Electronics

Videopost: Altium for beginners

Introduction

The PCB (Printed Circuit Board) is one of the most important inventions of the last century in the field of electronics, which allows us to combine hundreds of different components. In the last 40 years the electronics designs have become more complex, requiring higher accuracy, smaller footprints, some which are smaller than needle’s head, and new methods to connect the components. Before the creation of special software, the design and development of the PCB was very time consuming, requiring a lot of planning. After some time, it became clear that the methods used were no longer suitable and due to the surface-mounted devices (SMD), the demand for new innovative solutions that would make the development faster and easier began to grow rapidly. Thanks to these conditions and the proliferation of computers, in mid-1980s, new special programs began to appear on the market that provided the necessary requirements, standards and speed that was not seen before. In 2004, the world was first introduced to Altium and after 14 years being on the market, it has managed to rise to the top and has become the favorite tool of many engineers, thanks to the rich feature set that other competing products could not offer at that time.

Creation of Bill of Materials (BOM) and libraries

Altium Designer provides the user with the ability to connect electrical components used in the schematic to the databases of the world’s largest suppliers of electronic components to enable the user to check in real-time whether a potential dealer can supply all the necessary components that the schematic requires. In addition, they also offer component schematics symbols, footprints and models that have been created by the component manufacturer. This ensures that each component or device meets the manufacturer’s specifications and parameters. In summary, this feature helps to save a lot of valuable time and money that would otherwise be spent on searching for the right components and creating them from scratch.

Creating Gerbers and documentation

The Gerber file format is the de facto standard for PCB design data transfer. Known as “the backbone of the electronics fabrication industry”, all PCB design systems output Gerber and all PCB fabrication software inputs it, enabling PCB professionals to exchange PCB design data securely and efficiently. Gerber files represent copper layers images, solder mask, legend, and drill and route data. Attributes provide meta-information about these images, such as whether a graphics object is and SMD pad, a via pad or a fiducial, or net names of connections. Based on an open ASCII vector format for 2D binary images, the Gerber file format is simple, compact and unequivocal. Before sending the circuit board to production, the most crucial steps are creating the gerber files that the manufacturer needs and then carry out a through check to avoid mistakes and problems that may arise in the production and operation of the device itself. Altium has made this process very convenient by removing the need to install separate software and providing built-in gerber tools. In addition, they also offer an integrated solution that allows the engineer to configure and create all the required documentation the manufacturer ant the client needs in just minutes. In case of a change in the schematic or PCB, the user can recreate all new updated documentation with few clicks, after all the configurations have been done.

PCB editor

One of the biggest advantages of Altium in front of its competitors is its user interface and a range of tools that allow it to create a PCB from scratch for less than one hour, even if the user is not familiar with with PCB creation software. Features such as 3D visualization, signal processing, library management and creating 3D models of the PCB. These tools give the user a more detailed overview how the schematic will work, even before the physical PCB is manufactured. In summary, these features grant the user a much faster development process.

Altium Designer tutorial for beginners

If you are interested in hardware design and want to know more about how everything works, we recommend that you look at our three-part video series, where we show you how to design a printed circuit board from the beginning, starting with project creation and introduction of basics, ending with checking and sending the board to production. The first video shows how to create a PCB project, install all the component libraries you need, and how to draw the scheme. In the second video, we will talk about editing the PCB shape and size, component placement, fanout and drawing tracks. In the last video, we show how to do design rule check, create all the necessary Gerber and Drill files, choosing the right manufacturer and sending the board to production. The video series will not be limited to just three videos, we will keep our tutorials up to date and add new topics in the future that could be useful for everyone.

The Ministry of Education and Research and Estonian Research Council are supporting the completion of the blog.