What's New in PCB Design? Time to Explore the Low End of the EDA...
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What's New in PCB Design? Time to Explore the Low End of the EDA Tool Market written for Embedded Advisor

By Randall Restle, VP, Applications Engineering, Digi-Key Electronics

Randall Restle, VP, Applications Engineering, Digi-Key Electronics

What has happened to the schematic entry and printed circuit board (PCB) design portion of the electronic design automation (EDA) market? The last time I researched sales of EDA companies’ board design tools, it was Mentor Graphics (PADS & DxDesigner), Cadence (OrCAD), Zuken (Cadstar), and Altium (Designer) having the greatest sales and market share by revenue but this doesn’t capture what has been happening at the low-end of the EDA tool market; pricing the rehas been eroding for decades due in large part to EAGLE and KiCad. Good news for licensors, this has put pricing pressure on the high-end tools like Mentor’s PADS such that PADS Maker Edition can now be licensed at Digi-Key for free or an annual cost of $499 per year for the PADS MakerPro Edition. This pressure is the result of inexpensive or free tools serving an estimated 95 percent of a PCB designer’s needs.

Digi-Key is known for selling parts that are eventually soldered to PCBs, but Digi-Key also distributes EDA tools. Digi-Key is EDA-tool agnostic. It has no skin in the game to persuade a designer to use one tool over another so it offers as many tools as it can sign EDA tool developers.

Recognizing that before a part can be used, a symbol of it must be made for the schematic and a PCB footprint or decal for PCB layout. To make it easier to adopt new technology and devices that Digi-Key sells, Digi-Key offers free symbols and footprints. These design assets are offered through EMA Design Automation, a supplier that licenses its Ultra Librarian part library management system. Ultra Librarian is slick because it understands the file formats of nearly any EDA tool’s symbols and footprints. This enables companies using multiple EDA tools to share a common part database or an approved parts list that so many companies maintain. To demonstrate this capability, EMA Design Automation allows Digi-Key to issue a number of free licenses to symbols and footprints to hundreds of thousands of parts. This makes it easier to test a device that has never-before been used.

"Recognizing that before a part can be used, a symbol of it must be made for the schematic and a PCB footprint or decal for PCB layout"

Coming back to EAGLE and KiCad, EAGLE had been a very popular EDA tool with a generous licensing policy that resulted in a very capable tool being available for very little money. EAGLE was a product of German company CadSoft, but today, it no longer exists. When CadSoft was sold, the acquirer changed licensing terms, but this did not motivate many user defections. However, licensing terms were changed again when rights to EAGLE were acquired by AutoDesk, causing a massive defection. Many of the macros and extensions developers defected to KiCad where they contributed to the KiCad project which is 100 percent open source. Not wanting to invest in an EDA tool or library that might change hands due to EDA tool market volatility, Digi-Key decided to embrace KiCad as a tool to serve its very large base of customers consisting of students, hobbyists, makers, and professionals alike. It did so by creating a library of more than 1,000 popular devices. You can learn how to download KiCad and the Digi- Key KiCad library. One last point about Digi-Key and KiCad is Digi-Key’s development of software that can bundle suppliers’ symbols and footprints into supplier specific libraries that also include datasheets, complete part numbers, and more to reduce the pain to use a new-to-market device and one whose assets are built by the supplier itself.

It’s a good time to be a printed circuit board designer. There are a lot of options, and many excellent tools and assets are free.

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