Prototype PCB Manufacturing and JLCPCB.COM

So, printed circuit boards - or PCBs to most of the electronics COMMUNITY. My friend and one-time business partner has been designing them for around 35 years so he has been through just about every way of laying out a circuit that there is. This means that he started out with a pencil and a large piece of paper, surrounded by integrated circuit manufacturers data books and an idea. Once the circuit had been designed and a prototype built and debugged, then a couple of sheets of transparent film were taped  together and rolls of red and blue tape used to lay down the pcb tracks.

JLCPCB

These films were then separated, photographed and sent off to a manufacturer to produce a copper-only prototype, i.e. no solder resist or component legend, typically costing around 300 British pounds after a wait of about 3 weeks.

Then along came the German company Cadsoft and their revolutionary and cheap product known as Eagle PCB. Aidan and I bought version one for about £500 and what a winner it turned out to be. Of course, it was full of bugs and had many essential facilities missing, but we beta tested it and wrote reports for one of the Cadsoft developers, Rudi, until it ended  up in pretty much the form we have today 25+ years later. Bearing in mind that this wasn’t originally a Windows product, but ran under CP/M initially and was pre mass email meaning that we had to send our bug lists by fax, download updates on a 9600 baud modem direct from their computer in Germany and you can imagine that it wasn’t the fastest process.

However, here we are today and you can download a free version of Eagle which is limited to 50mm x 50mm pcbs or pay a bit for the version that will do 100mm x 100mm – this is more than adequate for the majority of small or hobbyists requirements.

What about getting those prototypes made though? Well, you can go down the messy route with chemical etching and the rest if you have masochistic tendencies, however there are several Chinese companies offering great services for limited quantity production runs of typically 10 boards. I have tried a number of them over the last 7 years and they all seem to have cracked reasonable quality production, but their service and delivery times vary.

One of the first was Sitopway who were great and for around forty pounds, you got 5 full production standard boards delivered in 3 weeks. This was a huge advance in terms of both costs and quality.

Times have moved on though and I have used dangerousprotopes.com, Itead, dirtypcbs.com, seedstudios.com and several others. However, we regularly try out the services of different companies and came across an outfit called jlcpcb.com early last year and decided to give them a try.

In the past, Aidan normally just paid for China post shipping as it is the cheapest method and Jlcpcb.com do offer this at a slightly higher cost than others, but they also offer DHL as an alternative. The first order was a nightmare! he uploaded the files to the order section of their website and paid his pennies. There was no order acknowledgment or indication that the order had been accepted and  did start to wonder if he’d been ripped off. Over the following 3 weeks, he sent increasingly snotty emails to their customer support without reply and I was just about to apply to PayPal for a refund when the pcbs arrived. As it turns out, they were excellent.

So, he sent them a critique of their website and detailed what he expected to see. These were, email acknowledgment of order, a Gerber view of the uploaded files so that he could be happy that what they think he wants to be manufactured is the same as what  he actually wants, plus a tracking facility so that he can see at what stage of manufacture or shipping his boards are at.

Well, that did the trick and we had a very helpful and useful exchange of emails until the system was bang on perfect. The rest is – recent – history! JLC PCB have one of the best services going.

Aidan now opts for the DHL shipping system as, like me, he’s just plain impatient. In the last year, he has designed about 15 new boards and had made several iterations of each totalling 39 PCB designs as we no longer bother hand building prototypes – it’s so cheap to make a PCB, so why bother? He generally bundles up several designs to save on the shipping cost. They charge $2 for the first design and $5 for subsequent ones.

So, generally Aidan saves up his orders until he has 3 designs to make. So, to make 3 sets of 10 pcbs and have them shipped to the UK costs about $38 or £27 in UK money.
Best delivery time from uploading the Gerber files to receiving the finished product was 4  days and typically it’s 5, worst case it’s 6 days. This is just a stunning service and has transformed the way in which Aidan designs boards.

The GERBER Files

If you want a seamless and quick service then you have to send your designs in the correct format. JLC will accept an Eagle file, but we’ve discovered that there are some minor inconsistences in format, mainly to do with text size. For text on your board, select “vector font” with something like a 14% proportion setting. When you’ve uploaded your design, use their Gerber viewer service to check that your text is the correct size as it can be irritating if your neatly designed labels are smeared right across some components.

Aidan has uploaded his Gerber generation script HERE to help you out. https://www.dropbox.com/s/3cgbgunqltjxr7e/Aidans%20Complete%20PCB.cam?dl=0   This is based upon his own combined with one from Itead. In your Eagle program directory, create a sub folder called GERBER before you start. Then simply click the blue process button   and then click “process all”. The script will generate 13 files which represent the top and bottom copper layers, the solder masks to stop you shorting stuff out as you solder, the solder legend for labels, component numbers and values, the drilling information and finally the routing info for the profile of your board.

