PCB Manufacturing Review15 Nov 2016
Disclaimer: PCBWay gave me a $25 credit for this post. All thoughts and opinions are my own. They did not influence my opinions in any way.
Since getting into printed circuit boards (PCBs) about two years ago, I’ve had boards made at three different companies: OSHPark, Dirty PCBs, and PCBWay. I think all are very good options for beginners, so this blog post will be discussing the pros and cons of them. Hopefully it will aid budding hardware hackers in their quest to get boards made! It should be noted that all three of these services are considered “PCB prototype” services. Meaning, if you want to make 100,000 boards, you may be better off going somewhere else.
I’ll be honest up front: this is my least favorite of the 3. Before you go grabbing your pitchforks, please hear me out. OSHPark is a PCB fabrication house based in the US. All boards are shipped from their location in Oregon. What that means is shipping is pretty quick, and pretty cheap. They are known for their purple PCBs and super fast turnaround time. As far as I know, they pioneered the idea of panelizing many designs in an order to reduce costs. When boards are made, they are made on a standard size large board, then cut up. So your boards are made with many other designs, all on the same panel. The issue is that fab houses in China caught up very quickly and can now offer nearly identical service for less money. OSHPark boards also have little breakout edges, so the board has a little jagged area where it was initially connected to the panel. I personally find that undesirable, but really it’s doesn’t affect anything at the end of the day. They are probably the easiest way to get a PCB manufactured though, thanks to their handy uploader. Rather than going through the process of exporting “Gerbers” (files that contain the info about your PCBs) from your CAD software of choice, you can simply upload the file the CAD software uses, such as a .brd from eagle. Their software is pretty good at generating the gerbers for you, but I’ve run into issues with their silkscreen layers where things will be missing (like a resistor value). I’m sure if you follow their instructions when setting up your design it would work better though. I don’t personally care much for the purple soldermask they use, but again it’s not a huge deal. I do feel a purple PCB has a certain “noob” connotation to it though, and as I’ll explain they’re much more expensive than a traditional manufacturer, so if I’m buying a kit with an OSHPark board, I know I’m paying an artificial premium for the PCB just because the person making the kit couldn’t be bothered to use a real fab house. Your mileage may vary. Their website claims 12 days from when you place an order until the order is shipped, which is actually slower than the other 2 options I’ll talk about. Overall, you’re probably looking at about a two week turnaround time. In the age of Amazon Prime, that may as well be a millennium. They charge 5 per square inch for their “prototype” (12 day turnaround) service, but they give you 3 boards. Confused? Yeah, so am I. You have to order in quantities of 3 for the prototype service. So really it’s closer to $1.66 per square inch, but the boards must be ordered in quantities of 3. That’s actually pretty helpful if you’re just wanting to proof your design before having a large number of boards made, so you can fry a board or two and still be safe, but you don’t end up with 20 boards laying around that can’t be used because you had an error in your design. They do offer other services for larger quantities, but unless you have some ethical reason to only have your stuff made in the USA, it’s straight up not worth it. They only offer one finish: ENIG (immersion gold). That certainly nice to have, but generally it’s not worth the premium over the cheaper HASL (basically just lead solder).
I don’t want to digress too much, but as an explanation: PCBs have copper as the conductive traces. The issue is copper doesn’t do very well when exposed to the environment and will quickly oxidize and corrode, making soldering very difficult. To deal with that, they will put a “finish” on any exposed copper pads. Gold is great because it’s pretty strong and able to deal with the environment better. Lead solder is okay, but it’s relatively soft and will oxidize over time. Basically, my rule of thumb is if you’re going to have pads that will be exposed to the air, unsoldered, you need a gold finish. Otherwise, HASL is fine. Again, I’m talking about the low quantity hobbiest sector, if you’re wanting to make 10,000 smart phones, none of this is applicable to you.
Back to OSHPark. They only do ENIG finishes. That great, I just prefer to not pay the premium for something I just want to verify works.
They are also non-flexible on their board thickness. They offer 1.6mm boards standard. For me, that’s just a little too thick. I prefer 1.2mm boards. Again, not a huge deal, but just preference. If your application actually requires a specific board thickness, you’re out of luck with OSHPark. They do offer a 0.8mm board as well. For me that’s just a little too thin.
I use OSHPark if I have a very small board (under 3 square inches) and I just want to make sure it works. And I don’t have any other boards I need to order at the time (I’ll get into that later). From personal experience, I do believe OSHPark has shipped me PCBs with errors. That could have been my fault, or I could have had faulty components, it’s really hard to say. I just know that I have had a board made at OSHPark that had an issue, and then I ordered the exact same board from another fab house and it worked fine. It’s hard to pin down, but my gut tells me they messed something up. Take that with a grain of salt.
