How to Design PCB in Altium

In a rapidly evolving electronic world, staying abreast of the latest developments has become crucial in facing challenges. For designers, outstanding PCB design software is akin to a sharp Swiss army knife, enabling them to explore advanced circuit layouts and unlock new possibilities. Among the myriad choices, Altium Designer stands out with its unique advantages, boasting not only a powerful component library and 3D PCB visualization capabilities but also offering effective team collaboration and file output for commercial projects. In this TechSparks article, we provide you with a guide to Altium, helping you embark on an exciting PCB design project successfully.

Altium website homepage

Step 1: Install and Set Up Altium Software

To install Altium on your computer, visit the official Altium website to obtain the latest version of Altium Designer. To proceed, log in to your Altium account or create one if you don’t have it yet.

Select your operating system and proceed to download the installer after verifying that your device meets the minimum requirements listed by Altium on the website. Find the installer that matches your operating system and download it. Once the installer is fully downloaded on your computer, locate the .exe file and double-click it to run.

At this stage, you’ll need to choose the type of installation—either a typical installation or a manual custom installation.

Opt for a typical installation to install with default settings and choose custom if you need to tweak the default settings. Next, read and agree to the End User License Agreement to proceed, then select the installation folder.

Now, select the packages to install if you had chosen a custom install; otherwise, the installation will proceed.

The next page will prompt you to enter license information and select a license server. This is the same page where you specify whether you will be using a professional license, a trial, or a student license.

Step 2: Start a New Project

1. Create Project

A PCB project consists of templates defining the PCB. To initiate a new project, navigate to File > New > Project. Upon selecting the project, you’ll encounter a blank project interface.

Creating a new Altium Project

2. Related Document Concepts

The above picture contains some file names in the Altium software. Here is an explanation of its concepts:

a. Schematic Document

This file contains electrical symbols, sourced from the Schematic library. These symbols contribute to a visual representation of the electrical connections on the PCB. It functions as the blueprint for the PCB document, defining the electrical characteristics of the design. This encompasses component values, part numbers, and annotations. Additionally, the document can verify design rules, identifying any potential violations of electrical rules, allowing the designer to make necessary adjustments. This file serves as the basis for generating the BOM file, an output crucial for the manufacturing of the PCB.

b. PCB Document

This file serves as the representation of the physical layout of the final PCB. It’s in this document that the designer strategically positions components on the board, defines electrical connections, outlines the board’s shape and size, determines layer count and stack arrangement, and incorporates various design elements crucial to the final PCB. Output files generated from this document include Gerber files, placement files, and pick-and-place files.

Within the document, all silkscreen visuals and labels are crafted. These encompass details such as PCB revision numbers, component reference designators, markings for polarized components, debugging information, as well as text and branding graphics.

c. Schematic Library

This file encompasses a collection of symbols utilized to visually represent electronic components. These symbols, present in the schematic document, serve as the visual depiction of the PCB design.

Additionally, this library provides the flexibility for designers to generate new symbols through the use of the symbol creation wizard tool. Altium offers a template library containing generic footprints for frequently used symbols. In instances where a specific symbol is not found in the library, designers have the option to either create a new one or import a library.

d. PCB Library

This compilation comprises footprints that depict the physical arrangement of electronic components on the PCB. In circuit design, footprints are the pads utilized to affix components onto the PCB, available in both SMD (surface mount device) and THT (through-hole technology) configurations.

The footprints in the PCB library are interconnected with corresponding symbols in the symbol library, ensuring a precise logical representation of the electronic component.

Furthermore, this library facilitates the creation of new footprints if the default library lacks a suitable one. Alternatively, designers have the option to import a pre-existing library.

e. Active BOM

This serves as an interactive display of components and their corresponding attributes within the PCB design. It offers real-time access to the BoM data, enabling designers to directly interact with component attributes from within the design environment.

f. Pad Via library

This comprises a set of pre-defined via characteristics that can be employed in the design.

g. CAM Document

CAM stands for Computer-Aided Manufacturing. In Altium, a CAM document is a file utilized to configure outputs for  manufacturing.

To add one of the files to the newly created project, right-click on the project and select ‘Add New to project’. This will present a submenu with all the aforementioned files that can be added to the project you are building. In this tutorial’s case, for the LED_driver.prjPcb file, I added four files: Schematic document, PCB document, Schematic library, and PCB library.

Step 3: Schematic Design

1. New Schematic Sheet

To create a new schematic sheet, right-click on the project you created and select ‘Add new to Project’. Then, click on ‘Schematic’. The default name of the schematic will be something like ‘Sheet1.SchDoc’, but you can change it to your liking. In my case, I modified it to match the project name, ‘LED_Driver.SchDoc’. Right-click and select ‘Save As’ on the Schematic Sheet to make this change.

A blank white page will appear, and this is where we will draw our schematic. At the top of the sheet, there is a floating menu bar with symbols.

2. Adding/Connecting Components

To add component symbols on the schematic editor, we have many ways of doing that:

a. Using Manufacturer Part Search

This is a feature in Altium that enables the designer to search for a component using manufacturer information directly from the design environment and obtain results with the component symbol, footprint, 3D render, and other attributes.

With the manufacturer part search, you can place the symbol on the editor by clicking on the designated location in the interface.

