Are you fascinated by PCB design and curious about taking a course or becoming a designer? Whether you’re a student pursuing an engineering degree, an electronics technician, or considering a career change, this post is the perfect opportunity to learn what it takes to master printed circuit boards. We will discuss the type of education required to be a PCB designer, the courses you can take, and a lot more.

What To Learn to Start Designing PCB

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A PCB designer’s work and career path

Printed circuit boards first became popular in the 1950s and started as a trade skill. Back then, designers would make their designs on large sheets of plywood or bakelite using tape, knives, stickers, and their steady hands. Once finished, they would take a reduction camera to make a film, which was then used to create the PCB tooling. Designers then had to be artists and engineers who knew electrical theory.

Now, PCB design and routing are done on computer systems, and the output is used for manufacturing. Today’s PCB designers build everything from prototypes to copper connections on the final board. They must place the parts, connect the electrical connections, and specify the entire board structure. To be successful, a PCB designer must understand electronic components, how CAD tools work, and the standard manufacturing process, including bare board fabrication and assembly.

As a designer becomes more experienced, they often take on an engineering role in product development and become involved in circuit design, component selection, and placement in the layout. Some designers are also embedded developers, combining their PCB design skills with programming. In this role, they must work with programmers and developers to translate the physical design into programming requirements.

Education for a PCB designer

Getting educated is important for any career path, especially in a technical field like PCB design. Today, it’s not commonly taught in universities, and the quality of instruction can vary. However, there are options for learning PCB design as part of an engineering degree or taking industry-level courses. Most companies require a 4-year engineering degree for PCB design jobs.

In the past, you could learn PCB design on the job as it was a trade skill and focused on drafting. Now, the skills required have become more complex, and it’s recommended to have an electrical or computer engineering degree. For those interested in manufacturing or process development, a degree in materials science or chemistry is recommended. This provides designers with the broad range of skills needed for today’s PCB design job.

A few examples of the courses you might have to take while pursuing engineering to learn PCB assembly and design include:

  • Basic electromagnetics
  • PCB layout (available via community colleges)
  • Circuit simulation and design
  • Power systems
  • RF antennas and design

PCB design courses to pursue

For those interested in PCB layout, there isn’t a specific degree for it. But, industry-level courses can be taken as part of your education to bridge the gap between a typical engineering degree and industry standards for professional designers. Courses like the Printed Circuit Engineering Association’s PCE-EDU course can help you start off on the right foot.

Part of becoming a PCB designer also involves learning how to operate CAD software. When starting out, freemium PCB design software might be your best bet. It can help you understand the basics without requiring a large investment on your part. But, if you aim to work in a professional setting, open-source programs won’t cut it, and you’ll need a more advanced CAD tool. You can access paid CAD tool courses that offer educational licenses from companies like Eagle PCB Design, CircuitMaker, and Upverter.

PCB assembly and fabrication

Designers do not necessarily have to be experts in setting up a PCB manufacturing plant, but it benefits them to be familiar with the fabrication process and its impact on PCB layout design. Being knowledgeable about manufacturing can help designers anticipate and prevent circuit board failures during fabrication and assembly.

Having an understanding of the following is beneficial:

  • PCB assembly methods: Both manual and automated through-hole assembly processes are crucial in finalizing circuit board production, and the design should facilitate precise assembly.
  • Manufacturing documentation: Transforming CAD files into manufacturing files, which the manufacturer will use to physically produce the PCB.
  • PCB fabrication procedures: How PCBs are manufactured and what causes failures, as well as what to expect during the production process.

PCB design rules

All PCB design organizations and manufacturers abide by certain standard design principles, including thermal stability, power stability, testing, and manufacturing procedures. Adhering to these design rules and guidelines is crucial for designers, as it enables them to create the appropriate circuit board for their clients or manufacturers while ensuring they don’t overlook any important details.

The specific design rules vary based on the type of circuit being created, whether it’s small or complex, but a solid understanding of these design rules and layout best practices can help designers tailor their circuits to meet specific project needs.

PCB design review process

PCB designers go through a thorough design review process to produce high-quality designs that are suitable for any manufacturer or organization. They check the layout for errors and areas for improvement to meet design objectives. This process typically consists of three stages: a designer’s initial review, followed by a review conducted jointly or individually by hardware engineers, and a final assessment by a qualified consultant or engineer. This process guarantees that the design adheres to both aesthetic and documentation standards prior to commercial use.

The demand for designing modern and evolving PCB technologies is on the rise. With the increasing prevalence of electronics like IoT (Internet of Things) in our daily lives, the future of electronic design is very promising. However, the pool of skilled PCB designers and manufacturing personnel is decreasing as many designers are nearing retirement. New onboarding initiatives and a surge of new job openings make PCB design a promising skill to acquire.