KiCad challenges the big ones

Printed Circuit Boards (PCB) are the heart of any electronic device, including your toaster and your smartphone. Designing PCBs is the job of electronic engineers who, so far, have often had no option but to use proprietary tools to design complex circuits. Thanks to the efforts that CERN experts have put in to improve the free KiCad software, that situation is about to change.


KiCad's development started in 1992 as a way to design PCBs, the units that control how an electronic device works. Since 2013, experts in the Beams department have made important contributions to KiCad as part of the Open Hardware Initiative (OHI), which provides a framework to facilitate knowledge exchange across the electronic design community. “Our vision is to allow the hardware developers to share as easily as their software colleagues,” says Javier Serrano, head of the BE-CO-HT section and OHI initiator. “Software sources are easily shared online because they are text files and everyone has access to editors and compilers that turn the sources into a program. On the other hand, in the case of hardware design, most of the time this is done using proprietary tools. Therefore, in order for people to modify the sources, they need to use those proprietary tools.”

When the CERN KiCAD project started at CERN, a lot of free tools were already available to hardware designers but none was easy enough to use when designing a complex circuit. Among them, KiCad showed the best potential. “We started by cleaning the basic code and introducing a new graphical engine,” explains Tomasz Wlostowski, a member of the BE-CO-HT section who, among other things, is in charge of supervising the development of new features for KiCad. “With our contribution, we aim to develop KiCad up to a point where it becomes the de facto standard for sharing, and more and more users, including corporate ones, start working with it.”

Next week, the team is going to release two new features that many in the free/Open Source EDA community have been asking for: differential pair routing and trace length matching. “Thanks to the new differential pair routing, you can more easily design PCBs that support fast signals over a long distance and with less noise. This is particularly important for devices that deal with great amounts of data,” explains Tomasz. “The second tool – length matching – automatically ensures that two signals take exactly the same time to cross the PCB.  When the feature is selected, the tool automatically adds meanders to adjust the delay. This is very useful when timing and synchronisation become important parameters to take into account.”

The recent developments are giving KiCad a considerable boost. “KiCad is also becoming interesting for specialised companies, which can use it to develop new electronic components. They could also be potential donors for the project,” says Javier. Indeed, the Raspberry Pi Foundation and Arduino have already donated to the CERN KiCad initiative through the “Giving to CERN” portal. But the dream of Javier and his colleagues is to develop KiCad so well that CERN's electronic design office starts using it to draw their circuit boards!

by Antonella Del Rosso