Rigid-flex and flex PCB designs have gained significant popularity in the electronics industry, offering flexibility and space-saving advantages. Two popular software tools for designing such PCBs are KiCad and Altium. This article aims to compare the capabilities and features of KiCad’s rigid-flex design with Altium’s flex PCB design, helping users make informed decisions based on their specific requirements.
Introduction to PCB Design Software
PCB (Printed Circuit Board) design software is a computer program that allows engineers and designers to create, edit, and optimize circuit board layouts for electronic devices. These software tools streamline the design process, providing features for schematic capture, component placement, signal routing, and manufacturing file generation. PCB design software plays a crucial role in the electronics industry, enabling the development of efficient and reliable circuit boards.
Features of PCB Design Software:
1. Schematic Capture: PCB design software allows users to create and edit circuit schematics by placing and connecting electronic components. Schematic symbols are used to represent various components and their electrical connections.
2. Component Libraries: Design software provides access to extensive component libraries that contain pre-designed symbols, footprints, and electrical models. These libraries save time by offering a wide range of components for use in designs.
3. PCB Layout Editor: The layout editor is a core feature of PCB design software. It allows users to place components on the circuit board, define their physical dimensions, and arrange them in an optimal manner. The editor also provides tools for adjusting component placement and orientation.
4. Signal Routing: PCB design software offers tools for routing electrical traces between components on the circuit board. Traces can be manually routed or auto-routed based on design rules and constraints. Advanced software may include features for differential pair routing, high-speed design, and impedance control.
5. Design Rule Checking (DRC): DRC tools ensure that the design meets specific manufacturing and design requirements. They help identify errors or violations in the layout, such as clearance violations, minimum trace widths, and spacing between components.
6. 3D Visualization: Many PCB design software programs include a 3D viewer that allows users to visualize the circuit board in three dimensions. This feature helps designers verify component placement, check for collisions or interference, and assess the overall form factor of the board.
7. Manufacturing File Generation: PCB design software generates various output files required for manufacturing, including Gerber files, which define the copper layers, solder mask, and silkscreen. Other files may include the Bill of Materials (BOM), assembly drawings, and fabrication files.
Popular PCB Design Software:
●Mentor Graphics PADS
Different software programs offer varying levels of functionality, complexity, and cost. The choice of PCB design software depends on factors such as project requirements, user experience, available budget, and support resources.
What do Kicad and Altium Provide?
KiCad and Altium are both popular PCB design software programs, but they differ in terms of features, capabilities, and target user base. Here’s an overview of what each software offers:
1. Open-Source: KiCad is an open-source software, which means it is free to use and has a large community of users and developers contributing to its development and support.
2. Cross-Platform: KiCad is available for Windows, macOS, and Linux, making it accessible to users on different operating systems.
3. Schematic Capture: KiCad provides a robust schematic capture tool that allows users to create and edit circuit schematics.
4. PCB Layout: The software offers a powerful PCB layout editor that enables users to design and optimize the physical layout of the circuit board.
5. 3D Viewer: KiCad includes a 3D viewer that allows users to visualize their PCB designs in three dimensions.
6. Gerber File Generation: KiCad can generate Gerber files, which are commonly used in PCB manufacturing.
7. Community Support: KiCad has an active user community that provides support, tutorials, and resources for users to learn and troubleshoot.
1. Comprehensive Toolset: Altium Designer offers a comprehensive set of tools for schematic capture, PCB layout, and simulation, providing a complete solution for PCB design.
2. Advanced Features: Altium Designer includes advanced features such as signal integrity analysis, differential pair routing, high-speed design capabilities, and embedded system design.
3. Design Rule Checking (DRC): The software includes built-in DRC functionality to ensure that designs meet specific manufacturing and design requirements.
4. Integrated Libraries: Altium Designer provides an extensive library of components and footprints for easy component selection and placement.
5. Collaboration and Documentation: Altium Designer offers features for team collaboration, version control, and detailed documentation, making it suitable for complex design projects.
6. Manufacturing Output: Altium Designer supports the generation of manufacturing files, including Gerber files, BOMs (Bill of Materials), and assembly drawings.
7. Professional Support: Altium provides professional technical support and training resources for its users.
Both KiCad and Altium have their own strengths and are suitable for different user requirements. KiCad is a popular choice for hobbyists, students, and small-scale projects, while Altium Designer is widely used by professional engineers and companies working on complex and high-performance PCB designs.
Kicad rigid flex
Kicad rigid flex PCB design is often promoted by companies as a cost-effective solution for producing PCBs, particularly for prototyping and small production runs. It offers convenience and affordability in the short term. However, it is essential to consider the limitations and drawbacks associated with this design method.
