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Design Tool Customization for PCB Design Efficiency

Picture of an old carpenter’s toolbox filled with tools


I would be willing to bet that if you were to go and take a look inside 100 different toolboxes hidden away in the garages and tool sheds of your neighborhood, that you wouldn’t find any two of them alike. I’m not talking about the $19.95 “tool kit” specials that you find at your local big box stores. Instead I’m talking about a toolbox whose owner uses it regularly and continually adds and modifies the tools inside. The reason for this diversity is pretty obvious, each job typically requires unique tools and each user has their own preferences for tool types, brands, and even colors.

In spite of this, the PCB design CAD tool industry has a long history of approaching the task of capturing schematics and laying out circuit boards with a one-size fits all methodology. It was understandable when CAD tools first started growing in popularity some 40 years ago. Those tools had enough of a problem doing the tasks that they were created for let alone being able to be customized. 

But today is a different story, and PCB designers over the world over need flexible and adaptable tools that can be customized for specific functions and workflows. Perhaps you too can identify with some of the following annoyances that show the need for design tool customization for PCB design.

The Missing Design Tool Customizations for PCB Design that Hurt Productivity

At one time it seemed like PCB designers all designed the same sorts of boards. Usually these designs were either a simple two layer board, or perhaps a more complex variation of a four or six layer board. The CAD tools were pretty universal in being able to design all of these, and we all went happily from one project to the next without any problems. 

Then the designs began to increase in complexity that required more than the usual place and route commands. There were boards with exterior plane layers, and boards with unique component placement requirements. High speed designs required a new set of tools to get the layer stackup and routing correct, and flex designs demanded a whole new set of features to accommodate their special needs.

With the “same size fits all” design tools that we worked with, you would have to learn how to work around the limitations of the system. Sometimes you would have to go through a series of menu selections to find the functionality that you needed, and sometimes you had to outright trick the system into doing what you needed. 

The real problem came when you had to swing between different types of projects. Sometimes you would have to retrain yourself with every new design that you worked on in order to find the correct menu commands to use. 

In addition to that, designers were being required to do more work than ever before on tasks outside of their normal design job that included library creation and maintenance, and manufacturing output file generation. Doing a tape-out of some designs could end up taking several hours to manually configure and generate all the files that were needed. It became more and more obvious that what designers needed was the ability to customize the tools for specific workflows and tasks.


Screenshot of 3D OrCAD PCB Designer layout

With PCB designs like this, designers need all the customizable help they can get


A Wish List of Design Tool Customizations That Would be Helpful to Have

There are many ways that a PCB design system could be customized to be more helpful to the designer. Here are a few of the more commonly requested features of customization that designers would like to see:


  • Specific Workflows: Usually a CAD system has an array of pulldown and popup menus that contain commands that belong to a generic set of tool functions such as “Routing.” To ease the workload of the designer so that they don’t have to search through all of the commands and nested sub-menus, it would be helpful to be able to organize commonly used commands into a specific workflow menu. Why look through a menu with twenty commands in it when you usually use only a few. This would also give the designer a progression of the typical commands used for a particular design or task that would be easy to access. Another advantage of this type of customization would be the ability to create multiple workflow menus for different design technologies or tasks, which would further ease the job of the designer.

  • Customizable Toolbars: Following on the need for workflow or task specific menus, is the ability to configure the standard toolbars and icons in the design system. This way they will display only what you need them to instead of every command available in the system. This would help designers by taking some of the clutter out of the way and displaying only the icons that are pertinent to your work requirements.

  • Configurable Commands: Some commands require configuration, but this isn’t anything new. CAD systems have always had commands such as design rules checks that need to be configured when you use them. The key is to be able to save your configurations so that you don’t have to set them up each time you use them. Without the ability to save these configurations, designers have to set them up each and every time they use them.

  • Add-on Features and Utilities: Modern design tools typically have a lot of functionality in them that may not be in the standard set of menus. There is often a scripting language that you can use to create custom commands, giving designers new options and features that would be pertinent to their own workflow. The problem is that not every designer has the time to research and create these scripts. It would be very helpful to have the ability to add new commands and functions that others have created to avoid having to recreate that work. Add on utilities like this give the designer yet another way to make themselves more productive.


It may seem like we’re wishing for a lot here, but as you will see, many of these wishes are already available to PCB designers in advanced EDA tools.


Screenshot of OrCAD PCB Designer’s design workflow customization

Design Workflows as shown here in OrCAD PCB Designer, can help to increase design efficiency


Many of These Customizations Are Already Available

Over the years the most advanced PCB design tools have been increasing their ability to be customized. Many designers may not even realize how much their tools can be customized because they are used to following a set pattern for designing their boards that they have done for years. If that sounds like where you are at, take a new and fresh look at what your tools can do. You may be surprised at the power that is already built into them.

One of the most advanced and customizable set of PCB design tools is from the Cadence line of high performance EDA tools. OrCAD PCB Designer has the wish list items that we discussed already in place. Design Workflows give you the menus you need for your specific design technology or task, and you can modify your toolbars as needed. You also have many configurable commands that you can save to your environment as well as a productivity toolbox that you can access for more features and utilities.

If you’re looking to learn more about how Cadence has the solution for you, talk to us and our team of experts.