Using KiCad for Professional PCBs

Created on: 9 August 2012

Can the open-source EDA tools, KiCad, be used to make professional printed circuit boards (PCBs)?

Are the tools reliable enough? Can they produce the proper output files that can be sent to PCB manufacturers for production of professional quality circuit boards?

To find out, I decided to put KiCad to the test by designing a small switched mode power supply board and having it professionally manufactured.

Component Libraries

From the outset, I decided not to use the default KiCad component libraries, but instead created all my own schematic symbols and PCB footprints for the components to be used in the power supply circuit.

This was mainly because most of the parts that were required for the circuit were not available in the standard KiCad library. Another reason for creating libraries from scratch is that if they are set up correctly, it is possible to skip the step of manually assigning component footprints to each component after creating the schematic. It can now be done automatically.

The Design Process

Designing a circuit board consists of four main parts:

  1. Draw the schematic (circuit diagram)
  2. Generate a netlist for the schematic
  3. Lay out the circuit board
  4. Generate Gerber files that are sent to the PCB manufacturer

Drawing the Schematic and Generating the Netlist

The schematic editor used to draw circuit diagrams in KiCad is called EESchema. Once the circuit diagram is drawn, a netlist is generated from it. This is done by simply clicking a button in EESchema. The netlist contains information on all the components in the schematic and the connections between components.

The Schematic Diagram in EESchema

The Schematic Diagram in EESchema


Laying Out the PCB and Generating Gerber Files

The PCB editor in KiCad is called PCBnew. The netlist is imported into PCBnew which then places all of the component PCB footprints into PCBnew for each component that was used in the schematic.

A board outline for the PCB is then created and the footprints placed on the board. The footprints are then connected using tracks.

The Finished PCB in PCBnew

The Finished PCB in PCBnew


Gerber files can then be generated from the PCB layout. This is done by clicking a button, selecting the desired options and then clicking again to generated the Gerber files. These files can now be sent to the manufacturer to have the boards made.

One of the Gerber Files in KiCad Gerbview (top copper layer)

One of the Gerber Files in KiCad Gerbview (top copper layer)






The Finished Boards

This video shows the finished boards for the switched mode power supply designed in KiCad.

Can't see the video? View on YouTube →


Conclusion

KiCad has proven to be reliable and able to produce output files (Gerber files) in the correct format for manufacture by professional PCB manufacturers. The only thing lacking in KiCad is a comprehensive component library, but it contains all the necessary tools for creating such a library.