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Ask HN: Most efficient way for the inexperienced to learn PCB design?
11 points by pluto9 3 days ago | hide | past | favorite | 9 comments
I'm a software developer looking to get into hardware and embedded devices. I have some experience with digital electronics using things like STM32 discovery boards, but not designing my own circuits around microcontrollers.

As a developer I'm used to "learning by doing", iterating rapidly to correct and learn from mistakes. I'm having a hard time applying this to hardware, though. Microcontroller-based designs often seem impractical to breadboard. I could design a PCB, send it off to have a few samples made and assemble it myself, but that's a lot of time and effort (shipping and assembly) for a single iteration that no doubt contains numerous mistakes due to my lack of experience. It's also difficult to tinker and correct mistakes with a PCB, so I feel like I'd have to make a semi-educated guess about what I did wrong and send off a new design for fabrication that's likely to also be wrong.

I get the impression that experienced PCB designers can confidently whip up a prototype design and send it straight off to a fab shop, confident that it'll mostly work and maybe require just a few tweaks. Am I wrong about this? Do professionals do a lot of breadboarding? Do they use simulation tools that can validate a design with a high degree of confidence?

What's the most efficient way for someone like me to get started developing custom PCBs? Many thanks.

I wrote about this a bit in replies[0][1][2] to similar questions or tweets.

You'll learn that very fast with the feedback on the forums by the amazing people there. You can look just at how helpful they were from the links to provided in the tweet, taking me from complete noob to being able to produce something a bit more respectable.

- [0]: https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=20306637

- [1]: https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=24050254

- [2]: https://twitter.com/jugurthahadjar/status/132557049016191385...

> I get the impression that experienced PCB designers can confidently whip up a prototype design and send it straight off to a fab shop, confident that it'll mostly work and maybe require just a few tweaks.

I would say most designs get better over revisions. My mistakes on first revs of boards have gone down as I got more experienced, but the thing is, I'm always trying to do tougher things on the next board I design, so it's just as likely there might be a mistake on that first rev.

As such, I recommend you start SUPER simple. A lot of the early stages of PCB design will be learning the software and associated quirks. Here are two short free video series I made to service that:

[Shine on you crazy KiCad](https://contextualelectronics.com/shine-on)

[Getting to Blinky 5.0](https://contextualelectronics.com/GTB)

In the first one it's a connector, an LED and a resistor, about as simple as you can get. But it plugs into a Raspberry Pi, so you can control it with software. The second one is a standalone using a 555 timeer. It's more involved and includes more custom components. Hopefully that moves you along your path towards making boards you like. I run a course where we show much more complex things, if that's your style, but we still try to get people to do the two above first.

Good luck, hardware is awesome! :-D

Thank you! I like the idea of starting off very simple. I think I jumped into the deep end too quick because I had a specific project in mind, but I guess I should work my way up to it. I will probably be working my way through your video series, it looks very approachable.

This repo has 3 open boards based on STM32 to make your own security key: https://github.com/solokeys/solo-hw

It could be useful to take inspiration and build your own, with a working example in mind.

From a "process" perspective, check out this project: https://www.crowdsupply.com/sutajio-kosagi/fomu

If you look at the things you can buy, they have a EVT board, which is I think what you're asking for. Usually you first build a larger version of the board to validate the design (and that you can start using to build the firmware), and then you shrink it.

Thank you, I'll check these out.

Start with simple stuff on small boards, and just order some boards, solder them, add bodge-wires as needed to make them work, fix the design, repeat. With places like oshpark and JLPCB a few iterations on small boards luckily don't break the bank anymore.

Go look at other people's designs. If you're doing something mildly interesting to others they might also be willing to help review your designs (user forums etc for the PCB design tool you are using can also be helpful for that)

Thank you!

I am a MechEng by background and taught myself how to design PCBs.

Disclaimer I am not a pro but have put a couple of boards into production and have worked closely with pros.

> Do professionals do a lot of breadboarding?

Depends on the complexity but yes there is often a fair bit of breadboarding, usually differnt parts of the circuit in isolation.

So first step is (if you haven't already) to get familiar with the basics of electronics and the best place to start with that is The Art of Electronics[1]

I would then recommmend checking out DigiKey's guide to KiCAD [2] which gives you everything you need to get started with a good software package that is user by pros. It has it's quirks but at least you don't have to pay for it (or get involved with Autodesk in anyway).

Choose a simple project to get started. Breadboard it with a development board (e.g. ESP32 DevKit[3]) and then make a schematic of that using you CAD. You can then turn that into a PCB (again using the DigiKey guide) or you cna just try to recreate the dev board. Arduinos are pretty easy to recreate using through hole components.

Also don't be afraid to just straight copy things and tweak them to your needs.

From there you can find a vendor to get your PCBs on PCB shopper [4]. You can easily get 5 boards delivered to you in under a week for $40 including shipping.

Also if you can afford it the going rate of a top EE in the UK is around £500 a day (you can probably find some decent ones for £250). Get in touch with them and ask if they could review your designs. You'll get loads of valuable feedback and it won't cost too much for a couple of hours of their time.

Anyway hope some of this is helpful and good luck!

[1] https://artofelectronics.net/

[2] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vaCVh2SAZY4

[3] https://docs.espressif.com/projects/esp-idf/en/latest/esp32/...

[4] https://pcbshopper.com/

This is a lot of great resources, thanks a lot! I'll definitely refer back to this comment.

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