Printed circuit boards (PCBs) are an integral component of nearly every electronic device. They enable you to connect multiple components within a device as simple as a lightswitch or as complex as a laptop.

If you’re thinking about designing your first PCB, the best place to start is with a prototype. Prototyping is a critical process that ensures you get your design right before you commit to mass production. By making iterative prototypes, you can optimize your PCB and work any bugs that could come back to bite you down the road.

Today, we’ll cover the basic steps you can take to develop a PCB prototype.

Step 1: Choose a Design Software
Virtually all modern PCBs are designed using dedicated software. There are a many different software packages, and which one is right for you comes down to a few factors:

  • Ease of Use: Designing a PCB is hard, especially if you’re new to the process. Choose a design software that offers a gentle learning curve rather than one that caters to more experienced users.
  • Features: For simple designs, you don’t need every design feature under the sun. Look for tools like schematic capture, automatic design rule checking, forward and backward annotation, and assisted routing.
  • Cost: There’s no need to break the bank on design software. Choose a program that offers the tools you need. You can explore open source options like KiCAD or get a free educational license for Altium or Autodesk EAGLE.

Step 2: Design Your PCB
With a design software installed, it’s time to get to work building your PCB. This process can be as complex as you want to make it, but we’ll break it down into three components:

  • Design Your Schematic: This is the blueprint for your PCB. What wiring do you need, what needs to be connected, and how will it all fit together?
  • Convert to PCB Layout: Once your schematic is done, you need to map it onto a PCB. If your design software offers assisted routing, try it out to make the mapping process easier.
  • Export Your Design: Run a design rule check on your PCB design and then export the Gerber files, which most manufacturers need to build your PCB.

Step 3: Choose a PCB Manufacturer
To bring your PCB to life, you’ll need to turn to a PCB manufacturer. There are tons of options, so consider these factors before selecting one:

  • Quality: The last thing you need is for a manufacturing error to throw off your prototype. Make sure your supplier has a reputation for quality and reliability.
  • Minimum Order Quantity: You’re probably only going to need a few copies of your PCB prototype for testing. Look for manufacturers that are willing to make just a few boards at a time.
  • Turnaround Time: How long will it take to get your PCB? If your project is on a tight timeline, then pay special attention to the lead times that manufacturers promise. Make sure that the supplier isn’t sacrificing quality to produce your PCB faster.

Step 4: Test and Prototype Again
Chances are, the first PCB design you create won’t turn out perfectly. Test out the prototype to identify problems with the routing and find components that could be optimized. Once you’ve tested thoroughly, return to your design software to create the next iteration of your PCB.