Electrical Computer Aided Design (ECAD)


Electrical Computer Aided Design (ECAD) software is used to create and modify both diagrams and layouts, including both 2D and 3D, in order to design, assess and document electrical Printed Circuit Boards (PCB).


In the development process, ECAD software can be used to:

  • Explore different iterations of a PCB, either abstractly as a diagram or in full detail as a layout or 3D assembly. Users can build out different alternatives and options, comparing them to each other.
  • Generate manufacturing documentation, which is released to manufacturing as part of the specification used to source, fabricate and produce PCBs.

Capabilities Provided

ECAD software provides some combination of the following capabilities.

  • Diagramming capabilities allow engineers to define what electronic components are used and what signals are used to connect them. Engineers select components from a company-standardized library that is centrally controlled.
  • Layout capabilities provide a means to create the PCB’s outline and dimensionally place components within its boundaries. These capabilities can be utilized in either 2D or 3D models. The list of electronic components used in the diagram is carried over to the layout, where it almost becomes a to-do list for placement.
  • Trace Routing capabilities allow engineers to define the path the trace follows in a specific layer of the PCB between electronic components. This can be done in 2D or 3D, with switching between the layers of the PCB. The signals from the diagram, which embody from-to information between components, are carried over into the layout, which defines where each component is placed on the PCB.
    • Automation capabilities, which automatically routes traces from components to components based on interconnect information, is available. This can be done initially and then customized.
  • 3D Assembly capabilities provide a way to create a 3D model of the PCB. These models are often used to check for interference within an enclosure as well as checking for managing the dissipation of heat from the electronic components on the PCB.
  • Collaboration capabilities deliver tools to capture and coordinate feedback between individuals on a team developing the routed system.
    • Viewing capabilities provide the ability to visualize the design of the routed system. This is important for non-technical roles that do not have the skills or knowledge to use the RSD software directly.
    • Markup capabilities allow individuals to capture their feedback in the context of the design of the routed system.
    • Multi-Board design capabilities provide the capabilities to diagram and layout multiple PCBs that work together as a single system.
    • IC and PCB Co-Design capabilities offer a means to assimilate Integrated Circuits (ICs) processors into the PCB, optimizing how traces connect to compact footprints.
    • Concurrent Design capabilities enable multiple team members to work simultaneously on the same PCB or multi-board PCB design.
    • Rule or Constraint Checking capabilities automatically compares the design of a PCB against industry or company rules, highlighting violations or issues that can affect the performance or manufacturability of the PCB.
  • Manufacturing Export capabilities provide the ability to generate ECAM deliverables, which can then be used to manufacture the layers of the PCB.
  • Bill of Material (BOM) capabilities automatically generates the list of electrical components for the PCB.

Related Technology Enablers

ECAD software can produce a number of different deliverables, which can be managed by Product Data Management (PDM) software.

Designs from ECAD software are often interchanged with Mechanical Computer Aided Design (MCAD) software to generate a 3D model of the PCB.

Additionally, there are numerous technology enablers that exchange data with ECAD software.

  • Electrical Computer Aided Engineering (ECAE) software can use the geometry created by ECAD software to create analysis models to simulate the performance of the PCB across a range physics domains.
  • Electrical Computer Aided Manufacturing (ECAM) software uses manufacturing export from ECAD software to automatically create toolpaths to produce the layers of the PCB.

In some cases, ECAD software and some of these tools are combined into a single application or service. In other cases, ECAD software is offered as part of an integrated suite alongside some of these applications or services.

Technology Providers

Providers that offer desktop-based ECAD software include:

  • Altium offers Altium Designer, CircuitStudio and CircuitMaker
  • Cadence offers Allegro and OrCAD
  • CadSoft offers EAGLE Design Software
  • Labcenter Electronics offers Proteus
  • Mentor Graphics offers Xpedition and PADS PCB Design software
  • Zuken offers CR-8000, CR-5000 and CADSTAR