Getting started in Embedded Electronics
To make a printed circuit board you go through a process called “layout” where you place the component “footprints” on a drawing of the board outline. The footprint is just a representation of what the component would look like when placed on the board. This is normally done after a schematic drawing of the circuit but for very simple circuits with only a few components you can skip that step and start part layout.
Here at E5 Engineering we have tried many PCB layout tools but we find that for most home hobbyist Cadsoft Eagle is one of the best for small projects. Eagle has a free hobbyist version and a super-large user base online which leads to a plethora of YouTube videos that can walk you through the entire process.
To get started you need to
1. Download Cadsoft Eagle 6.5 from, it has a PC, Mac, and a Linux version. We have tried all of them and while the mac version seems a bit buggy sometimes it still works.
2. Now you have a program that can make PCBs, but the parts library that Eagle comes with is generally very limited so it’s a good idea to expand it. Sparkfun has a great super-huge parts library available online for free on GitHub.
A good video tutorial with screen video is available from Ben Heck on Youtube. He walks through making a board from start to finish in great detail.
Once your board is designed you must then generate a layout files in Eagle that can be sent to a manufacture for processing. This is outlined in the video as well but basically the program generates 2D artwork called “Gerber” files. The Gerbers have art for each “layer” of the board including the silkscreen, or white printing seen on most PCBs.
Once you have all the files the next stap is the creation of the board. With lots of patients and persistence, Fabrication of PCBs can be done by a hobbyist with etching chemicals and transfers. Although this is a good exercise in DIY, PCB board manufactures are fast and provide a level of quality nearly unobtainable by a hobbyist. We tend to use Advanced Circuits for US-based quick turn orders, however, a really good trick is to submit your board to an overseas service. Often these manufacturers have extra room on a panel and can run your boards extremely inexpensively (as low as $5/board). So if you want to save quite a bit of money you can try on of these services. Our favorite is Seed Studio. Seed has provided consistently tight, error free, boards at a fraction of the cost. We aren't paid by them, I was just that impressed. We recently had a board that had a tight clearance spec that Advanced could not do for less than $1500, Seed was able to produce the same board for $20 per unit.