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By Jeannie Chapman

PCB design services involve specialized activities aimed at creating an optimum printed circuit board layout using CAD software and other specialized PCB design tools. There are different kinds of PCBs and the process for each one may vary a bit. Regardless of the type of board or layout, though, it's always going to be roughly the same multi-stage designing process that begins with schematic capture.

Information about three key aspects of the project must be provided by the client to the designer. The schematic is obviously the most important thing. Note that it may also be in the netlist format. The netlist file contains the circuit's connectivity details and descriptions for the components.

The BOM or bill of materials is another key requirement which contains a listing of all the components to be used and their footprints. Some designers offer to do the component footprint capture process too. All this and the board outline together provide the designer with everything needed for getting started with the design process.

There are many intermediate techniques used in several stages that build on the schematic or netlist. These functions include things such as library development, signal integrity checks, stress analysis, thermal simulation and EMI checking. All this leads up to the generation of the gerber file. This is the most commonly used format used for transferring complete PCB images ready for manufacturing.

The designer must be capable of coming up with solutions for complicated analog, digital, RF and mixed PCBs. Then there's also the type of board, which can be single-sided, double-sided or multi-layered. The board's size may vary, and so can the pin densities and component quantities.

There's also the question of deciding on the characteristics of the board. This refers to the method used to mount components and create the traces for the circuit. Surface-mount technology is the most popular technique used now for mounting components.

Under this method, end caps will be soldered on the same side of the board as the component itself. This is a huge improvement over an earlier system that made use of through-hole boards. These older boards required the leads to be inserted from one side and soldered on the traces on the board's other side.

Apart from the schematic capture and subsequent board designing steps, the designer may also be called upon to evaluate existing designs, components and footprint captures. Sometimes they're also involved in prototype procurement, and may be asked to do availability checks and collect pricing information against the BOM.

Certain PCB design services are required even after the client receives the finished product. Customers may seek changes to the design immediately or in future, and reorders are quite common. It works the other way around too, with designers asked to reverse engineer gerber files or film artwork into a netlist format or schematic. This is often required when complex circuits require heavy modifications at the most basic level.

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