KiCad video series: from concept to manufacture

Many of our readers took the habit of using Eagle to design their PCBs. Even if you’ll find plenty of support for this software as well as a lot of parts libraries, the software comes with limitations. The useable board area is limited to 4×3.2 inches, only two signal layers can be used and more importantly the schematics editor can only create one sheet. On the other side, some of you may already know KiCad, a free open source and unrestricted schematics and layout software. [Chris] just tipped us of a video series he made, showing people how to design and build their very first PCB using this software. It’s a simple 555 circuit, but goes through all the steps necessary to design a PCB that costs only $5 through OSHpark… and will blink by the end. All the videos are also embedded after the break.

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Comparing Altium and Cadence PCB layout tools

We see a lot of projects using Eagle for the schematics and PCB layout. There are a few that use Kicad, but we hear very little about other alternatives. Recently, [Limpkin] has been working with Altium and Cadence and wrote about how they compare when it comes to PCB layout. Neither are free packages so it’s good to know what you’re getting into before taking the plunge.

[Limpkin] begins his overview by mentioning that the schematic editors are comparable; the differences start to show themselves in the PCB layout tools. Here you can see that Altium always labels the pads so you know what net each of them belongs to. Cadence (whose PCB layout tool is called Allegro) will display the net if you hover over the pad with your mouse. Both have 3D rendering, with Altium’s looking a bit more pleasant but what real use is it anyway? Okay, we will admit we love a good photorealistic board rendering, but we digress. The most interesting differences show themselves once traces are all on the board and need to be rejiggered. Cadence will actually move traces on other layers automatically to avoid collision with a via that is late to the party, and Altium shows some strange behavior when dragging traces. [Limpkin] doesn’t register a final judgement, but the comparison alone is worth the read.

A guide for laying out 4+ layer PCBs

Learning to lay out a printed circuit board takes some time. But after you’ve churned out a few it’s really pretty easy. If you find yourself at that point it may be time to learn about more complicated board fabrication. We think a good primer is this multi-layer PCB layout guide which [Rik te Winkel] recently put together. It’s one of the results of his internship experience.

One of the major differences with boards that have more than two layers is the ability to alter what layers are actually connected by vias. Vias are plated holes through the substrate that connect different layers of copper. In the case of a 2-layer board these just go right through and connect the top to the bottom. But as you can see above, there are additional choices when it comes to multi-layer boards. #1 is a through via connecting all of the layers. #2 is a blind via; it stops part way through the board. And #3 is a buried via; it connects internal layers but cannot be seen from either side.

The guide is aimed at Eagle CAD. To use more than two layers you’ll have to purchase a license. But we think the concepts can easily be translated to other PCB layout software like Kicad.

Video: Eagle CAD Layout

This week’s video is the last in a series of videos where we show how to use Eagle CAD. Today we will look a the Layout portion of the program and will create a circuit board from the schematic that we created previously. We start by creating a layout file and then moving all of the parts to appropriate places on the circuit board. After that, [Jack] shows how to route the traces. Along the way, he talks about the tools that he is using and various ways to use them. The end result is a prototyping board for the PIC18F44J11.

Like the others, this video is fairly long at 29 minutes, so make sure to have some time dedicated towards watching it if you do.

In next week’s video, we will be showing this board as it arrived to us from a manufacturer and will do a tutorial on how to solder.

If you have missed our previous videos, you can find them here:

Schematic part I
Schematic and Custom part creation
CAM Processor

We have also created many supplemental videos explaining how to use many of the tools in the tool palettes. You can find them on our Youtube channel:

Check out the video after the break!
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Design for manufacture


SparkFun has posted an excellent guide to the many different issues you could run into when you finally decide to get a circuit board professionally produced. We assume that most of you aren’t running a professional design firm and will appreciate these tips gleaned from years of experience. They provided a rule list, Eagle DRC, and CAM file to help you get it right the first time. The end goal is designing a board that won’t be prone to manufacturing errors. The tutorial starts by covering trace width and spacing. They recommend avoiding anything less than 10mil traces with 10mil spacing. For planes, they increase the isolation to 12mil to avoid the planes pouring onto a trace. They also talk about annular rings, tenting, labeling, and generating the appropriate gerber and drill files. SparkFun isn’t completely infallible though, and manages to produce a coaster from time to time.

SparkFun naturally followed up this strict tutorial with a guide to unorthodox header hole placement. If you want to learn more about Eagle, have a look at [Ian]‘s overview of Eagle 5 and Ruin & Wesen’s layout videos.

Eagle 5 overview

Not sure how we missed this when it was originally published, but our friend [Ian Lesnet] at DIY Life posted an overview of Cadsoft’s new release Eagle 5. This upgrade seems to be all usability tweaks-it really took 5 versions before you could right click? They also made CTRL+Z undo. Really. Eagle3D works nearly the same as before, but has a few changes to help you figure out why certain parts aren’t rendering. We’re happy to see the OSX version is now Universal and no longer needs X11.