Low quantities of printed circuit boards and low prices usually don’t go together. However, this Holy Grail of DIY electronics can be found. I have used a couple different manufacturers for low-quantity prototype PCBs (BatchPCB, ExpressPCB) and most recently DorkbotPDX.
BatchPCB is run by SparkFun and has a nice website that checks your files to make sure you aren’t sending them bad Gerber data for manufacturing. They also let you sell your PCB designs on their site once you get setup as a reseller. Unfortunately, their turn-around times are fairly long (3 weeks from time of order) since they have to wait until a certain batch size (hence the name) gets submitted and then they farm it out to China somewhere. They also charge a $10 setup fee per order as well as shipping (which is pretty cheap if you just use USPS).
ExpressPCB is also relatively cheap (if you don’t want soldermask or silkscreen) and really fast (2-3 days turn around with another couple days for shipping). However, you are locked into their closed-source PCB software for creating your designs. You can get Gerbers from them, but that is an extra $60 on top of the PCB order. So even for the most basic of boards, you are looking at over $12 per square inch ($51 3xMiniboard +$10 shipping +$60 gerbers).
Enter the DorkbotPDX PCB Service. Everything from pricing and delivery, submitting design data, and paying via paypal was straightforward and painless. The pricing (as of this post) is simple: $5 per square inch for three copies of your 2-layer board or $10 per square inch for three copies of a 4-layer design. Silkscreen and soldermask on both sides are included. Shipping is free and there is no setup fee. This works out to being $1.66 per square inch for 2-layer boards and $3.33 per square inch for 4-layer boards. Pretty great prices for hobby/prototype uses! Also, lately there has been a panel going out every week, so if you get your design in early you can be pretty sure they will go out that next Monday. Designs can be submitted as Gerber data or as a CadSoft Eagle .brd file.
I’ve been meaning to test out the DorbotPDX service since I heard great things from others about it. I’ve been tinkering around with some RFM12B wireless modules recently for a project I am going to document soon and I wanted a breakout board. SparkFun sells this one for the RFM22B (not the same pin-out and more expensive). Then I found this one on the JeeLabs website (where I found the great Arduino-compatible libraries with which I communicate to the modules). I literally just downloaded the .brd file and emailed it to the DorkbotPDX pcb-order email and they sent me an email back a few hours later saying everything is OK and that my board was part of the order. They provided a total and I paid with PayPal to their email address. That was on a Friday evening. The panel went out that next Monday and I received my PCBs 14 days after I had submitted the order. Not exactly fast, but considering that the PCBs had to transit the US twice and that it was so cheap, I’m not complaining. It was still faster than my experiences with BatchPCB. At least with DorkbotPDX you know when to expect your boards.
So how did they turn out? Well see for yourself below. The PCBs come with little break-away tabs that were used to keep the panel together. I broke them off and then filed down the remnants with a Dremel tool. These PCBs (and I guess all of them recently?) come with purple soldermask and gold finish. I am not exactly sure why they are like this but I’m not complaining – they look really nice! My only complaint about the whole thing is that somehow in the process the text on the silkscreen layer vanished. It is in the Eagle .brd file and the other outlines are on the boards, but all text is missing. Maybe DorkbotPDX can explain?
In summary I can say that I am very pleased with the level of service and the apparent quality of PCBs I received for my money. I hope that this group order continues week after week so I can have a quick and easy and affordable way to print off PCBs for my projects.
Additional info on ordering:
Can you please add the attached PCB design to the next panel going out?See attached .brd Eagle PCB file.I’d like <number> sets of 3Address:<name><street address><city, state zip>