Circuit Design on Your Linux Box Using gEDA
Once the initial layout files are created using gsch2pcb, you can lay out your design. This involves using a layout editor—a specialized drawing program to draw metal tracks, components, drill holes and other structures onto your circuit board. The PCB layout tool used with gEDA is called, appropriately enough, pcb. pcb usually is invoked from the command line; once running, it presents a drawing window accompanied by all the widgets and tools necessary to draw your circuit board. A screenshot of pcb in action is shown in Figure 2.
The history of pcb is quite interesting. It originally was written by Thomas Nau in 1990 for the Atari ST. Thomas ported pcb to UNIX in 1994 and used the Xaw (X11) widget set for its GUI. In about 1998, Harry Eaton took over maintaining the program, and—among many other contributions—implemented the ability to output Gerber files. pcb was placed on Sourceforge.net about two years ago, and it is currently maintained by Harry, D. J. Delorie (of djgcc fame) and Dan McMahill. Most recently, Bill Wilson (author of gsch2pcb) updated pcb's GUI to use GTK+, a very welcome modernization.
Creating a circuit board layout using pcb, as with any layout editor, involves first placing the component footprints and then routing the metal connections—called tracks or traces—between the pins of the footprint. pcb allows you to define the track width to use, which is important when, for example, drawing power (usually thick) traces, as opposed to signal (usually thin) ones.
As for component footprints, pcb supports two different footprint libraries: a legacy library based upon the M4 macro language and a newer library (newlib), which defines footprints via an ASCII file defining all graphical elements composing the footprint, such as metal pads and rings, drill holes, silk-screened text and so on. When rendering your layout, pcb uses footprints from either library to draw the footprint required by each component; the footprints used are those called out by the footprint attribute specified in your gschem schematic.
Since pcb's newlib defines footprints using an ASCII file format, automated generation of footprints using scripts is possible. To this end, another member of the gEDA community, John Luciani, has created a large collection of useful pcb footprints using Perl scripts; both scripts and the generated pcb footprints are available for free download from his Web site (see the on-line Resources).
pcb supports routing on up to eight layers, meaning that you can draw metal connections on any of up to eight separate layers on the PCB itself. This is important for enabling high-density component placements, which are the norm for modern, compact designs. Connections between tracks on different PCB layers are done by running a pair of tracks to a via, which is a hole drilled through the PCB and subsequently plated with metal, thereby electrically connecting tracks on one layer with tracks on another.
Once you've completely laid out your board using pcb, you can generate Gerber files, which is an industry-standard representation of your board's layout. An assembly drawing, drill file and pick-and-place file also are automatically created when you generate your Gerber files. Send all these files to any PCB fabrication house, and soon you will receive professional-quality PCBs designed by you on your Linux box!
Once your bare PCBs come back, you either can stuff (assemble) them yourself or send them to an assembler to complete the job for you. Shown in Figure 3 is an example PC board created using the gEDA tools. This board is the same as that shown in Figure 2. It is a two-layer board that aggregates signals from several sensors and routes them to an A/D module. This example board is not particularly large or complex; larger and more-complicated boards are regularly done using the gEDA tools. However, it does show a wide variety of component types: several through-hole connectors, surface-mount and through-hole devices, a 14-pin DIP in a socket, as well as holes and other elements. This illustrates the ability of pcb to handle many different types of electrical components. To see more boards done using the gEDA Suite, look at the featured project on the gEDA Web site, or do a quick Google search. The variety of possible circuit boards is limited only by your imagination!
Resources for this article: /article/8530.
Stuart Brorson has been an avid Linux user since 1994 and became a contributor to the gEDA Project in 2003. By day, Stuart is a professional electrical engineer involved in designing scientific instruments for spectroscopy.