fq1pcbfab2- Who makes your PCB for you?

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KiCad is an excellent tool for designing a PCB.

However, at the end of the day you probably want an actual, physical, board!

You can make your own boards. Alternatively, you send certain files created by KiCad to a commercial service, and they make your boards for you.

At Feb 2015, it had been years since I used a commercial service. BatchPCB.com was the one I would have used. I am a "small time" hobbyist, and BatchPCB seemed willing to serve that community. And they had an association with SparkFun, a firm which has my confidence.

BatchPCB is no more. However, I am in the early stages of being a customer of OSH Park, and so far they are everything I want in a PCB manufacturer. I use KiCad to design my board, and then send files over the internet, and eventually finished (but unpopulated, of course) PCBs arrive in the mail. I've done a "blow by blow" account of the process, in hopes of reassuring you that You Can Do It, or of helping you through doing your first order.

One of the delights of OSH Park's service is that if you want to allow others to order copies of your board, you can… but you don't have to, of course.

Downsides… probably not unique to OSH Park:

1) The simplest boards they do are double-sided, with silkscreen on both sides and through plating. This has to be more expensive than a very simple board with just tracks and tracks on just one side. Anyone know of a commercial service producting these?

2) You do, of course, have to wait. Not only for the turnaround, but also for your board to travel from them to you, but for OSH Park to accumulate enough orders to fill one of the big boards they pass through the process, and then chop up into everyone's individual orders. I've only placed one order so far, but I must say that on that limited experience, the waits are not at all bad.

Good news:

1) You can order really, really small boards… but try to be fair: They include p&p in their prices, and have no "small order surcharge". If you order a half-inch by half-inch board from them, I would assume that they lose money on the order.

2) They drill all your holes for you! It does mean that you need to decide the hole sizes while you are doing the designing, but that's worth it, surely? (Maybe novices should be careful to connect all pads to a track on the bottom side of the board, so that if it needs drilling to a larger size, the loss of the through plating isn't an issue. Since the connections from front to back at a via are done with the through plating, vias aren't the problem they are for people using more simple technologies or junper/link wires!

How to use a service

KiCad produces the industry standard "Gerber files". I'm afraid there's nothing on them in KiCadHowTo yet… but KiCad does have what is needed for sending work out to a commercial PCB fab lab. (Read the the Wikipedia Gerber files article for more information.)

You can use commercial services at various levels. Not every lab offers every option, of course.

They can have them just create the "negative" (it's actually a positive!) for you, if you are going to "print" your own boards "photographically". (Modern laser printers are so good that using one of them may be viable today… I don't know. And while the commercial labs are probably using a scanning laser beam today rather than the old "contact print method", I imagine you can still get "negatives" made! I wanted to open your mind to possibilities, not suggest that any particular one is "the answer".)

Commercial services will sometimes offer to "print" your board… or perhaps a single board carrying multiple designs, or copies of designs. You then have the further work of….

  • cutting the single board into the various things "printed" on it.
  • drilling the holes
  • "populating" the board: inserting devices, soldering them into place.

… and, of course, you can pay services to do any or all of those "further work" tasks.

So there's the spectrum! Do everything yourself, and save money, or go to the opposite extreme and let someone else do everything for you. The menu in between is extensive.

At http://PCBShopper.com, you will find a tool for finding the cheapest supplier for the sort of board you want made, and some other useful stuff… not least a list of other free PcbCAD tools.

The page you've been reading is my concise answer to "How do I get someone to make my PCB for me?" There's also a more extensive answer, and a list of websites of companies willing to take on PCB creation.

Enjoy!

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