One significant disadvantage of Kicad rigid flex PCB design is the inability to generate Gerber files and directly print the board. To manufacture prototype boards using Kicad flex PCB, it is necessary to engage a professional PCB manufacturer. Fortunately, Kicad rigid flex Arduino shields can be purchased to access all the features available in the paid version of the software.
Another drawback is the time-consuming nature of manufacturing PCBs using Kicad flexible PCB. The design process typically takes between two to eight hours, depending on the user’s familiarity with the software. Additionally, uploading the board files to the computer can be a patience-testing process, taking anywhere from fifteen minutes to six hours before they are ready for testing.
Overall, while Kicad rigid flex PCB design offers cost-effectiveness and convenience for prototyping and small-scale production, it is important to be aware of the limitations and potential challenges associated with this approach.
Overview of Altium’s Basic Package
Altium offers three different packages for new users, each with varying costs and features. It is important to consider these options when choosing the most suitable package for your needs.
The basic package, priced at $200 per year, allows users to create a limited number of boards. However, it is worth noting that users may not need to purchase the newest parts in the package, as their designs will still be available in the library.
For an annual fee of $120, users can access all of Altium’s tools and parts. However, this option provides a decreasing amount of content for each board, including the number of parts and files available.
The Professional package, priced at $500 per year, includes over 90 components in the design library. It also allows users to easily adapt each board to different rigid flex PCB thicknesses, such as medium and thick.
The most expensive package, Altium Designer, costs $600 per year. It offers over 600 parts and access to the latest components from Altium. Additionally, Altium Designer provides a fully-featured editor, enabling users to continuously modify designs and layouts if desired.
It is important to carefully evaluate the features and costs associated with each package to determine the best fit for your specific requirements.
Flex And Rigid-Flex Design Challenges
Flex and rigid-flex designs offer unique advantages in terms of space-saving, durability, and flexibility. However, they also present certain design challenges that need to be carefully addressed. Here are some common challenges faced in flex and rigid-flex design:
1. Bend Radius: Flex circuits have a minimum bend radius that must be adhered to in order to prevent damage to the circuitry or components. Designers must ensure that the bend radius requirements are met and that the circuit can flex without straining or breaking.
2. Component Placement: Components on a flex or rigid-flex circuit need to be placed strategically to ensure they can withstand the bending and flexing. Special consideration should be given to the location of high-stress areas or areas where repeated flexing may occur.
3. Trace Routing: Routing traces on a flexible circuit requires careful planning to avoid excessive stress on the traces during flexing. Designers must minimize sharp angles, use curved traces, and avoid crossing traces that may cause fatigue or failure.
4. Signal Integrity: Flex and rigid-flex circuits can be susceptible to signal integrity issues such as impedance mismatches, crosstalk, and signal loss. Proper impedance control, controlled impedance traces, and careful signal routing are essential to maintain signal integrity.
5. Material Selection: Choosing the right materials for flex and rigid-flex circuits is crucial. The materials should have good flexibility, durability, and temperature resistance to withstand the intended application. Compatibility between different materials used in the design is also critical.
6. Testing and Assembly: Testing and assembly of flex and rigid-flex circuits can be more challenging compared to traditional rigid PCBs. Specialized equipment and techniques may be required to ensure reliable connections and proper functioning of the flexible circuit.
7. Cost: Flex and rigid-flex designs can be more expensive compared to traditional PCBs due to the specialized materials, manufacturing processes, and testing involved. Designers need to balance the benefits of flex and rigid-flex circuits with the associated costs.
Addressing these challenges requires expertise in flex and rigid-flex design, understanding of the specific application requirements, and collaboration with experienced manufacturers and suppliers. It is crucial to work closely with the design and manufacturing teams to optimize the design, ensure manufacturability, and achieve the desired performance and reliability in flex and rigid-flex circuits.
Comparison: KiCad Rigid-Flex PCB vs Altium Flex PCB
KiCad and Altium are both popular PCB design software used in the industry. While KiCad offers a Rigid-Flex PCB design option, Altium specializes in Flex PCB design. Here is a comparison between the two:
1. Design capabilities:
● KiCad Rigid-Flex PCB: KiCad offers limited support for Rigid-Flex PCBs. It allows designing boards with multiple rigid and flexible layers, bends, and fold regions.
● Altium Flex PCB: Altium specializes in Flex PCB design and offers advanced features like different stackups, bending areas, dynamic flex regions, and length matching for differential pairs.
2. User interface and ease of use:
● KiCad Rigid-Flex PCB: KiCad has a user-friendly interface but may have a steeper learning curve for beginners.
● Altium Flex PCB: Altium has a more intuitive and user-friendly interface, making it easier for beginners to get started.
3. Component libraries and footprint creation:
● KiCad Rigid-Flex PCB: KiCad has a wide range of component libraries available, and users can create custom footprints.
● Altium Flex PCB: Altium offers an extensive component library and provides tools for creating custom footprints.
