A printed circuit board is the substrate that serves as the interconnecting foundation for the components of electronic devices. Printed circuit boards are usually referred to as “PCBs” or simply as “boards” and can be any size or shape depending on a device’s needs. All of the processor, memory, and power components that tablets, smartphones, and computers need to operate will be soldered onto a board and connected electrically by tiny metal traces within. Most notably, someone has to design the intricate component layout and circuitry of these PCBs, and there’s no reason why it couldn’t be you.
PCB design and manufacturing is an industry that doesn’t seem to receive a lot of attention, and yet some sort of circuit board can be found in nearly every electronic device in use today. Without printed circuit boards and the PCB designers to create them, we might as well be living a hundred years ago when the marvel of today’s electronic devices wasn’t even a dream yet. Instead, we have an industry that is constantly evolving and growing to meet the world’s needs with new and innovative products.
The PCB designer career field is projected to continue growing for the foreseeable future, and designers earn far above the average annual income in the United States. If this sounds like a career field that you would be interested in, keep reading. There’s a lot more to tell about becoming a PCB designer.
Circuit Board Design; Past, Present, Future
The first circuit boards were literal boards with holes drilled in them for passing component leads soldered on the other side. This technology predicated the circuit boards that we know today, where copper traces are fabricated onto the substrate with photo imaging and etching. Electrical engineers drew schematics of the circuitry to design these boards, and PCB designers laid the circuits out with tape and stickers on a light table. It took a lot of artistic skill to craft the hand-taped layouts according to specifications, and eventually, this process was automated on computers.
At first, the hand-drawn schematics and taped layouts were recreated in computers using a process called digitizing. Eventually, this was replaced with the ability to do the entire design within the computer system itself. Initially, these designs could only be done on large corporate main-frame systems, but now PCBs can be laid out using a standard office or home computer. The design software has also changed over time from individualized tools that required manual intervention to make them work together. These tools have been replaced with software that includes schematic capture, circuit simulation, PCB layout, and analysis tools all within one system.
PCB designers use CAD tools first to create or “capture” a schematic, which is the logical representation of the circuitry that will be built into the circuit board. Next, the designer places component symbols on the schematic sheets and draws lines between their pins to define their connectivity. Once completed, the schematic information is forwarded into the PCB layout tools, which is the physical representation of the circuitry built into the circuit board. Here the designer places the parts for the best connectivity patterns and ensures they can be manufactured without error. Next, the designer will connect all of the pins by drawing traces or connecting them to power and ground planes. Once all of this is finished, the design goes to a PCB contract manufacturer for fabrication and assembly.
New advances in PCB design tools are being introduced all the time, and the future of this industry is very bright. Abilities such as auto-interactive routing or 3D displays that were once just a dream for PCB designers are now realized. Who knows what new things will be available tomorrow. One thing we do know is what it will take to become a PCB designer, and we’ll look into that next.
What Does it Take to Become a PCB Designer?
Historically an electrical engineer designed the board’s circuitry, while a PCB layout designer laid out the physical circuitry of the board. Many companies still employ both categories of workers, and the requirements for each are usually different:
- Electrical engineer: This job typically requires a degree in engineering and experience designing different kinds of circuitry like digital, analog, power, or RF.
- PCB layout designer: This job doesn’t always require a degree, and often designers have technical training and experience in all aspects of PCB layout and manufacturing.
The job of a PCB layout designer has changed over the years, and with it, the requirements. At one time, designers were documentation drafters that migrated over to circuit board layout. Some designers also came from electronic technician positions and carried that training and experience with them. Here are the requirements that you can expect to find with companies looking for PCB layout designers today:
- Formal education in engineering is now preferred
- Proficiency in PCB design software, although many companies will train designers on such tools
- The ability to adapt and grow with different tools, functions, and features of PCB design software
- Familiarity with industry standards and requirements
- An understanding of the entire PCB design and manufacturing process
One thing to be aware of is that few institutional degrees are explicitly designed for PCB layout. Although aspects of layout are included as part of many electrical engineering courses, it usually is not the focus of those degrees. Instead, most PCB designers further their layout-specific training with online classes, seminars, publications, and conferences.
As the industry continues to grow, so does the role of the PCB designer. More and more companies are combining PCB layout with electrical engineering. New designers should consider all of the following when preparing for a career in electronics design:
- Electrical engineering
- Mechanical design
- Manufacturing and test engineering
- And additional education in:
- Control systems
- Power systems
- Integrated circuit design
The Future of PCB Design and Circuit Board Layout Engineers
With all of the new advancements in communications, computing, and IoT, the need for electronics design continues to grow. Simultaneously, the number of available PCB designers is becoming less as many are approaching retirement. As a result, the PCB design industry faces a shortage of new designers genuinely committed to the science and art of creating functional printed circuit board hardware. Therefore, this is the right time to pursue a career in PCB design.
Does the idea of turning new ideas into working electronics hardware sound like something that you would like to do? PCB designers are used throughout the electronics industry, from original equipment design centers to printed circuit board manufacturers. Here at VSE, we have been manufacturing circuit boards for over 30 years and regularly work with PCB designers from companies representing a wide range of electronic technologies. So, if you are looking for a PCB contract manufacturer to build a circuit board or have questions about the role of PCB designers in today’s industry, give us a call.