The Maker revolution generally encourages adding to the repertoire of processes that can readily be done at home. Desktop soldering stations, multimeters, and power supplies have been available for decades; oscilloscopes have been getting more affordable recently, and the recent explosion of 3D printer technology has really made a lot of things possible.
The production of good quality circuit boards, however, is still a challenge. I can produce more-or-less-acceptable 2-layer boards on our LPKF PC board mill at work, but producing good circuit boards at home either requires a lot of patience and toxic chemicals or a circuit board mill costing probably into four figures. And even then, the boards produced lack through-hole via plating, solder mask, and silkscreen, and are generally cruder and less reliable than any industry standard. Some processes still require expensive equipment to do well.
Recently, however, a number of DIY-friendly, low-quantity solutions for getting PC boards made have become available. I recently placed an order for ten PC boards with JLCPCB.com. Here’s how that went, and why I now have another go-to vendor for my list of favorites.
The process starts by creating a set of Gerber files. This is usually done automatically by PC board CAM software like Eagle CAD. I’ve been using FreePCB for years to make our boards at work, so I decided to see how it did.
The test board (which needs several revisions, but that’s expected) is mostly a 24VAC-to-5VDC power supply for a Raspberry Pi and relay module, along with some extra connections to make hookup easier. I created the design in FreePCB, exported the Gerber files, and then uploaded the design to JLCPCB’s site. Design took a few hours; the upload and ordering process took maybe half an hour since I was unfamiliar with it. Now that I’m signed up and everything, future orders will probably take more like ten minutes.
…and that was it, really. I got a couple of emails later that day saying the boards had started production (even though it had to have been something like midnight in Shenzhen.)
Less than a week later, an express DHL shipment arrived. The boards look quite good, especially considering I paid $2.00US for the whole ten-pack. Shipping was just under $20, but that’s expected for essentially overnight shipping from China.
I populated and soldered the first one off the stack (I only really needed one, but it’s the same price for ten), and it works well so far. Custom good-quality PCBs for twenty cents each (plus shipping). I love living in the future.