4. Design rules and constraints:
● KiCad Rigid-Flex PCB: KiCad allows defining design rules and constraints, but it may require more manual work to set up and verify.
● Altium Flex PCB: Altium provides comprehensive design rule checking (DRC) and constraint management tools, making it easier to set up and verify design rules.
5. Simulation and analysis:
● KiCad Rigid-Flex PCB: KiCad has limited simulation capabilities and does not offer in-house simulation tools.
● Altium Flex PCB: Altium offers advanced simulation and analysis tools, such as signal integrity analysis, power integrity analysis, and thermal analysis.
6. Collaboration and documentation:
● KiCad Rigid-Flex PCB: KiCad offers collaboration features like version control and allows generating manufacturing files and documentation.
● Altium Flex PCB: Altium provides advanced collaboration features like real-time collaboration, project sharing, and comprehensive documentation generation.
Overall, if you are primarily focusing on Rigid-Flex PCB design, KiCad’s Rigid-Flex PCB option can be a cost-effective choice. However, if you require advanced features, better simulation capabilities, and comprehensive collaboration tools specifically for Flex PCB design, Altium may be a better option.
Creating Rigid-Flex PCBs using KiCad: A Step-by-Step Guide
To create a circuit using KiCad, there are two main approaches – rigid and flexible. Rigid flex PCBs offer both rigidity and flexibility, and can be manufactured using standard fabrication processes. On the other hand, flexible PCBs provide the flexibility of a wire and are manufactured using selective metal stamping processes with metal powder molds.
Here is a step-by-step guide to creating a circuit using KiCad:
1. Sign up for a free account and download the KiCad software.
2. Open the starter kit file provided with your copy of the program.
3. Download the free KiCad library, which contains components and parts for designing your PCB.
4. Launch KiCad and create a new blank project.
5. Customize the hardware for your design by selecting the appropriate board type in the “customize” tab.
6. Access your new library and its components and parts by clicking on the “library” option in the “customize” tab.
7. Begin designing your circuit by placing and connecting components based on your desired functionality. Save your design as you progress.
8. Once your design is complete, save it as a PDF file.
9. Upload the design to a dedicated fabrication site to have your PCBs manufactured using high-quality PCB materials. These fabrication sites offer quick turnaround times.
Creating Rigid-Flex PCBs using Altium Designer: A Step-by-Step Guide
Altium Designer is a highly regarded PCB design software widely used in the industry. It caters to the needs of electronics engineers and hobbyists seeking to embark on PCB design projects.
Here is a step-by-step guide to creating a PCB using Altium Designer:
1. Begin by downloading the Altium Designer application from the official website.
2. Launch the software, which presents a user-friendly interface resembling a web browser. Create a new project swiftly within this environment.
3. Customize the board by selecting the appropriate hardware and components that suit your design requirements.
4. Add various components to your circuit, such as resistors, capacitors, transistors, and more, utilizing the extensive library available in Altium Designer.
5. Once your circuit design is complete, navigate to the “fabrication” tab. This feature enables you to generate the final design file necessary for professional PCB manufacturing.
6. Review your design meticulously, ensuring accuracy and correctness, before sending it to the fabrication facility of your choosing.
7. Subsequently, your PCB will be manufactured, and you can expect to receive the finished product within a few days. Altium Designer’s efficiency and user-friendly nature make it an excellent choice for creating flexible PCBs efficiently and effectively.
Future Trends in PCB Design Software
The future of PCB design software is focused on leveraging the latest technologies, particularly in terms of simplicity and ease of use. Leading companies such as Altium, KiCad, and others are actively working on developing game-changing solutions. One of the key goals is to enable a “one-click PCB” approach, where circuit design can be accomplished with a single click.
These software programs are continually improving their user-friendliness, often with the support of major companies. As this trend progresses, it becomes clear that future generations will have the ability to design their own circuits from home. Advancements include practical 3D circuit simulation, more intuitive schematic design processes, and other features that simplify circuit design tasks.
It is important to note that while these programs offer significant capabilities, they do not eliminate the need for user input. It is crucial to understand the fundamentals of PCB design and utilize these software tools as aids. Nevertheless, the advancements made in recent years are remarkable, making it increasingly accessible for individuals to create their own circuit boards.
As technology continues to evolve, there will be even more possibilities for designing circuit boards. The progress achieved thus far is truly astounding. If you have plans to create circuit boards at home in the near future, it is advisable to familiarize yourself with these software programs and their capabilities.
Both KiCad and Altium offer powerful tools for designing rigid-flex and flex PCBs. While KiCad provides an open-source and cost-effective solution with a strong user community, Altium offers a professional and comprehensive design environment with advanced features. The choice between the two ultimately depends on the specific needs and preferences of the user. Regardless of the software chosen, the increasing popularity of rigid-flex and flex PCB designs showcases their potential for revolutionizing the electronics industry.