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EDA Tools for PCB Design: What You Should be Looking For

Image of an old typewriter along with a modern flat screen monitor in EDA tools


Many years ago in middle school, long before personal computers were popular, I decided to take a typing class as an elective. Most people couldn’t understand why I simply didn’t take another PE class instead, and to tell the truth I don’t know why either. But I successfully finished the class with some good typing skills, and then didn’t look at another keyboard again for years. Who knew that one day my professional career would revolve around a keyboard for everything from engineering tasks to writing PCB design articles like this one. As it turned out, I made a good choice that benefited me greatly later on.

We often don’t realize how important our choices are in life. Some are obviously more important than others, but they all have an impact on our future even if we can’t see it right away. One of the choices that designers and engineering managers may have to make is which EDA tool sets they are going to use for PCB design. This choice will have a big effect on the productivity of your company, so the decision must be made carefully. With so much to consider, let’s take a moment to examine some of the key points that you should be looking for, and some of the problems that you will want to avoid.

The Problems with EDA Tools Throughout PCB Design History

Printed circuit board design was accomplished for many years using transparent mylar, black tape, and sticky dots to create circuitry images that would create the PCB copper etch. This method was adequate for the PCB technology of the times, but was quickly outdated as PCB design requirements increased. Then a new technology of using computers to design circuit boards appeared, and soon everyone was asking what are EDA tools? There were several problems that designers had to cope with though on those systems, some of which are still lingering today.

The main problem was with the capability of the tools. Those early tools didn’t have the horsepower of today’s systems both in computer resources and display capabilities. One example is power planes that wouldn’t be displayed accurately, and instead had a simple “X” marks the spot where a thermal relief connected a pin to the plane. Although many of these early features have been updated or discontinued, you can still find remnants of these problems today in tool algorithms that don’t quite deliver all of the functionality that you need.

Another problem was how many EDA design tool vendors there were to pick from. Most of them would specialize in one function over another making a mix of the tools a necessary evil. Your schematic capture might be on one system, while your layout on another. It was not at all unusual for companies to have multiple design tools in use to cover all of their bases. This was obviously an expensive solution and a difficult process to manage with every tool having their own database formats to translate. 

Even within some systems, the database formats would be different between the tools making data synchronization between the two difficult. Sadly, some of these problems still exist, such as finding tools that will work well together. But fortunately there are tools that have conquered these problems making them the better choice.


Screenshot of OrCAD Capture

Starting with a great schematic capture tool is critical in your EDA tool set


The Key Points to Look For in PCB Design Tools

Let’s take a look at what some of the most important PCB design features are that you should have in your EDA tools:


A Full Set of PCB Design Tools: There are some systems on the market today that still give you only partial coverage with the tools that you need to work with. To be fully prepared for the task of designing printed circuit boards, you should find a vendor that offers the following in their EDA tools list:

  • Libraries: Some vendors provide library translation capabilities, while others provide a starter library to work with. The best EDA tool vendors, however, will have a library system that you can link to in order to download the symbols, models, and footprints you need.

  • Schematic Capture: This is where you will be doing your PCB engineering, and it needs to be an easy to use tool that can handle the most complex circuitry.

  • Simulation: Designers no longer have the luxury of being able to build multiple prototypes to debug their circuitry. Engineers need SPICE tools now to simulate these circuits in order to save time and money on their designs.

  • Layout: To design the PCB, designers need layout tools that can handle all of the different design technologies that they will encounter including high density, high speed, RF, and flex designs. To do this takes a full-feature layout tool that also has the necessary features for creating manufacturing output files.

  • Analysis: Designers can no longer afford waiting for prototypes to iron out the signal integrity problems of their designs. They need advanced analysis tools to identify high speed design problems before boards are built.


Tools That Work Together: Some EDA tool packages have not been designed to work together, and therefore require extra effort to synchronize them. You need a set of EDA tools that will easily allow you to go in and out of a SPICE simulator while doing schematic capture, or quickly conduct analysis while doing PCB layout.

Support and Training: This often gets overlooked before the acquisition of a new set of EDA design tools, and potentially leaves the new users stuck with tools that they don’t understand. You need to choose a vendor that has training and support available that is easy to connect with in order to answer any questions. Having other resources available such as online training, FAQ’s, and user support groups is a big plus as well.


Screenshot of OrCAD PCB layout with analysis tools open

Being able to easily open additional tools from layout is an important feature of your EDA tools


EDA Tool Tips That Will Make You a Successful PCB Designer

One of the best things that you can do is to research EDA tool vendors and find out which one has a proven track record of success that you can trust. With tools from a vendor like this, you can quickly get to work. Don’t be afraid to ask questions; get on that support line or hunt up those user groups to get the answers you need. Use these resources to learn your tools inside and out so that you will know exactly how to get the most performance out of your system.

There are a lot of EDA tool vendors out there to choose from, and one of the most trusted names is Cadence. With years and years of experience providing the highest levels of technology in PCB design systems today, Cadence knows exactly what PCB designers like you are looking for. OrCAD PCB Designer is a high level PCB design system that has all of the different feature rich design tools within it that you need to produce the best results.

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