Review/howto: PCBWay circuit board fab and assembly

So you’ve designed your own PCB and you want to get it fabbed.

If you’re in the US, and you don’t have a million bucks to spend, the go-to choice is usually OSHPark. OSHPark rocks. There is no minimum spend (you can literally order 3 copies of a $1 board if you want to), no minimum board quantity, and the fab tech is decent for 2/4 layer boards. I myself have ordered more boards from OSHPark than I can count, both for work and for my own projects.

OSHPark is great for standard quick-turn style jobs, and is slowly adding more options, like 2oz copper and their “super swift service”, which is really just an expedited option. But what if you want something special? Aluminum-backed, for example? Or 6+ layers? These options start to fall out of the standard quick-turn price range, which means expensive, nonstandard order from local PCB manufacturers.

PCBWay is a China-based PCB fab and assembly house that I used for the first time around 2 years ago. Similar to OSHPark, they offer affordable pricing on basic boards (2/4 layer, 6/6 trace and spacing, etc). They have a nice online quoting tool where you can set your board specs and add options to get a quick idea of time and cost. They also support a pretty solid set of PCB specs and options, including Flex PCBs, Aluminum-backed PCBs, multilayer (10+), and a multitude of silkscreen colors, dielectrics, and plating options. A big bonus is the availability of fast shipping through DHL. PCBWay has also recently pushed out an EAGLE upload conversion tool, which is a great way to avoid generating gerber files if you use EAGLE. Boards usually show up within 2-3 days of shipping, which is insanely fast coming from literally across the world.

PCB quality is great. I’ve ordered several boards over the span of the last few years, all with different options, and I’ve been impressed. If you stick to the standard options (6 mil min. traces and spacing, 0.3mm via), the boards are affordable and very high quality. The copper features are well-formed, and I haven’t seen any breaks or shorts due to masking errors in the boards I’ve purchased. Silk comes out good, assuming you follow the general rules for silk. Soldermask varies a bit based on color, specifically when it comes to hardness. If you plan to do a lot of manual reworks, or durability is important to you, I’d stick to the standard green. In my experience, white and other lighter colored soldermasks can be a bit soft.

Now let’s talk about board assembly.

Assembly is a notoriously expensive process for prototype boards because of the upfront costs. Board houses don’t want to set up their SMT line for your 10-board run. There are houses which specialize in fast prototype runs, but the caveat is that these are usually extremely expensive or rely on inking a deal for large-scale production after the prototypes have been made. There are plenty of companies that can afford to roll their upfront R&D costs down into the price of the product once it’s mass-produced, but usually SMT assembly is out of reach for small operations or anyone without at least several thousands of dollars in budget.

I’ve been working on the design of a product with the eventual goal of listing it on Massdrop. It’s a small board and is fairly dense, with some hard-to-place parts (USB-C connector, 3x3QFN package USB hub chip). I ordered the first proto PCB from OSHPark and hand-soldered it, and it became pretty obvious I was going to have to find a more sustainable solution for the next run of prototypes. The board itself is just under 100 individual components, with placements on both sides, and no through-holes. I decided to give the PCBWay assembly a try, since their offering seemed like a good fit and is extremely affordable. I decided I’d specify components  and distributor in the BOM and let them purchase components. You can also drop-ship components or mail them directly to them.

As an aside, I’ve got a reasonable amount of experience designing PCBs and in particular, following DFM (design for manufacturability) rules. Following these rules, some of which I’ll detail below, help ensure that the board is easily manufactured and will work when you receive it. The easier it is for an assembler to make your board, it’ll be lower cost with higher yields. Don’t panic if you’re not aware or familiar with these rules, but I would suggest getting familiar before starting a PCB assembly order with any assembler. This project in particular, I benefitted greatly from sticking to DFM rules.

Some PCB design/assembly DFM rules. These are just some of the bigger ones. For a more complete list, check out this document.

  • Place large components, like connectors or ICs, on one side of the board (generally designated the top). Place only small & light components, like passives and SMT LEDs, on the bottom side.
  • Keep all SMT items a minimum distance from the board edge, generally 3mm. Exceptions can be made for items like connectors, but your boards will probably need to be panelized (something PCBWay will happily handle for you).
  • Keep SMT items a minimum distance from each other. This distance varies based on the assembler and their placement process, but at minimum 1mm is a good place to start.
  • Make sure all part footprints contain pin1 callouts in some form, along with reference designators. Polarized 2pin components should have a + marking on their anode. This helps assemblers determine rotation, and also allows them to easily identify parts if they need to ask questions.
  • Ensure (no, really, like your life depends on it) that your BOM is well-detailed and contains specific part numbers along with component descriptions, preferred distributor, distributor PN, and matching reference designators on the PCB. A good BOM will save you hours of headache, and providing a good BOM to PCBWay will actually lower your quoted price, because it reduces work and risk on their end.

The hardest part about assembling a board (or designing one to be assembled, for that matter), is getting the small details right. That’s why putting some thought into how your board is going to go together goes a long way. If there is a chance that a part goes on backward (a diode, LED, or polarized cap), put a marking on the silkscreen to make it clear which way the part should be placed. If you have the room, space your components out more than you need to. It’s also a good idea to make a list of the possible mistakes that would be ‘deal-breakers’ and share these with the assembler before your board is put together. A little bit of thought early on can save you a lot of headache.

To this end, I was very impressed with PCBWay’s ability to ask questions when there were ambiguities. I received several emails with questions around component placements and polarities. Each email was well-worded and contained a marked screenshot of the PCB along with the component in question.

It was easy enough to clear up any uncertainty. In addition, they send ‘approval’ images of the first PCB that comes off their line, so that you can do a rough scan for errors or mistakes. Both of these lead to excellent results; 100% of the assembled PCBs I received were built correctly and were fully functional. Not bad! As mentioned earlier, once the PCBs shipped they arrived stateside quickly with no hassle from customs. DHL is slightly more expensive as a shipping option, but in my experience it’s worth every penny spent.

Here are some assorted images of the panelized/separated PCBs and assemblies I got from PCBWay. The product is called the DB1, and there will be more info in the coming months available here. I might as well mention: If you’re thinking about ordering a PCB or assembly from PCBWay, go ahead and use my referral link for $5 free towards your first purchase.

Questions? Do you have an experience working with PCBWay? Leave a comment below.

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