A couple of months ago I got curious about PCB manufacuring, and ended up using Joe Walnes’ open-source PiCrust PCB design to test the process. I sent the ‘Gerber’ files off to a little cheap board house in China, and a few weeks later my boards arrived – and they actually worked!
With my 100% PCB-related success rate still fresh in my mind, I decided that I wanted to try and design my own PCB from scratch. I assumed this would require some kind of qualification and expensive software, but to my surprise it needed none of these things.
I stumbled across DesignSpark PCB – free PCB design software from RS. Yes, free!
Like my grandfather meeting Microsoft Excel for the first time, I was initially intimidated by the unfamiliar buttons, layout and general PCB-territory – but I stuck with it, learnt how to design a PCB, and even got my own batch made (which you can WIN at the bottom of this blog!)
I’ve written this blog post to show you how easy it is to create a PCB for free using DesignSpark PCB. This guide is designed to be a simple introduction based on what I learnt – we‘ll cover more advanced stuff in later blogs.
Download the Software
You’re not going to get very far if you don’t download the application, so click the link below to go to the DesignSpark download page.
Once downloaded, go through the install and activation process (activation can be achieved using the same link above). This part is very self-explanatory so I won’t go into it.
Open the application
When the main screen opens, you are usually greeted with a little splash screen highlighting new products and news.
This is the part where I initially panicked. Tabs, buttons, sidebars – and none of it means anything to me!? Luckily for you I’ve done the homework so I can guide you through the process and explain what to do, what to click, where to look and so on.
Start your first PCB Project!
There are two ways to kick off your PCB design:
- You can use the schematic view to select and connect components, and then transfer to the PCB design view to arrange the components on the board
- You can head straight to the PCB design view and do everything there
For my first design I used the schematic view first, but I didn’t bother with this the second time as I found it easier to just place the components on the board first and then connect them together. This probably isn’t wise with large complex PCB designs.
For the benefit of this tutorial, we will use the schematic view first, then transfer this to the PCB design view.
Open Schematic View
To start in schematic view, click the ‘New’ icon first:
A box will pop up. Select ‘Schematic Design’ and click ‘OK’:
So, let’s grab some of the standard built-in components.
Click the ‘Add Component’ button to open the components menu. The ‘Add Component’ menu will pop up, showing you the default DesignSpark library of components (the button we pressed is highlighted blue in the screenshot):
As we’re designing a board for a Raspberry Pi here, let’s grab the most important part – the GPIO connector. Click on ‘Find’ – then search for ’26’, which should bring up an item called ‘CONN_DIL_26’:
To place the component in your design, just double-click on the name of it. The pop up box will disappear, and you will have the schematic component following your mouse (components are orange until you click to place them):
Click the ‘canvas’ to place your item. In this example, the GPIO connector comes in two parts, so you’ll need to click again to place the second part:
Now let’s add an LED, because we all love LEDs don’t we? Same as before, click the ‘Add Component’ button, then click ‘Find’ and search for ‘LED’. Go for the one called…you guessed it…’LED’:
Now that we have the GPIO connector, LED and resistor – we can now connect them to make a circuit.
I’m going to connect this LED/resistor to a GPIO pin, which is 3.3V. We should only allow around 16mA max to this LED. I won’t enter the resistor rating in my design, I just want the hole spacing and label to show on my PCB.
To connect components, select the ‘Add Schematic Connection’ button to the left:
Your mouse is now ready to connect parts. All you need to do is connect the ends of each part (you connect to the ‘x‘ part of each component), remembering to check the polarity of things like LEDs.
TIP: It’s worthwhile zooming in at this point. To zoom back out to see your entire board, click the ‘View All’ button.
Here is my simple LED example all connected up: (Note the GPIO connector is numbered by physical pins, I’ve connected to physical pin 11 / GPIO 17, and a GND pin next to it)
For more detail: How To Design a Printed Circuit Board with DesignSpark PCB