Dirty PCBs is a kind of a spin off service from Dangerous Prototypes, which is kind of a thing started by Where Labs, which was started by Ian Lesnet. Basically it’s a bunch of hardware hackers that bootstrapped their own fab service by hitting the ground in China and making a deal with a fab house. So they don’t actually own the fab house, they just have a business relationship with them. They are generally pretty flippant, which I kind of enjoy. Basically they built the service for themselves and decided to just open it up to the public, so any extra hassles they have to deal with is just not worth their time. A big pro is they also allow you to upload a .brd file, so no exporting gerbers. You get ±10 boards up to 5 square centimeters for $14 including shipping. Pretty sweet deal! If you ordered a 5x5cm board from OSHPark, it would cost you 10 plus shipping and you’d only get three. You can also do 10x10 boards for 25. You may be wondering what’s going on with the ± symbol! It’s kind of interesting. They, like OSHPark panelize your boards (though they don’t have the annoying little tab things on them). They just fill the whole panel up, so if there’s extra room, they’ll throw an extra board on for you, or if there’s not enough room they’ll only give you 8 or 9. In my experience, I’ve always gotten 10 or more, the most I ever got was 13. They’re nice because they have all the flexibility of a real fab house. Need more than 10 boards? They can do that. You can choose your soldermask color (no purple though), finish (ENIG or HASL, HASL is the default), and thickness from 0.6mm to 2.0mm (though 2.0mm will cost you extra). Overall, they’re kind of the best of both worlds: super easy to use, and still really cheap. The only downside is kind of big though: shipping. The free shipping takes about 3 weeks, because it comes on the slow boat from China. Their production time is well under a week. So in total I’d expect about 4 weeks. You can opt for faster shipping, but it will about double the price. That may still be worth it though when compared to OSHPark. You’d just have to play with it depending on your situation. I’ve ordered from them about 10 times and have never had any major issues. One time the silkscreen was messed up, but it wasn’t a huge deal. They’re basically just cheap dirty PCBs and you get what you pay for! A word of warning: once you place your order, it’s very hard to cancel it. I have placed an order, then found something wrong, and couldn’t cancel it because the boards were already at the fab house (double edged sword of being so fast). So a month later I get a package of useless PCBs! My rule of thumb is that if time is no constraint and you do need more than 3 boards, Dirty PCBs is worth the gamble. If your boards end up having issues, the only thing lost is time. If you’re careful and they do work, then great you just got way more boards for less money.
PCBWay is the last fab house I’ll talk about, and it’s also my favorite. They are based in China, and they are the fab house (unlike Dirty PCBs). They are really great for any orders above 10 boards. I usually order anywhere from 50 to 100 boards at a time from them. They’re just a bit harder to use, but not much. They’re a full on fab house, so they have all the options you could ever want. They do anything from 1 layer boards to 14(!) layer boards. Thicknesses range from 0.4 to 2.4mm, though the ones at the extremes will cost you more. Finishes range from HASL, HASL lead-free, to ENIG and even hard gold. To order, just go to the PCB instant quote page on their site. Fill in the size, the quantity, and select the options you want. If you’re unsure, just leave the defaults with what they are. They do default to 1.6mm thickness, so I usually like to bring that down to 1.2mm. They have kind of the same deal as Dirty PCBs 10x10cm for $10. They do charge for shipping though, and they prefer to use DHL which will cost you about 20 bucks. Here’s where it gets crazy though: thanks to their DHL shipping and their crazy fast turnaround time, I can go from placing an order to having boards at my door in under a week. That just blows my mind. If you only want 10 boards though, the shipping cost probably isn’t worth it and you’re better off with Dirty PCBs. What I try to do is group my orders together, so instead of ordering only 10 boards, I’ll wait till I need 50 boards of another project, then order 10 of a new design so I can test it out while still saving on shipping. The downside is that you have to upload your gerbers. Once I figured out how to do that though, it’s not a big deal. I’ll upload my Eagle CAM file so you can generate your own gerbers easily, since I screwed that up my first time. I didn’t properly include the silkscreen layers so I was missing a bunch of text! Oh well, live and learn. Once you place your order and upload your gerbers, they have to review and approve your order. They just look at the gerbers to see if they can actually manufacture it, I’ve only ever had an issue one time and that was my fault. Since China is on the other side of the world, they do it while I’m asleep which works great. I place my order, then that night they approve it, so the by the next day they’ll be making your PCBs! Their customer service is pretty good as well, though they are Chinese so there is a language barrier. It’s always been fine for me though. They can also do assembly, which is a great option. I’ve had it priced out, and it seemed kind of steep for only a few hundred boards, but if you just got your kickstarter funded and need 5,000 units, they could probably do a bang-up job for you! So generally, my rule of thumb is that if you know your design works, and need more than 10 boards, PCBWay is an absolutely fantastic way to go. I couldn’t be more pleased with their service. Like I said, boards at my doorstep in under a week is straight up black magic. It makes me giddy just thinking about it! A service like theirs has really enabled the tiny makers like me to sell kits in a cost effective way. I literally would not be able to sell what I sell, for the prices I sell them at, without them.
As a final disclaimer, they do offer incentive for you to make social media posts about their service by giving you credit. I’m not sure if I’ll even get anything for this post, but I will submit it to them. All these thoughts are my own, and I’ve presented my honest opinion and experience with the three companies.
If you have any questions, or would like to learn more, leave a comment or email me! I’m always willing to help people out. Even if most of this post went over your head, but you’re interested in the subject, I could write more posts answering questions you may have!