How to show and hide panels in schematic editor

b. Using Default Altium Library

When navigating to components on the right-hand panel, ensure that the ‘Components’ option is checked. If it is not visible, go to the bottom right of the page, click on panels, and select ‘Components.’

From the Components panel, search for the symbol you want to add to the design and place it.

How to add symbols to schematic from the default library

c. Using Custom Symbols

If you cannot find the symbol you are looking for, you have the option to create your symbol in the schematic library and then add it to the schematic editor window.

Once all the symbols are arranged in their respective locations, it’s time to connect them. For this, you can use the “Place > Wire” command.

Image of a connected schematic

3. Defining Component Properties

The next step involves defining the properties of the components represented by the symbols. This includes specifying the resistance in Ohms and identifying the type of transistor or LED, as demonstrated in the example LED driver circuit used in this tutorial.

Annotation can also be performed on a per-component basis, although there is a built-in feature for this purpose. Additionally, net labeling is an optional step but can greatly facilitate the routing process.

Annotation entails assigning each symbol a reference designator to distinguish it from the other symbols.

Annotating schematic symbols

Validation of annotation changes in the ECO

4. Creating Custom Components.

To create a symbol from scratch in the Schematic library:

  • Open the schematic library and click on the ‘Add’ button at the bottom left of the window. A window will pop up, and you’ll enter the name of your symbol. Once done, the actual creation process begins.
  • Go to Place > Line or click on the corresponding symbol on the floating menu bar. Start outlining your shape as accurately as possible.
  • To create the terminals of the components, go to Place > Pin and start adding pins to the symbol. Use the space bar to rotate a pin. Name all the pins according to their datasheets.

Step 4: Component Footprint Assignment

Before proceeding to route the copper traces, ensure that the symbols are associated with their corresponding footprints. If you used the manufacturer part search to place your symbols, it is more likely that the association is already done. If you also assigned it when creating the symbol, then the association is complete, and you can proceed to the engineering changeover and validate the changes.

1. Create Custom Footprints

You can create a footprint in the PCB library if you cannot find the one you are looking for. To create a footprint in the PCB library, follow this procedure:

  1. Open the PCB library by double-clicking on it; in my case, I will double-click on the ‘LED_driver.PcbLib.’
  2. Click on ‘Add,’ and you will get a blank workspace.

A footprint comprises several parts, including but not limited to:

  • Pads
  • Vias
  • Outlines
  • Designator
  • Mechanical

After reviewing the datasheet of the component for which you want to create a footprint, obtain the dimensions needed and place them accordingly. This method is suitable for smaller and simpler footprints.

For more complex footprints, such as an IC package, you will need to use the Footprint Wizard. The Footprint Wizard is a built-in feature in Altium used to create footprints, providing higher accuracy compared to manual creation.

2. Assigning Footprints Using Footprint Manager

To create a PCB, we need to associate the schematic symbols with their respective footprints that we created in the PCB library.

Open the Footprint Manager and click on ‘Add’ on the right side of the window. A window will pop up asking to select a footprint. Choose the appropriate footprint and repeat this process for all the symbols.

Once completed, click on ‘Accept Changes’ and validate the changes. The Engineering Change Order window will appear, where you will accept the changes and then close it.

3. Importing and Managing Component Footprint

Open the PCB editor window, and you’ll be presented with a blank dark window.

Navigate to Design > Import Changes from ‘LED_driver.PrjPcb’. ‘LED_driver.PrjPcb’ is the name of my PCB project.

An Engineering Change Order window will appear, and you can accept and validate the changes.

Footprint assignment with Footprint manager

Step 5: PCB Layout

After validating changes in the ECO, a room will appear at the bottom of the PCB editor window. A room is a bounding box used to manage component arrangement on the PCB.

Fully routed PCB layout

To proceed, delete this room—we don’t need it unless you are in a more complex design where isolating parts of the design is necessary.

To move objects around, right-click and drag to the point where you think is most suitable. To rotate a component, right-click on it and press the space bar.

Considerations when placing components:

  • Avoid Crisscrossing Tracks: Use the white faint guidelines that show connections between components; this will make routing much more straightforward.
  • Connector Placements: If you have connectors in the design, add them to the edges of the PCB.
  • Functional Grouping: Group components that make up a functional subcircuit to avoid scattering components that belong to a functional block.
  • Consistent Component Orientation: When rotating and orienting components, ensure that you follow a particular pattern for all components of the same kind, especially when they are next to each other; this will enhance visual aesthetics and make routing easier.

To place copper traces on the board, create a track by navigating to Place > Track or clicking on the corresponding symbol on the floating menu. A crosshair will attach itself to the cursor; now, take the cursor and click on one of the terminals, and the guiding line will lead you to the other side of the trace.

Step 6: Create PCB Shape

You can create any shape you want using primitives like a circle, triangle, rectangle, or a custom shape using a combination of lines.

For this tutorial, we will be creating a rectangular shape.

To draw the shape, click on Place > Rectangle. Draw a shape that completely encloses all the components in the PCB layout.

Once the shape is drawn, select it by right-clicking and navigate to Design > Board Shape > Define Board Shape from Selected Objects.

Creating a PCB shape from a rectangular shape

A 3D render of the PCB

 

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