A lot of self-styled geeks out there tend to like to customize their own programs, devices, and electronics. And for the true purists, that can mean building from the ground up (you know, like Superman actor Henry Cavill building a gaming PC to the delight of the entire internet).
Building electronics from the ground up can mean a lot of different things: acquiring parts, sometimes from strange sources; a bit of elbow grease on the mechanical side of things; and today, even taking advantage of the 3D printing revolution that’s finally enabling people to manufacture customized objects in their home. Beyond all of these things though, engineering your own devices can also mean designing the underlying electronics — beginning with printed circuit boards, also known as PCBs.
The process of designing your own PCB can be different depending on the software you elect to use. These days though, you can gain access to every component of the design process with a free PCB viewer download that enables examination within a user-friendly interface. With this sort of tool and the relevant software, you can construct a PCB, either from scratch or (sometimes) based on an existing design.
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Constructing a PCB in a virtual environment means organizing the electrical wiring connections on board, or perhaps multiple layers of the same board. In a sense, this can be as simple or complicated as you need it to be based on what you’re designing and how advanced the end product is meant to be. If you’re just experimenting and looking to build a functional PCB to serve a basic purpose, the design won’t have to be particularly intricate; if you’re creating a specific device with complex functions, you’ll need a more robust PCB. In either case, though, modern software will help you through the design and then enable you to convert it into a file that readies the product for manufacturing.
As for why you’d go to the trouble of designing your own printed circuit board, beyond curiosity about tech or electronics, the truth is that there are almost innumerable applications you could learn to create and customize with this kind of skillset.
As a practical example, you might consider the fact that some people these days are creating custom home security systems, given the variety of tools and products that now exist in this category. This generally just means picking and choosing between those devices and coordinating them as one network. But if you want an active hand in security, and you learn PCB design, there’s nothing stopping you from creating your own motion sensors or security cameras as well.
On the other hand, there are also plenty of just-for-fun options to consider. For example, consider our past buyer’s guide to the best Linux laptop, in which we noted that you can always further customize your hardware. With knowledge of PCB design, that ability to customize even a great computer or computer setup is further enhanced. You might, for instance, learn how to craft PCBs and devices amounting to your own mouse, gaming keyboard, or homemade speakers — all of which can make your hardware more uniquely your own.
All in all, PCB design is a very handy skill to have in 2020. It’s not typically necessary, in that there’s usually a device or some light customization that can give you whatever you want or need out of your electronics. But for “geeks” and tech enthusiasts, knowledge of PCB design adds another layer to the potential to customize hardware.