What is a Netlist? What is the Role of Netlist in PCB Design and Testing

What is a Netlist in electronics design? A PCB features numerous parts whose interrelationship is critical to the functioning of the electronic components/device. 

In addition to the electrical connections, PCB design engineers understand the essence of having a descriptive model of the various parts. 

So why is this important, and what languages do circuit board makers use to describe Netlists? Let us find out below in this detailed guide that will leave no stone unturned in this topic. 

What is a Netlist in PCB Design?

An electronics circuit operates by inputting different components as PCB designers set out.

But with a way to identify the interconnected components and their relationships, it becomes easier for fruitful PCB testing processes

So what is a Netlist, and how does it help the above cause?

It is a hardware description language whose cardinal role is to explain the relationship between electronic components that make up a circuit board.

A Netlist elaborates on how parts such as capacitors and transistors interact and highlights the specific properties of these components. 

From its name, Netlist represents the nodes or connections of these parts.

Its ingredients include the specific names of these parts, signal phrases, and their pin configurations. 

Types of Netlists

Real analog amplifier principal circuit schematic design. 

Real analog amplifier principal circuit schematic design. 

We have four main Netlists types, each playing an integral in the PCB schematic and operation. 

Physical Netlist

As its name suggests, this netlist model primarily elaborates on the circuit’s physical design. It showcases the actual location of the various PCB parts while also expounding on the routing details of the circuit. 

Further, a physical netlist also highlights the parts’ connectivity data, making it cardinal to verifications processes after manufacturing. 

SPICE Netlist

Also a primary Netlist class, this type is specific to the Simulation Program with Integrated Circuit Emphasis (SPICE) open-source analog electronic circuit simulator. 

It means that, unlike the physical Netlist, the SPICE Netlist class applies this simulator’s syntax in its description of the PCB parts network. Also, all the component values in SPICE Netlist are under the SPICE format. 

Instance-Based Netlists

We have the following main types of instance-based netlists: 

  • Hierarchical Netlist- The connections of parts are in the form of groupings whereby each group can feature file formats of folded and unfolded data. 
  • Flat Netlist- In this model, you can see all the connections at a glance 

What’s in a Schematic Netlist?

Electronic circuit schematic of a radio frequency amplifier. 

Electronic circuit schematic of a radio frequency amplifier. 

The circuit netlist, also a synonym of a schematic netlist, is exceptional because it is possible to create a net from a PCB schematic and vice versa. So what are some of the components you should expect from a schematic netlist? 

  • Reference designators
  • Pin Numbers
  • Netlabel

Also, it is possible to create a SPICE netlist from a Schematic Netlist for simulation applications. 

How the Netlist is Used Before Editing

Layout PCB with Gerber files of inner layers.

Layout PCB with Gerber files of inner layers.

Netlist is critical in the PCB Gerber program functioning in the circuit board assembly process. The PCB editor plays a critical process during assembly, but even before this process commences, the program will interpret the Netlist as it seeks to stratify the components in layers. 

These layers are imperative in comparing the data to a Gerber-derived reference netlist. With two Netlist files to compare, manufacturers can now identify if there are any flaws in the PCB file. 

Hence, Netlist is cardinal to the early identification of flaws in the design process before they get out of hand in the latter processes. 

Possible Causes of Discrepancies

Pink layout PCB with Gerber files of inner layers. 

Pink layout PCB with Gerber files of inner layers. 

Most PCB manufacturing processes are streamlined, but there is still room for error through the following two means. 

  • First, suppose there’s an inaccurate description of a PCB Gerber. In that case, there’s a likelihood for a discrepancy, which will fundamentally stem from a resolution issue of self-intersecting polygons in the structure. The solution to this challenge is to ensure you import maximum-resolution Gerber files. 
  • Also, common operator faults, such as an incorrect layer assignment, can significantly affect the importation of raw files. 

Notably, these two issues can be considerable challenges in PCB manufacturing, and one of the solutions to them is ensuring that you always apply positive polarity at all times.

Also, it’s imperative to always use a Netlist as the comparative aspect before editing helps to curtail the discrepancies. 

During Computer-Aided Manufacturing (CAM) Editing

Circuit Board Technology Tree Pattern Concept. 

Circuit Board Technology Tree Pattern Concept. 

Remember, we mentioned earlier that Netlists are essential before the editing process.

But they also remain relevant during the editing process, whereby they aid in identifying if there are issues such as electrical shorts. 

Such issues likely stem from the editing process and thus need to be identified early. Also, this phase involves generating valuable files in the next stage. 

Electrical Test Fixturing

Modern electric pcb factory assembly line. 

Modern electric pcb factory assembly line. 

How do you test for the various PCB parts to ensure they are in good condition and will perform without failure? There are many ways to approach this, primarily depending on what we are testing. 

For instance, it is possible to perform physical tests using polycarbonate test plates that connect to the different test points of the PCB.

But you must be careful when dealing with circuit midpoints as they usually provide false opens. 

Also, avoid testing internal components without conducting capacities, as they pose a similar challenge. Other major testing methods include the flying probe and the ‘clamshell’ method. 


PCB design and testing is necessary as it is a key determinant of the circuit board’s performance. It is usually done at the early stages of assembly and involves sophisticated tests such as netlists. 

Modern-day manufacturers reckon netlists as critical in enhancing the responsiveness of circuit boards in curtailing common functionality errors.

It is also a key hack for reputable manufacturers who understand the grievous harm that low-quality PCBs can cause to the company’s reputation.