Designing A Printed Circuit Board for your Hardware Startup

Justin Ou
Justin Ou is one of four Co-founders and Marketing Manager of Gerber Labs, an Orange County based engineering startup that is currently rolling out a platform that makes custom printed circuit boards (PCB’s) accessible to electrical engineering students, hobbyists and small businesses.

Printed circuit boards (PCBs) are a vital component to nearly all electronics. They form the foundation of circuits and facilitate conductive pathways between components.

If you want to design a project with an electrical circuit, you must understand the fundamentals of PCB design. Though this process may seem like it’s only for engineers and the like, with new PCB manufacturers, you don’t need specialized training to start your own PCB design project.

Fortunately, most PCB projects follow the same process, no matter how simple or complex the design is. Beginners can get started with minimal experience. Discover the beginner’s guide to designing a printed circuit board.

What is a PCB?

Electronics have circuit boards inside that are typically blue, green, or red with silver components and wiring. PCBs may look intimidating, but they’re easy to understand once you know the fundamentals of the design and how they function.

All modern technology relies on PCBs, including televisions, computers, tablets, and smartphones. PCBs may be one, two, or multiple layers to facilitate the circuit, but they all rely on the same basic functional design.

Here are the steps to designing your own PCB project:

Outline the Requirements

The requirements for your project, or what you’re trying to accomplish, are the most important part of your design. Once you know what your project has to do, you can compile a list of components and materials.

Depending on the industry or the application, PCBs may need to comply with industry standards or regulations. If this is true of your project, create a list of these standards or regulations. From there, you can factor in the aspects of the project that you want, but don’t need to accomplish the desired performance.

Create a Budget

Next to requirements, the budget is crucial to your project. You need to know what limits you’re working within to understand how much wiggle room you have for components or design elements. It’s always preferred to trim costs wherever you can early on in the project, rather than getting deep into the design and finding out you have to start from square one.

Budgets usually contain a range of acceptable costs for services, processes, and components. You may also want to include costs for educational materials or consultations, if you think they’re necessary. Most people overshoot the original budget, which is why it’s always smart to use a range and build in a cushion.

Develop a Schematic

A schematic is essential to PCB design. At the start, a schematic is a rough draft that includes the connections and components needed to make your project functional. Schematics can be done manually on paper or with a specially designed schematic program.

Your schematic should be a basic outline of your design to start. You’re unlikely to get it perfect the first time. Focus on getting the minimal design down that suits your project requirements. Think of it like your list or your budget – you start out with the must-haves, then include the aspects you’d like to have.

Optimize Your Schematic

As we mentioned, the schematic is a rough draft that you develop as you go. During the optimization phase of your design, you may switch layers around, move components, or switch up the design to make your PCB more functional or efficient. Though optimization may mean different things for different projects, your goals should include shortening leads and maximizing space on your PCB.

While you’re developing your schematic, keep a few questions in mind. Will weight distribution impact your design? How much heat will the board generate? Should your board be rigid or flexible? If you expect any of these answers to affect the design, now is the time to address them. From here, you can adjust your parts and components list and make sure you’re still falling within your predetermined budget.

Work with a Manufacturer

If you want to have your PCB made, but you’re not sure if your performance or schematic work the way you want, the manufacturer can help. Most PCB manufacturers have in-house engineers and consultants who can help you perfect your design, spot potential problems, and answer questions.

When you submit your design for review, the engineers may be able to give you advice or share insights that will help you optimize your design now and learn for future projects. PCB manufacturers also have specialty design software that ensures your PCB design will function as intended.

Still concerned? Here’s another benefit to working with a PCB manufacturer – prototyping. Manufacturers can produce a single board or a small order, so you can test out your design without dropping a lot of money on a bulk order of boards that won’t function properly. This is a boon for hobbyists, students, and craftsmen to get the same quality of PCBs as large corporations.


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