Testing KiCad PCB

We are always a fan of using open-source software wherever possible. A few years ago I briefly attempted to use open-source KiCad and gEDA PCB CAD software but found them very limiting, clumsy and buggy.

Recently there have been a raft of shiny looking browser based PCB design tools such as Circuit Maker and Upverter, these look very interesting; the online collaborative development opportunities are obvious and linking into the OctoPart's live component pricing, standard part library and BOM management tools could be a big time saver at the manufacturing stage. Maybe online tools will be the future, however I am a little reserved about having designs locked into a closed online platform.

In particular I have been keeping a close eye on KiCad developments after I heard CERN had got involved in the development. I was very impressed watching this video showing the newly developed KiCad intelligent semi-auto router in action:


I think it's time I gave KiCad another try! Today I managed to install KiCad and put together the RFM12Pi schematic and layout the board. Here's my experience:

I wanted the latest build to get the shiny new features, so I installed the development branch by adding the PPA to Ubuntu:

http://ppa.launchpad.net/js-reynaud/ppa-kicad/ubuntu

I installed KiCad build dated 16th July on 32-bit Ubuntu 14.04

I found I needed to add the line "export KIGITHUB="https://github.com/KiCad";" to my ~/.profile file to get rid of cannot find github footprint errors when running CvPCB (the program in KiCad which links the schematic parts to PCB footprints)

I followed the fantastic video tutorials from Contextual Electronics to help me get started.


1. KiCad Schematic Editor, net list must be manually exported to move to the next setp

2. Linking schematic parts to PCB footprints

3. Board layout the new interactive router was great (see video above)
New router options

Update: the finished Kicad RFM2Pi V2.7 design is up on github:

https://github.com/openenergymonitor/Hardware/tree/master/RFM2Pi/board/KiCad_RFM12Pi%20V2.7

Obviously we have considerable lock-in to EAGLE PCB with our historic designs and learning a new software tool is always going to be a slow and slightly frustrating process, however I'm quite impressed that after about 5hrs I think I'm got the hang of basic KiCad functions. I will seriously consider using KiCad for new designs in the future. I think the increased effort will be worthwhile to enable us to be using a fully open-source bit of design software to design open-hardware, what do you think?

Thinks I liked about KiCad:
  • Interactive router, very impressed with this. Big time saver
  • More intuitive setup of default track widths and net classes 
  • How net and pin names are displayed in the layout editor 
  • How schematic symbols and PCB footprints are handled as separate entities, more intuitive than Eagle IMHO  
Thinks I miss moving from Eagle:
  • Have a live link between schematic and PCB, KiCad requires exporting and re-importing a new netlist each time there is a change in schematic
  • There are more ready made parts in Eagle libraries then there are KiCad part libraries, but I'm sure this will change. 
  • Being able to highlight all tracks on a particular net by selecting a wire on the schematic (maybe I've just not found this feature yet in KiCad?)
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