fq1pcbfab2b- Having a board made...

This is the "fulsome" answer to the question "How do I get someone to make my PCB for me?" There's also a more concise answer, and a list of websites of companies willing to take on PCB creation.

Having a board made…

Choosing someone to do it for you.

Large parts of this arise from posts in a discussion at http://groups.yahoo.com/group/kicad-users/ in November 2011. I am not crediting each contributor by name. I am hoping that they made their contributions in hopes of helping their fellow hobbyists. Their fellow hobbyists will only be helped if they come across the ideas originally so generously shared at the mailing list, which not everyone reads!

Considerations. I will address each of the following in turn….

  • Where are you? Where are they?
  • How do you tell them what you want?
  • Are you in a hurry?
  • Simple of fancy?
  • How many?
  • Are you feeling lucky?
  • Do you know what you are doing?
  • Putting it all together

  • Where are you? Where are they?

Postage can be a killer. Customs can hurt, too. Goods coming into the UK by mail often come through with no hassle. But, seemingly at random, the odd parcel gets intercepted. In November 2011, you were told to go to a website, but if you left the "www" off, you were taken to a similar, but wrong "Royal Mail" website, which was down, but due back "very soon"… but not back five hours later. And the fee just for handling the intercept was GBP 8. And then almost another GBP on top of that for $60 worth of kits. All this in addition to the delay of the goods and hassle to pay.

Everyone has their view on taking business to the world's most vibrant economy. Personally, I have had good experiences. I don't think many American or British companies are staffed by people who are working hard enough, in a very different second language to generate any orders. I prefer to reward hard work and dedication to customer satisfaction, even if it sometimes creates a need for a little patience and care to be clear. Dealing with a UK or US firm doesn't guarantee that you will deal with someone literate in their native language, anyway.

  • How do you tell them what you want?

You send them Gerber files, if it is a fab house I would even consider. A few houses will "give" you PCB CAD software… which will tie you to that fab house.

Gerber files are the "industry standard". If you like competition, you will support the fab houses which suppport Gerber files, instead of locking their customers in with "free" software.

  • Are you in a hurry?

The distance something must travel is a minor factor. A huge factor is what you want. If you want your board made Right Now, be prepared to pay extra. Not only to jump the queue, but also because you are denying the fab house the chance to keep costs down.

If you will just show some patience, your little board will be etched at the same time as other customers' boards. They will all start life on one big board, which is then cut up, and the bits sent their separate ways. But of course, it takes time for the fab house to gather in a number of orders which "play nicely" together to fill one of their standard sized boards.

  • Simple of fancy?

What substrate do you want? Ordinary? Exotic?
Single sided? Double? Multi-layer?
JUST some tracks etched? Or board etched and drilled?
Solder mask?
Silkscreen, component print? One side or two?
Through plated holes?
Surface treatment of pads… none? silver? gold?
Solder paste stencil?

  • How many?

Hark back to the "Are you in a hurry" section. Some… not all… fab houses will let you put several different boards in one. You can then cut them up yourself when "the board" you ordered arrives. Or the fab house will let you put several designs in one order, and cut them up for you.

Of course, if you order 100 copies of a single board most… not all, surprizingly!… will give you a better price than they will give you for one copy of the board.

A number of fab houses will give you extra copies of your board, if you are lucky. Again, this is down to the "batching" of jobs. If they have some "waste" space on the board the PCBs are coming out of, they sometimes fill it with "bonus" copies of your board.

  • Are you feeling lucky?

There's the possibility of "bonus" boards, just mentioned. And then there's the question of how reliable a given service is. And how good are they about re-doing boards which they have messed up, if that unhappy outcome arises? If, however, you put a track in the wrong place, don't be surprized if your board maker doesn't offer to do a replacement batch at a reduced price. If he does, please let me know, so I can take my business somewhere else.

If you don't need it to be right first time, you may find a less popular, and perhaps less careful, fab house more "hungry" for your business than on which is well known, has production lines running at capacity, and which hires and trains employees who make fewer mistakes than the folks at the less well known fab house.

  • Do you know what you are doing?

How much hand holding will you need? How well attuned to the needs of the amateur is the fab house you are considering? Do they have good online guides to how to submit your work? Do they have forums where customers are able to share triumphs and tribulations, and where you can learn how to get it right the easy way… from studying other peoples' experiences. You know what they say: "Wisdom comes from experience. And experience is what you get until you have wisdom."

Some houses will run checks on your design. Many won't. What sort of checks? They might, for instance, look at the width of tracks and separation between tracks on your board. If you've designed a board with tiny tracks, very close together, their manufacturing process may not produce a good result. Expect to pay for checking. Duh. Or accept responsibility for your design, and save money, maybe. A good house will give you clear guidance on the various design rules that a board you want made by them should meet. (Minimum track width, etc.)

  • Putting it all together

It seems facile to say "you pays your money, you takes your choice", however I will say it, because the industry is not consolidated. If you dig around, you will find many, many people offering something.

When you go to buy a car, you of course find the optimal blend of price, looks, performance. But you don't, really, have a very wide choice. At least not as wide as your choice if you are shopping for someone to make a PCB for you.

Not every fab house wants every customer. You're going to have to read their websites carefully to find the "right" one for what /you want.

Remember that with so many options it is possible to go astray on a simple misunderstanding, even before you add the possibility of sharp practice. For example, if the fab house says "We do solder mask", do they mean on both sides for a double sided board, or only on one side?

All of the above is what the hobbyist needs to consider. If you are more than a hobbyist, you probably don't need my help, but readers might be interested to know what "the big kids" face…

They not only need all of the above, but they also need consistency between batches, is the PCB material the same, is it to the required spec., etc. Is the etching good. They may need electrical testing of each board. Delivery times may be important.

There's an interesting page….


…. which lets you compare the cost of having a board done by a
variety of fab houses. Do check the CURRENT pricing for work from a
given house after getting an idea from the AdaFruit page. By the way, I believe anyone can add their company to the LadyAda page. Being there does not indicate that they are "LadyAda approved".

Things which can go wrong…

Layers may be misaligned. Boards may be under etched, over etched. The substrate may not be sound. The board may be warped, tracks may be broken. The silk screen may be mirrored; the solder mask may be the wrong color.

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