For hobbyist or electrical engineers who are just getting their feet wet when it comes to PCB designing and getting their layout manufactured by a professional board shop, the process can be quite overwhelming. There are various options when it comes to fabricating your new board layout, so it is good to know them before making decision. I will do my best to describe the ideal process for a smooth and successful prototype run.
One thing that I hate more than anything is getting a batch of boards that doesn’t work. Not only is a waste of my money, but it also slows down my product’s time to market. This is frustrating to my stakeholders and it really pisses me off since I am a self-proclaimed perfectionist. However, not every rev will be successful. Sometimes, it will be because of the PCB house and how they fabricated the board poorly, or it will be because of your sloppy design.
One way to make sure that your design is going to be successful is to run it through a free DFM checker, the board shops DFM checker, or just double check your design to the PCB manufacturers’. You can use the one in your PCB Design layout software, or look online for a free one. DFM Now is a quality DFM checker that is pretty popular among my fellow professional PCB designers. Once you have check for errors, it is time to choose a PCB house with which you are interested in doing business with. There are hundreds of PCB shops in the USA and I highly suggest choosing an actual manufacture and not a broker, unless you are interested in paying extra for your boards (probably not).
I have used quite a few places for my PCB fabrication, including Custom Circuit Boards (my favorite as of now), SFCircuits, FlexPCB, Sunstone, and the list goes on. CCB offers a secure page (which I like) to submit your Gerber files, quantity, and other specs. Ok, well, let’s back up. Before you submit your information to any company, it is best to determine if you would like them to sign a non-disclosure and non-compete form. Now, the probability of an USA PCB manufacturing company stealing your idea is slim to none, but in some cases, it is better safe than sorry. Even if you have a Chinese PCB supplier sign and NDA and non-compete… good luck enforcing it. In all of my experiences, I haven’t had any problem getting companies to sign the requested forms, but it does slow down the process. Ok, so, before you send them the forms, it is important to make sure that the company is legit and reputable. Take a look at any review sites that are available to see if there are any complaints (no one is perfect). I haven’t yet found a good PCB review site where all of the major companies are listed, but I have come across a few forums that suggest various sites (where I found Custom Circuit Boards and others).
Another practice I always like to do is send an email or give the PCB company a call to see if the person on the other end actually knows what the hell they are talking about. Some companies have POS sales people who couldn’t help me with the questions I had, so I quickly moved on. You can tell if the person has a clue or not. Now, not to knock sales people, because they are needed, it is always nice to get some of your technical questions answered. As long as the sales person can get back to me with my answers or direct me to the right person quickly, I am a happy camper.
Lastly, for the first orders, I would recommend working with PCB manufacturer directly instead of using their online quoting systems. I find that you can get a better deal when you actually discuss the project with the sales person. For example, they might give you a recommendation for reducing the costs. Sometimes, they might even give you a discount if you are a non-profit or student.
So, we have covered a few things here in order for you to get started on how to order printed circuit boards online from a reliable PCB manufacturer, and I hope that this post helped for your future PCB prototype purchases.