Saturday, May 16, 2020

Review: PCB Fab House PCBWay

Introduction

A while back I got an offer from PCBWay to test their PB prototyping services. As I was at the time designing a couple of new circuits I accepted their offer and below I will give a description of the process and my impressions.


I like blue silk screens..

This tiny board is white to maximize light reflection. See the previous article for details.

For the test run I used two designs, one that was featured in my last article, and one that is coming up soon.

Disclaimer: I have received these PCBs from PCBWay for review.

Preparation

I prepared my PCBs the usual way. I usually use Eagle for designing my circuits and PCBs (an ancient version, when it was not acquired by Autodesk), so I asked PCBWay for a design rule for it. Unfortunately, they couldn't give me one, but I was assured their technical team would review my design for problems before starting the manufacturing process.

I still wanted to make sure the design I submit is as best as possible, so I used the board design rules I usually use with DirtyPCBs.

Normally, I send gerber files to the fab house and this time was no different. Again, I used the usual CAM file to generate the gerber files in Eagle. Finally, I checked if the gerber files were OK with the awesome gerber file viewer, gerbv, which has saved me hundreds of euros in ordering faulty PCBs over the years.

Ordering

The ordering process is something like this:
First, you upload your gerber files in a ZIP file. Based on the greber files and other options you select the form displays the cost. Any time you make a change, the cost is recalculated, so no surprises at the end. The whole process is straightforward.

One thing to note is that once you upload your design, an automated rendition of your design is displayed for your reference. However, this is not always accurate, and, apparently, even if it doesn't show up correctly it is still OK. When asked about it, I was assured that it is OK, and if there is any problem with the design, their technicians will contact me immediately.

Another detail I was not entirely happy with is that the system is very strict about the size limits: Their PCB prototyping service offers 10 double sided PCBs for 5USD up to 100*100mm. This is a great value. However, most of my designs (well, so far all of them) are using imperial units (for historic reasons), so for example, one of my panels I submitted is 2"*4". This means about 50.8*101.6mm, and the automation puts it immediately to the next price range, which is an extra 19USD. Technically, they are right (the PCB is bigger than the specified size limit), but I think it is not user friendly. Finally, I ended up changing my design to fit the metric system :)

Shipping

There are a number of shipping methods available at the time of ordering. The options vary from country to country. In the list of shipping methods we find the usual players: Faster but more expensive courier companies and the traditional postal services, which are much more economical, but of course, much slower. Good thing is there are options to choose from:



Unfortunately, as you can see, not all countries have all the options, for example, at the time of writing this article, Greece only has the fast and expensive options. This is probably because of the current situation with COVID-19 and once the Greek postal service resumed, a more economic way of shipping to Greece will be offered.

Progress

The best (most fun) part of the whole process starts when you click the submit button. As your design goes through each phase of manufacturing, you can follow it! I haven't seen such a detailed order tracking system before:

Overview of my order
This shows the individual designs going through the manufacturing plant. BUT: if you click on Production tracking you get a much more detailed view:

The design goes through many steps.

But wait, there's more! If you click View details you can see further details on the specific step, including videos. This must be interesting even for the layman! I have seen such a plant from the inside many years ago - it is amazing, how much technology has evolved since.

The whole manufacturing took about 24 hours - one of the designs took a bit more, the other a bit less. Essentially, I placed the order one afternoon and a day later it was already in the post.

Results

The PCBs arrived as a small parcel, within a small box just enough space for the two sets of 10 small PCBs each with the company's name on it.

The cardboard box provided an extra layer of protection for the PCBs.
Inside the box the two batches were packed separately in plastic bags as well as in bubble wraps.

The PCBs were packed with enough padding for the trip from China to Europe.
The PCBs were correctly made. I have not found a single defect so far in them. All holes are in the center of their pads, no misalignment anywhere:

The two batches of PCBs for this test run.

I did some random electrical checks as well for shorts and couldn't find anything wrong.

Finally, I assembled the first circuit, and it worked, so the PCBs are a pass for me.


Summary

Overall, I was very happy with the experience. I want to take the opportunity to say a huge thank you to Gloria of PCBWay, who helped me get to know their services and particularities better.

I can only recommend PCBWay to anyone who want good quality PCBs at very reasonable prices.

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