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How I made a cheap PCB

March 29th, 2016

Even though I have a degree in electrical engineering, and even though I’m comfortable reviewing schematics, I haven’t done much circuit design in the decade that I’ve been out of school. The record was even worse when it came to printed circuit board design: I’d laid out only a single board, a single time, way back in 2003. I decided to change that.

Opportunity showed its charming face while I was working on a technical talk. I found myself in need of a high-bandwidth, high-gain, high-dynamic-range microammeter to do a specific type of analysis on certain devices. My usual go-to microammeter, a µCurrent Gold, was sufficient for preliminary work but fell short in the bandwidth and dynamic-range departments. Thus, I decided to design one myself.

The printed circuit board (PCB) design and manufacturing process turned out to be far easier and cheaper than I had feared. It took me about a day to learn how to use Eagle, which is the de facto PCB CAD program, another day to flesh out the circuit design and the board layout, and about four weeks of waiting for the boards to be made in China and shipped to me. The cost for printing 10 boards, including shipping? Just $14.  Total cost for each board, including components, was about $6.

My circuit board

The circuit board I designed. “Stuffed” on the left, “unstuffed” on the right.

I half expected to get non-functional boards, or drill hits that were way off, or nothing at all, but instead, I got nice-looking boards with excellent registration and no electrical problems. For comparison, I could have had the same boards made at a plant about five miles from me, but the bare boards would have been at least $33 each, and the quality would have been no better.

The key was going through DirtyPCBs.com. They have some sort of deal with inexpensive Chinese board houses. As long as the board design is small (mine was 5cm x 5cm) and simple (2 layers), and you’re fine with receiving “about” 10 boards very slowly (1-8 weeks quoted; mine took 4 weeks), then I think they can’t be beat.

My layout job looks a bit amateur, and I made the anachronistic choice of going with several through-hole components instead of being 100% surface-mount, but the actual circuit works great. If my talk gets accepted, I’ll probably do another board spin to make it look nicer, but electrically nothing will need to change.

Cheap labor and heavily subsidized postage are an incredible combination.

  1. Tejash
    March 31st, 2016 at 08:16 | #1

    I’m a web developer, yet decided to read up this link to your web page. It’s cool that you got the boards cheaper in the ‘globalization’ era !!

  2. Anonymous
    March 31st, 2016 at 09:05 | #2

    Let’s hope that mean wages across the world normalise.

  3. Bob
    March 31st, 2016 at 09:11 | #3

    There’s a price comparison site for printed circuit boards, http://PCBShopper.com. You enter your board’s specs and it shows you prices and delivery times from over 2 dozen manufacturers in Asia, North America and Europe. Dirty PCBs is one of the companies it includes.

    It also maintains a list of free (as in zero dollars) PCB CAD programs at http://PCBShopper.com/cad. Some of these are crippled versions of commercial software. In those cases, it tells you what limitations have been imposed, so that you can decide what you’re willing to accept.

    You’re right that Eagle Lite is the most popular free CAD software. But it limits the size of the board. I frequently need to make bigger boards, so that’s no good for me. I’ve had luck with KiCad, but my current favorite is DipTrace.

  4. Anonymous
    March 31st, 2016 at 09:22 | #4

    Can you confirm if your pricing includes assembly or just PCB manufacturing??

  5. Anon
    March 31st, 2016 at 10:58 | #5

    ‘and about four weeks of waiting for the boards to be made in China and shipped to me’

    That ISN’T making your own!! lol

  6. keacher
    March 31st, 2016 at 12:17 | #6

    Assembly wasn’t included. I ordered just the bare boards and then populated them on my lab bench.

  7. Anonymous
    March 31st, 2016 at 12:53 | #7

    Not bad. You should add a fuse to ground and bring your connectors in board!

  8. Anonymous
    April 1st, 2016 at 20:16 | #8

    Just curious, have you checked out PCB:NG? For 6 double-sided boards and full assembly, the board comes out to a few dollars (cost of parts is not included). I’ve been debating whether to go your route or to buy from these guys.

    Reference: http://blog.pcb.ng/now-with-less-volume/

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