As an electronics engineer, I’ve encountered many time the PCB prototyping problem. I can draw very fast an electronic schema and design the according PCB board. But once you have the design ready, then what?
In my initial years I was developing and etching the PCB myself with chemicals. First I was using photosensitive boards and later I switched to toner transfer method. All these methods are quite time consuming and sometimes very messy.
A couple of years ago, I bought a small CNC machine at home and switched then to engraved PCBs. Via isolation milling the CNC was capable of producing very nifty boards in pretty clean way. That method was ideal for single sided boards; for double sided boards, it was not ideal. Through-hole plating still requires chemicals or a manual intervention (wire soldering). Also the fine grained components (.5mm pitch chips) were very hard to solder in absence of a soldering mask. Again the soldering mask can be added with some UV paint, but requires an extra step.
So, I moved on to some more professional PCB prototyping… In Belgium, however, it’s not that easy to get prototyped PCB’s or you have to pay a lot of money for it. Mass production is pretty useless in case of prototyping, you’ll get a lot of boards for a lot of money; but if there is a mistake in the design, it’s all wasted.
Not so long ago I discovered the PCB services offered by ITEAD Studio, a Chinese manufacturer. I ordered a couple of boards I designed around the Chinese New Year and still got them pretty fast (2-3 weeks). Delivery is indeed a lot slower compared to the European services, but the price is without competition.
The quality of the board is surprisingly good. The soldering mask even withstands a couple of soldering and desoldering cycles. The quality of the silk screen was a bit a disappointment when compared to rest; but it is the least of your concerns when prototyping. Next to this text you see a 25x magnification of one of the boards produced by ITEAD. The chip has a pitch of 0.5mm, the vias have holes of 0.6mm. The HASL finish is very easy to use, especially when you’re soldering the components manually like me.
After soldering the first board (controller for a STM32F4 and a ENC28J60) didn’t work. The ENC28J60 was capable of receiving ethernet signals, but couldn’t send any. Double checked a second board for defects and I couldn’t find any! So what was wrong? Defective chip, defective magnetics? None of that, human mistake, I soldered a 47 ohm resistor instead of a ferrite bead in the output biassing… Once fixed, the board worked flawless; I mounted 2 others with the same result. Still have 9 to go, as the prototyping service of ITEAD delivers 12 boards for a more than reasonable price (don’t forget to add the shipping costs).
ITEAD’s limitations are more than acceptable; at least for my designs. Only panelizing is not allowed, except when using a silk screen and then cut the boards yourself. Below are a couple more pictures of the boards produced by ITEAD. I’m very pleased with their service and the delivered quality.