Industry analysts are predicting that the market for printed circuit boards has a very healthy growth ahead of it. This is fueled by a number of growing technology industries including aerospace, communications, and IoT. At the same time, CAD and EDA tool companies are projecting great growth in the sales of their software to create these printed circuit boards. They key to all of this is the design engineer who can take these tools and create quality work in the form of printed circuit boards.
Some job sectors of the PCB design industry are seeing fewer numbers of qualified applicants which opens up even more opportunities. Individuals who are specifically skilled in the physical design of the PCB, which is also known as PCB layout, are retiring at a faster rate than new layout designers are replacing them. The industry needs quality people to fill these positions and design the technology of tomorrow’s dreams today. You are asking a great question by looking to find out how to become a design engineer. Here is some information for you to consider.
How to Become a Design Engineer Working with PCBs
There are a number of different roles that are involved with the design of PCBs, from dedicated hardware engineers to various technicians and support staff:
- Hardware Engineers: These engineers are responsible for circuit design. They will usually do this by drawing a circuit schematic on a CAD system designated for schematic capture and they often will do the physical layout of the PCB as well.
- Layout Engineers: These engineers are dedicated layout specialists who will arrange the physical layout of the electrical components on the board and connect all of their electrical signals together with metal traces. This is also done on a CAD system dedicated to physical layout which will then create specific files to be sent to a PCB manufacturer.
- Mechanical Engineers: These engineers are responsible for designing the mechanical aspects of the board such as size and shape, so that it will fit together with other PCBs and into the device enclosure that it is designed for.
- Software Engineers: These engineers are the creators of any software needed for the board to function as it was designed to.
- Test and Rework Technicians: These specialists work with the boards that have been manufactured in order to debug and validate that they work correctly, and make any modifications or repairs as needed.
In addition to these specific roles, there are also the fabrication and assembly personnel who will manufacture the board as well as many others along the way.
Most of these positions will require a degree in engineering, whether it is electrical, mechanical, or software. However, many technical positions will only require an associate's degree, allowing people in these positions to learn as they go and eventually grow into more traditional engineering positions. With a high level of motivation coupled with education, the career field for design engineers is very bright indeed.
Making circuits to fit anything from rectangular enclosures to full rigid-flex compatibility is demanding
The PCB Design Process
Given the different types of design engineers associated with PCB design, there is a lot to pick from when considering which career path to follow. To help you decide which path to follow, here is a brief description of the PCB design process and how these different engineers fit into the workflow:
- Conception: Before a design is made, there has to be a need for it. Sometimes it is a newly invented product, while other times it is part of a larger development process for a complete system. Usually, marketing professionals determine the need and features of a product and that information is passed to the design engineering department.
- System Design: Here is where the entire system is designed and the determination is made for what specific PCBs are needed and how they will all fit together in the completed system.
- Schematic Capture: The hardware or electrical engineers now have the ball as they design the circuits for the individual PCB. This will involve placing symbols on the schematic and connecting lines to the pins called nets for electrical connectivity. Another aspect of schematic capture is simulation. Simulation tools allow the design engineers to discover problems in their designs before committing to layout and manufacturing of the actual PCB.
- Library Development: All of the CAD tools will require library parts to work with. For schematics there will be symbols, for layout there will be physical footprint shapes of the components, and for mechanical there will be 3D models of the mechanical features. In some cases these parts will be imported into the libraries from outside sources, while others will be created by the engineers.
- Mechanical Design: As the mechanical design of the system progresses, the size and shape of the individual PCBs are also determined. This design will also include the position of connectors, braces, switches, and displays, as well as anything else that interfaces between the system enclosure and the PCB.
- PCB Layout: Once the schematic and the mechanical design has been completed, this data is forwarded into the PCB layout tools. The layout engineer will place the components specified from the schematic while obeying the physical constraints specified by the mechanical design. Once the components are placed, the electrical nets from the schematic will be connected together using thin lines that will eventually become metal traces on the board. Some PCBs can have thousands of these connections, and routing all of these traces to obey clearance and performance constraints is a challenging task.
- Software Development: While all of the other aspects of design engineering is being done, the software is being developed at the same time. Using the functional specifications developed by marketing together with the component and electrical specifications from hardware engineering, the software team will create the code that will make this board functional.
- PCB Manufacturing: When the design is complete in layout, the final files will be sent out for manufacturing. A PCB fabricator will create the bare boards, and a PCB assembler will solder all the parts onto the boards.
- Test and Validation: Once the manufacturers have verified that the board functions correctly as manufactured, the design team will then run the board through a series of tests to debug the board. This process often reveals areas of the board that need correction sending the board back for redesign. Once all the tests have been successfully concluded, the board is ready to be put into production and service.
As you can see, there are a lot of different aspects to the design of a printed circuit board involving several different professional skill sets. Once you start down the path of becoming a design engineer, you can look at these different positions and decide what area you would want to focus on the most.
Optimize your electronics design with the right CAD tools
PCB Design Tools that Will Make You a Success
Without trained design engineers, like the positions that you are looking into, there wouldn’t be any printed circuit boards. But there is also something else that is extremely critical to the design of PCBs, and that is the proficiency of the CAD tools used to create the designs. There was a time when schematics were hand drawn on a drafting board and PCB layout was done with black tape and sticky dots that were photo reproduced for PCB fabrication. This process took much longer to complete and wasn’t able to create the intricate designs that are in demand today.
The PCB design tools available from Cadence have the different features that we’ve been talking about built into them and ready to go. From schematic creation, circuit simulation, library creation, and PCB layout, tools like OrCAD PCB Designer are what you need to be successful as a design engineer.
If you’re looking to learn more about how Cadence has the solution for you, talk to us and our team of experts.