In the world of PCB CAD, the humble component is the unsung hero. Controlling stackup impedances, routing high speed signals, achieving high density, and managing thermal performance of a PCB gets all the sex and glamor while the component design is taken for granted. Not only does it ensure that the part can actually be connected but it is also critical for solder paste application, component gluing, and preventing shorts and cold solder joints in assembly. This all plays into the PCB yield as the design is scaled up into thousands or millions of units. What could be sexier than reliably building millions of your design?
Altium’s Circuit Studio (CS) comes to the table with 3 tools which give our dear component library the attention it deserves. For those looking to get components down quickly, they include the Altium Vault in their CS subscription. Those who don’t want to trust others to create their components can design them from scratch or with the wizard. And once the user has a large library of parts to sift through, they offer an incredible component search tool.
Circuit Studio Component Creation:
The library and component management system benefits from coming out of the same company as Altium Designer (AD). This includes the ‘Component Wizard’ which is an integrated system of getting a footprint quickly created based on figures easily found on a datasheet. Not only does this allow people with AD experience to dive right in, but most of the online tutorials and videos created for AD are mostly applicable. I noticed, however, the IPC-compliant footprint wizard from AD was left out in CS.
The component library editor is not only easy to get started with, but includes options which supports Altium’s claim of delivering a professional tool. Integrated controls make for elegant control over 3D definition, manual paste and soldermask specifications, and multiple footprint pads with the same schematic pins. Most entry-level PCB tools have this same ability, but they are usually implemented as an afterthought or kludge solution.
The only problem I ran into was the size of the dialog boxes was too large for my 1920x1080 screen. However I found the root cause to be my use of non-standard ‘medium’ text size in my Windows environment. I decided that it’s best to set it to ‘small’ when using CS.
Altium’s Component Vault is included in the Circuit Studio subscription, and offers a huge array of 350,000 parts that are already made and linked to their supplier’s datasheets. It’s like having a full-time component librarian included in the program; they create, update, and correct footprints all included in a subscription. Altium has also plugged the Vault into suppliers like element14 so their stock and pricing data can be found right in the tool. And thanks to Altium’s automatic generation of a local component library of used parts for each design you create, if you ever want to let your subscription lapse you won’t need access to the vault in order to edit existing designs.
While the Vault doesn’t have every part in the world, it takes only a few seconds to see if they have the part you want. Half of the reason that downloadable libraries are painful is that one has to find them, download them, import them, and search for a part that may or may not be included. One could spend 10 minutes searching for a part only to come up empty handed, however a few clicks in Altium and you know if it is already made.
I can’t yet speak to the accuracy of components and trust in an external library like this must be built over several designs, if at all. I’ll make sure to check the pinouts against the datasheet and footprints with paper dolls for a long while. However given that Altium is providing this service in exchange for a subscription fee they are certainly more incentivized to perform than some hobbyist who posts a library on their blog to be nice.
The initial release of CS v1.0 had a vault that seemed to lag and have some part previews that didn’t come up correctly. Thankfully, Altium released v1.1 just a few months later which fixed all of these problems. If you haven’t tried the vault since the update it’s worth another look as it behaves like a totally new feature. Part searches are snappy, as is opening a specific part to check out the pinout, 3D model, footprint, and specifications.
Component designs are useless if they can’t be found, and CS’ library search tool also contributes to the professional feel of the tool. Most entry-level CAD programs correctly assume that their user base likely doesn’t have an expansive library drawn from years of consistent use. CS assumes that the user will have a vast component library, possibly created and managed by a team of people over many years.
CS allows one to search by any of the component attributes (although you have to know which attribute has the text string that you’re after). You can easily search for a component that has ‘AD’ in the name, ‘SO’ in the footprint field, containing ‘8’ pins in the ‘Opamp’ library. And if that wasn’t enough, there is an option to ‘refine current results’ in case your initial search wasn’t fine enough.
For users that require extensive search terms or want to save queries, Altium includes an advanced field where you can use a text editor to design your perfect search. Hopefully by the time your company is in need of such a feature, they have hired a dedicated PCB draftsperson to take over this administration.
Circuit Studio has benefited greatly from being the little brother of Altium Designer (AD). The capabilities can impress the professional user without intimidating a new engineer looking to get into PCB CAD. I appreciate their approach of deciding which features to pull in from AD and implementing them fully. It would be easy for them to use CS as a way to drive future upgrade sales to the more expensive AD with ‘feature teasers’ that aren’t very useful, but that’s not the case. Although given the $1500 credit for those upgrading from CS to AD, I’m sure they’re hoping to pitch the up-sell .