had laid out for what I am looking for in my PCB tools. There are tens of other packages that are out there, and while I do not minimize their value, they just did not meet what I am personally looking for. Thank you though for mentioning why you like you find gEDA appealing.
@VBH "I like the fact that you can use color in your symbols to create visually meaningful circuit designs. "
Agree, this is a very nice feature of TinyCAD. Makes it easy to find your way around a very dense schematic by adding color and wide line width to wires, and the "find text string" feature is very useful for locating signal names and reference designators. Circuit functions can be explained to others through signal highlighting in various colors, even logic states (red = HI, blue = LO, dotted = pulse) can be shown directly on the schematic wires and used to decode gate outputs.
Another nice feature is the rulers which help with simple mechanical scale drawings. Which I do find disappointing is that when an object is created using shapes (lines, arcs, circles, rectangles) there is no "group" function that combines the shapes together - the object can only be moved/copied/flipped/rotated by first drawing a box around it. Maybe this feature could be added by the ongoing support team.
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.
I have been using DipTrace, and I do like it for it being intuitive. There is one thing that I really do not like, and I consider a fatal flaw. The fact that changes do not automatically propagate through the entire design. It is rather tedious and error prone when trying to update something. That aside, I can say that it was a package that I was able to pick up and have a board designed in under a week of an hour or so after work.
@Aeroengineer ...The fact that changes do not automatically propagate through the entire design. It is rather tedious and error prone when trying to update something. ...
It's still easier than one of the higher end programs that I've used where you have to produce a net list from the schematic then do a compare to generate a change file which you can finally apply to the PCB... At least DipTrace has an update from schematic feature that eliminates several error-prone steps from the process.
This is true, but if you ever update a component footprint or silkscreen, have fun getting that propagated all the way through including all the instances of that part. Coming from a Mechanical background, something like this would be considered completely unacceptable.
I know that both DipTrace and DesignSpark PCB allow for that. I am almost sure that all the others that I mentioned will also allow for that as well, I just do not yet have any experience with these packages. I will soon enough.
The machine schematic sector is full of very expensive tools. We used to use Via Wiring Diagram (which was bought by AutoDesk & become AutoCAD Electrical, now about $5K), but felt it wasn't worth it to keep up with the various yearly fees. Then our licensing server died and we moved to Win7-64, so Via WD is now dead and I've spent too much time looking at solutions.
Unless your schematic is really simple, I don't recommend using straight 2D CAD (AutoCAD or its clones, etc).
I took a look at using Eagle PCB schematic editor and quickly decided it wasn't a good fit.
Of the expensive vendors, I was most impressed with IGE+XAO and Aucotec Engineering Base; both are ~$3K for the limited entry level package + annual maintenance. However, we're very likely to move to Radica Electra, which is ~$1K with free support (no annual maintenance) -- I haven't had time to do my "due diligience" first (download the trial version and make sure it works for us).
Other affordable / semi-affordable schematic products I found included Elwin (29 euro), CADprofi (400 euro & up + AutoCAD clone), PC Schematic (limited free version), and WS-CAD (looks like ~$1K and up, plus annual maintenance) . They weren't good matches for us, but they might work for you.