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Tech Forum

August 2017

PCB Layout Software

I am a retired Field Service Engineer. Over a decade and a half after early retirement from IBM, a friend asked if an idea he had could be built. I assured him it could.

He offered me partnership if I would design and build a demonstration system. I designed, built, and programmed a system that works just like he wanted it to. An existing patent that I could find no work-around for expires this year. We'd like to have systems ready to go before we start doing demonstrations.

Now, I need to convert my proto-board to a more compact layout to be mass produced. The problem is that all the design software I've found requires that work be done online. Not even a simple schematic design without being on the Web.

I need recommendations for offline software to generate a file for use by a production service. All I'll need is a library of templates for basic TH mounting components. I do not intend to put the results out in the clouds because oftentimes when I look to the clouds, there be vultures about.

T. A. Rooks
Chelsea, AL


A few years back my company outgrew the CAD software we were using. We spent several weeks looking at all of the available options, and ultimately settled on DipTrace. Ever since then I have been EXTREMELY pleased with it.

You can download a totally free version that is limited to 300 pins, or a 30-day time-limited version that has no pin limit. Diptrace is easy to learn and has all of the features of the “big guys.” By the way, I see you’re in Chelsea, AL. That’s just a few miles from me. Look me up in the phone book if you’d like to talk about this.

Rick Curl
Pinson, AL

Eagle from Autodesk is what most folks use. There is a free version to do a small board. KiCAD is the open-source alternative.

Chip Veres
Miami, FL

I have been using KICAD for six or so years for all the reasons you have listed. It smoothly does the entire process, from schematic capture, parts selection to layout. Layout produces Gerber files which most PCB vendors accept. You can export a parts list to Excel. With a little more work you can produce assembly drawings.

The libraries are adequate for most purposes and component design, although a little non-intuitive, is easy to learn in an hour or two.

All your work stays on your computer. No clouds, no proprietary formats, no lock in with a particular vendor.

Mike Egan
Manchester, NH

Howdy Neighbor! Just a few miles from you here in Shelby! I, too, despise any all cloud-based software. I do not trust the cloud with my data.

I have been using Eagle CAD ever since it was shipped on 3-1/2” floppy disks and I have never had a single problem with it. The software has recently been purchased by Autodesk, but it seems to still be the same offline version as before.

There is a subscription for commercial use, but the free version has always been enough for me. This will run on Windows, Mac, or my personal choice, Linux. Plus, if you run Ubuntu, you can still find the old, pre-Autodesk version still in the repositories.

Other Linux programs include KiCad, Eeschema, and Fritzing, although I think this one may be too basic for your needs. I am sure others can suggest Windows solutions. Good luck!

Derek Tombrello
Shelby, AL

I would say your best bet is KiCad.

First of all, it is open source and completely free (as in beer). If you download the nightly version, it is updated pretty frequently. If you install the regular version, it is a bit old, but it is stable as a brick you-know-what-house.

All of the KiCad libraries are hosted on GitHub. Here’s the rub: It is not incredibly intuitive to use. You will need to learn a number of keyboard shortcuts to really use it quickly and effectively (not that it’s absolutely mandatory).

Like any PCB design software, it has its quirks, it just has a few more than the others. For instance, it is actually a suite of several software tools: eeschema for editing schematics, pcbnew for the PCB editor, etc. However, they are all conveniently accessible from the main KiCad interface. And the keyboard shortcuts are consistent from one tool to the next.

One quirk that is essential to know is that pcbnew has two different flavors of editing: the regular Legacy editor and the OpenGL editor (and Cairo, but only weirdos use Cairo).

Now, they may just seem like different graphical renderings, but they actually allow you access to different tools and different styles of editing (e.g. you can only route differential pairs in OpenGL mode, and you can only do filtered selections in Legacy mode). Beyond this “quirk,” everything else is just stuff you have to get used to. Start by hitting the ‘?’ button to see all of the keyboard shortcuts.

In my opinion, it is the best hobbyist+ level design software available. It’s so effective and stable that several of us use it at my work to produce daughter boards for our development platform. It is a great piece of software and a great community (including developers from CERN!). You should definitely give it a try. Oh, and always remember to hit ‘B’ before you generate your Gerbers to refill your copper pours!

Taylor Street
Felton, CA

I like to use KiCAD. It is a powerful program that allows you to design circuits, board layouts, and create the files necessary to send to the PCB Fabricator. Of course there is a learning curve but there is also a strong support community.

The manuals are available in .PDF format. You can also create your own components if needed. It installs on your computer and does not require an Internet connection. I hope that this helps.

Richard R, Pope
Reedsburg, WI

I have been using DipTrace for over 10 years and have found it to be very easy to use. There is a free copy available for download where the only limitation is the number of pins. I have also found that has very reasonable prices for circuit boards. You can zip the DipTrace build files and upload them directly.

Larry Cicchinelli
Candenton, MO

If you’re willing to pay about $50 or so, I can thoroughly recommend SPRINT LAYOUT 60 from a german compny called ABACOM.

Provided you don’t want more than two layers, (and even that limitation can be got round for an extra layer or possibly two) it allows placment to 1 mil and track widths of your choice, with a good library of components, which you can design yourself if necessary.

Output Gerber files for professional printing, or you can do it yourself to laser or inkjet if you wish, evn allowing percentage corrections to get the print to equal the drawing.

You can download trial software to assess, but it doesn’t allow a print from the trial layout.

Lloyd Stickells

DesignSpark PCB layout and schematic capture. It's well supported and stand alone.

Richard Tomkins
Ottawa, Ontario, Canada

I favor Fritzing, free, open source and aimed at beginners.

Others that are available: Kicad, Geda , both open source as well. Also very popular is Eagle (now owned by Autodesk). The first 3 run on your local machine, I think eagle does as well but haven’t used it.

Peter Van Epp

I also have investigated this problem. I sometimes use my laptop offline and wanted to work on schematics while waiting in the car when a friend had doctor appointments.

I found that KICAD could be used offline by setting proper directory settings.

  1. Copy the library files located at C:\Program Files\KiCad\share\kicad\ to your documents folder i.e I use ../documents/kicad/...
  2. Change the Kicad environment variables to point to the off-line locations KIGITHUB = path to library (schematic symbols) KISYSSYM = path to symbols KISYSMOD = path to footprints KISYS3DMOD = path to 3d shapes KIGITHUB = C:\Users\\Documents\kicad\library KISYSSYM = C:\Users\\Documents\kicad\library KISYSMOD = C:\Users\\Documents\kicad\modules KISYS3DMOD = C:\Users\\Documents\kicad\modules\packages3d
  3. Open C:\Users\\AppData\Roaming\kicad\fp-lib-table Search and replace all “(type Github)” to “(type KiCad)”

Jan Zumwalt

There are a number of programs available. One popular one is Eagle PCB. However, I prefer a program called DipTrace for its ease of use and capability. Both Eagle and DipTrace have free trial and low cost limited versions. Good Luck with your product.

Jim McGrew
Saline, MI