Aspen Labs (Boise, ID) has announced its release of PCBWeb, a free browser-based CAD application for designing and manufacturing electronics hardware. Merging its experience in the CAD industry writing desktop tools, with experience in web development, Aspen Labs has developed a web application that differentiates itself from others. Cody Miller, president of Aspen Labs, explains that the application, although online, still allows for designing with the same quality and features that a commercially available product would have.

An additional feature that sets this product apart is its collaboration with electronics distributor, DigiKey. Miller describes DigiKey as the perfect partner. “Of all the electronic distributors, they have the largest component selection and the largest immediate availability for ordering parts, so they are a really good fit for a tool like this,” he says.

The application’s three main tabs, Schematic, PCB, and Bill of Materials, allow the user to realize their designs from different views:

  • Schematic capture allows for designing multi-sheet schematics with a fast and easy-to-use wiring tool.
  • The PCB Layout tab allows the user to route multi-layer boards with support for copper pours and design rule checking.
  • The Bill of Materials is fully integrated with the Digi-Key catalog.

PCB Layout (left) and Schematic Capture (right). Click for larger image.

Listed at the top are categories, such as torques, power connections, ground connections, and drawing tools. The parts section features more than 100,000 fully specified parts, and follows the same taxonomy and organization as Digi-Key’s website. The program also supports the creation of custom parts, and allows the user to save the design for future use and purchase.

“We believe that the ability to share designs easily with other people will spur growth and a collaboration that doesn’t really exist with the tools currently available,” says Miller. Normally, an engineer would design the schematic and then a printed circuit board designer would lay out the design; but now, Miller adds “because we’ve made this collaborative tool, the engineer and the PCB designer can work together at the same time from the same project files online.”

Being online amplifies the ability to collaborate, but also comes with its own set of problems. The biggest limitation for the project was working with real world large boards and the file dragging in the browser. “Four years ago, I don’t think we could have created a high end tool for the web browser, especially for the speed and performance we were looking for,” Miller explains. To achieve this speed, the team turned to Silverlight, a plugin that most people already have installed on their computers. Although the plugin is currently successful, they have written the code to be able to port it when different technologies come along and if any changes need to be made.

What’s Next?

The next big step for PCBWeb is to integrate additional manufacturers so the user can order their completed board after it is designed. The company is currently in discussions and will be meeting with manufacturers soon.

“Our hope is that by next year, not only could you design with this, but you could click to order the manufactured board with all the parts built and ready to go,” Miller adds. “We really want people to think of this as a manufacturing tool, not just a printed circuit board design tool.”

Over the next couple of months the applications will continue to see incremental improvements. Features to look for include an autorouter and an autoplacer.

“We know that there are some bugs, we have found some, and we have had a number of users submit requests and improvements” Miller admits, as the application is still being Beta tested. With time, it is sure to become the next big thing for PCB designing (and manufacturing), bringing PCB boards from your desktop to your door.