I decided I was going to take the plunge and see what the fuss was all about and find a PCB manufacturer for hobbyists.This was my first time having a PCB manufactured by somebody else so I was quite excited and a little nervous to be honest. I obviously didn’t want to make any mistakes because of the financial cost and the embarrassment of feeling a bit out of my depth.
It’s been quite a while since I used DesignSpark and I’m well aware I only use it fairly basically and only for single sided boards that I layout myself so I was also a bit apprehensive about how amateurish my designs looked as well. Also I know most people use Eagle PCB to do board designs but I don’t want to learn to use another piece of software and DesignSpark supposedly outputs the required files ( I think or is that hope?) so what the hell I’m taking the plunge. I guess it’s really the only way to learn and I’m guessing that if you’re reading this you are probably in the same shoes as me.
So here’s exactly what I did step by step and here’s exactly what happened.
First I used DesignSpark to design my board and then made sure everything was correct in terms of what connections went where. You can read more about “How to design a PCB here”. Once I was sure it was ok I moved some of the component overlay screen printing as some components printing was clashing and some was upside down as I’d rotated the components. Once it was in a state to be manufactured. I selected “Output” on the top menu bar and selected the second option down “Manufacturing plots”. This brought up the following screen.
I made sure everything was ticked in the boxes down the left except “Bottom Silkscreen” and “Bottom documentation” as I know for my design there isn’t any. Everything else I left alone and “Gerber” was selected by default anyway. Then I clicked “Run” and DesignSpark created the following files.
I zipped the folder with all these files in it.
After looking at websites and forums I decided to try Seeedstudio. Your eyes don’t deceive you and it’s not a misprint, there are three e’s!
On the Seeedstudio website you need to select the Fusion PCB/PCBA service and you will be taken to the following screen.
At the top box I clicked and uploaded the zipped folder I had just created.
At the PCB dimension option I selected 10cm max * 10cm max. After I did this I noticed the price in the top corner change to $21.90. If you select other sizes you can see the price update.
I hindsight now knowing what I would have probably have tried to fit it on a smaller size as the price is cheaper. I realised obviously that a bigger board would cost more but I guess I took it for granted but I didn’t know before I started as I hadn’t finalised a manufacturer at that stage. However Seeedstudio prices are for 5cm by 5cm increments so it’s worth trying to squeeze things in a bit if you’re a few millimetres over.
At the Layer option I selected 1. Interestingly it’s the same price for 1 or 2 layers.
PCB thickness I left at 1.6mm
PCB quantity I set to 10. This seems to be the best price for board available for the size I selected.
I left PCB colour as “green”. Selecting other colours significantly increased the price.
Surface finish I left as “Hasl”. To be honest I don’t know what this is so the default setting seemed a good idea!
Copper weight I left as 1oz.
Panelized PCB’s I left set to 1.
I created an account with them a clicked to send my order. It was as simple as that. I was surprised at the cost as it seemed quite low compared to what people were talking about on the net and I wondered if id missed something. Setting up costs seemed to occur quite a lot but I figured if they got in touch and massively increased the price I could always decline.
After sending my order I waiting for what seemed like a life time. That was because I was like a kid at Christmas not because it took overly long.
So how long did they actually take? Well I ordered them on the 5th August and got an Email on the 10th August to say they had shipped my order and they were delivered on the 30th August. That’s quite a fast turnaround in my opinion and as you can see most of the time was actually taken by the shipping. You can order them to be shipped by a carrier but that does cost more and I was more interested in keeping the cost down. Apparently if your order is more than £50 the shipping is free.
The cost was $21. 90 plus $7.03 postage which came to $28.93 USD. Obviously the price you pay will vary due to the exchange rate. At the time I ordered the rate was 1 British pound = 1.2736 US dollars which worked out to be £22.72 so that’s only £2.27 per board total cost and I paid using PayPal, which I consider the best and safest option.
I was again like the kid on Christmas morning when I came to unwrap the package that arrived. Would they be ok? I remember reading that someone had got some boards delivered from a company and they weren’t drilled. Had I sent all the correct files? I was also worried that I’d done them the correct way round as you are probably aware it’s not impossible to make a mirror image where everything is the wrong way round. Even if they weren’t drilled I could do that myself. I was hoping that whatever the outcome I hoped to salvage something as the worst possible outcome.
Well I needn’t have worried they were drilled and the correct way round so the IC pins were top left and not top right!
To say I was impressed was an understatement. They looked like the PCB’s you get when you buy an electronics kit. As you can see from the pictures below.
Showing the track side, notice the green solder resist mask.
The component side with white screen component overlay.
They were all cut perfectly to size, all perfectly etched and drilled, tinned with a green solder resist mask on the bottom and a white component overlay on the top. I really couldn’t have hoped for anything better.
There was part of the design where the track went through a capacitors legs and things were very close, but upon examination and using a test meter everything was fine.
There are definite advantages of having your board manufactured.In order of importance for me they are.
They are of a much higher quality than I could make.
They have a solder mask and a screen component overlay and they are tinned.
They are perfectly drilled, even different size holes if that’s what the components in the layout specify.
You can have double sided boards that cost the same as a single one. My mind is still set to work only on single sided boards as that’s how I was taught. The manufacturing yourself of double sided boards was complex lining the two sides up and the basic double sided copper clad board was more expensive. Having them manufactured with Seeedstudio you basically get an extra layer for free. This now means in the future I may as well use DesignSpark to make double sided boards so I won’t need wire links and should also be able to make layouts more compact. Looking at the quality that can be produced I’ll probably look into using surface mount components as an experiment.
The cost is probably cheaper than you could make them for yourself. In terms of material like bare copper clad board and when you factor in chemicals like etchant and drill bits. If you factor in your own time as well it’s a no brainer for me.
I was very impressed with the service of Seeedstudio. The quality of the boards they produced and the price I paid was fantastic. If you remember they worked out to be £2.27 per board. Like most of the overseas manufacturers they don’t do 1 off boards but at that price for 5 or 10 it’s almost like having extra boards for free.
I now wouldn’t hesitate to have more boards made by Seeedstudio and I have in fact almost finished my next board which I’ve managed to squeeze onto a 5cm by 10cm board so that works out to be even cheaper.
All my fears and worries have been put to rest and it was certainly a very interesting and successful venture. I have no reason to even look any further. I can't image anyone being able to make boards that would be significantly cheaper and certainly not of this quality. From this experience I would have to say that if you are looking for a PCB manufacturer for hobbyists you don't need to look much further. A big thumbs up from me for Seeedstudio.