I would like to encourage every single electronics home-grown fan to turn their projects into more real prototypes. This way one would be getting closer and closer to manufacture their final brilliant product.
The thing is, each one of us, the makers, knows that creating a high quality PCB is either time consuming or really expensive. At worst both of mentioned above.
Today, I will try to give you a simple hack on how to make the prototyping process quick and more affordable with the help of JLCPCB.
Step 1: Step 1: First, Let's Create Appropriate .gerber Files
Take a look at the
photos above and you can see my personal project I started from a real scratch. This particular one is a MicroSumo robot schematic (more about this topic you will be able to find in my another instructable). It is just a PCB project here, I am bypassing the whole procedure of creating a schematic diagram or electronic components selection, as today's lesson does not refer to that. You may have remarked already, I am using KiCad as the program to conduct the whole procedure, from the scratch up till producing the files to produce the real PCB.
It is also worth noticing, what are the tracks and vias sizes I chose. Particularly, he smallest drill hole on the plate will be 0.6mm which is in many cases impossible to create. I am not telling only about producing such PCB myself, but I do also have an experience after contacting some manufacturers. I is however crucial to use such small dimensions, as it is going to be a contest robot, that has to fit inside restricted sizes. The tracks are also really thin. I gave myself a try of creating the board in my workshop, but it turned out terribly - the area around the MCU is just too precise and the tracks just faded out during the process.
And so I had to decide to make a quick research and find a manufacturer able to do the job for me, basically.
Not so quickly however! First you have to prepare your prototype circuit board. Every professional company will like you to provide them with .gerber files in order to be able to begin the production process.
If you are using KiCad also, just click "Plot" button on the upper bar. You need to select Gerber as Plot format, and you can select all the layers you want to be plotted. I am really minimalistic here and chose only copper layers (front and back). I do have also Silk layers ticked but as you can see on the right side of the screen, I do not wanted to print any footprint values or references. It is just what I do not like on the PCB but I highly recommend everyone to tick that option, especially f you are not sure where every single component goes or if you are not working alone - it will be highly helpful. Remember to set the auxiliary axis on the schematic and use it in plot procedure. All the other options I have just left as default and I do recommend you also not to bother about them just now. Remember you can always take a look at your finish .gerber files afterwards in any gerber viewer program. Just click "Plot" button at the bottom and all the needed files will appear in the chosen directory.
The last thing to do here is to Generate Drill File. Three crucial steps here: be sure to have chosen gerber format again, use auxiliary axis and merge PTH and NPTH holes. The last thing is taken differently by different programmes, but using the way I am showing you here, I have noticed it can happen that not all the holes will get drilled if you do not merge them. It is just to be sure everything will turn out to be nice and precise. At the end you need to click Drill File and Map File buttons on the right side.
Step 2: Step2: Ordering the PCBs
Nowadays you can choose from plenty of manufacturers available on the market. I was really surprised how difficult it is too find the cheapest yet really high quality company.
Here, with a clear conscience, I can recommend JLCPCB. As you can see, they offer different types of services. Not only they make standard 2 layers boards, but also you can order up to 6 layers PCBs, SMT-Stencils and you can easily find some guides on how to create gerber files using different computer programmes (in the case my instruction is not enough). The thing you are probably mostly interested in is displayed on the main banner. It is enough for you to find 2 spare dollars and you get yourself 10 copies of your circuit board.
Just click "QUOTE NOW" button and give the production a spin!
I was even more curious when I saw different thickness to choose from, different solder mask color (here however only the green one is so cheap, 11$ for yellow one). The company also provide your PCBs already covered with lead. Bear in mind that some parameters will have to stay as default if you want to have it for initial cost of 2$. Don't worry though, the price updates automatically after every change so they will not charge you with the payment you would not like to accept.
On the top of the site I uploaded my .gerber files in an .rar archive. It does immediately display the look of the finished PCBs. It takes 2 working days to produce and test the PCBs + another 2 days for DHL to deliver the package. I alse got a 20$ discount on the shipping so it turned out to be almost free! To sum up, I got the product within one week (ordered on Sunday, opened the box on Thursday) and everything for less than 3$.
As you can see, I actually uploaded the file with 3 PCBs on one sheet and so I expected to get rectangle and will have to cut the 3 boards out separately all by myself. That would not be a big deal for me, I must admit, but JLC surprised me again...
Step 3: Step3: Made a Schematic, Ordered PCBs for the Price of Nothing, But... Does It Even Work?
Basically, after opening the box I was looking at 30 separate PCBs, all packed carefully and securely. Well, I must say they did one mistake in fact. There were not 30 plates, but 36 of them, 12 from each kind. I do not know what was that caused by, but I am far from complaining.
The overall size is perfect, comparing to the project. All the smallest tracks and vias are printed precisely, exactly how I would wish them to be. I have already also tested the smallest piece. I soldered all the components with ease. Obviously, the pads covered with lead simplify the job and using solder mask prevents any unwanted short circuits.
On the photos above I tried to show how small the component was, as accurately as my smartphone allowed me to do.
All in all I do highly recommend going the path I chose to all the home-grown makers. This particular way I showed here is quick, fast and precise. What else would you wish it to be? Just make your projects real! Show your gadgets working to the world!