Please note that most of these companies don’t let you do internal cut-outs on your designs, but they can drill some pretty big holes. Aidan also has a version of the script that generates multiple copies on a panel, but you don’t really need that for prototypes, just for production.

So, in your Gerber folder, you should now see 13 files named as per your PCB design file, but with differing file suffixes such as .sts, .drl etc.

This next bit is important!

Proper Labelling is Vital

On your PCB layout, somewhere on each of the 4 main layers – top and bottom copper plus top and bottom legend (tplace and bplace), put a pcb reference, such as “PCB REF-My PCB V1.0”. This will ensure that both they and you know which board you are referring to if there are any problems or just if you want to order some more.

Go into the GERBER folder and block-select the 13 files, then right click them and left click “Rename”. Rename them as “PCB REF-My PCB V1.0”, or whatever. Then block-select the newly renamed 13 files and then right click and select “Send to Compressed Folder”. The new, zipped, file will have the default name of your PCB REF.

You can now upload this zipped file to jlcpcb.com, pay your cash and off you go!

Have fun.

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33 thoughts on “Prototype PCB Manufacturing and JLCPCB.COM

  1. they have an excellent post sales department, too...

    i placed my first order (using the gerber provided by the author of the excellent library Parola, these small proto boards quite useful: https://arduinoplusplus.wordpress.com/2017/12/21/fast-prototyping-for-arduino-systems/ , 10 pcb of 9 mini boards each, 90 boards for 2€! ) and i paid about 10€, while i should have paid just 2 and no shipment fees...

    i contacted them and they refunded the shipment fees, plus they gave me an additional shipment free discount for an other order, in exchange for a post as review on their forum when i'll receive my boards 🙂

  2. I ordered 5x of these 91x44mm 2-layer PCBs (https://hackaday.io/project/134065-funkey-zero/log/144686-pcbs-are-here) for my project at http://www.allpcb.com for $17.03 and got them exactly 1 week after I clicked the order button (DHL). Perfect, as usual!

    For the same qty at jlcPCB, they are charging $25.83 ($23.83 shipping cost !).

    To get a free Design for Manufacturability (DFM) report that does not require registration, I use http://instantdfm.bayareacircuits.com/.

    1. I hadn't heard of ALLPCB - just did a quick quote and they are definitely a bit cheaper for smaller PCBs, so that's a really good call. As you get up to 100 x 100, the price is more or less the same.

      I tend to save up my PCBs until I have 2 or 3 to save on the shipping, but I'll give them a try in the next couple of weeks and amend the PCB review

      1. Hi Aldan,

        I définitely recommend them!

        You can follow the production steps in real time, which is really nice.

    2. I had been doing some runs on allpcb with lots of small boards (about 1x1") because they were cheapest, but they have raised their prices and yesterday when I looked jlcpcb was considerably cheaper than allpcb even for small quantities, My order did say, "special deal" or "discount" on it.

      I generally start at pcbshopper.com and then go to the top few to see what the actually quote for me.

  3. Just recently tried JLC and I can say I was impressed. My order was for 18 different PCB 100mm2 designs + DHL = £104. Arrived within 7-days. Still had to pay the DHL tax of £32 but worth it for the speed of service I got.

    hey, Pete will we see you and Aidan at Maker Faire this weekend?

    1. Pete's away in Spain at the moment, swanning in the sun, whilst I beaver away on circuit boards in the rain!

      However, I'm coming to the Maker Faire on Sunday - off to pick up a caravan from Grimsby tomorrow to put onto our land in Spain until the house is built.

      Are you on a stand or just wandering aimlessly like me?

      1. Hey Aidan

        Sorry I missed you at the maker fire. I was on a stand "pizynth" showing off some pi and Z80 projects.

        What did you think of the faire his year? Anything catch your eye?

  4. My first experience with a CAD tool was around 1991. It was Tango PCB for DOS in German language. I didn't know a single word of German, so you can imagine it was a complete nightmare...

  5. Their 4 layer price is very good. I'll have to give them a try out on my next design.
    If you need internal board cutouts, I have found DFRobot the only low cost PCB supplier to offer this service. As I am closer to China their shipping is only $14 with DHL so a bargain for me.

    1. You mean like isolation slot cutouts? JLCPCB does those, you just draw them on the edge cuts layer. I've also gotten dirtypcbs to do it. If you mean panelization, they also do that (there's even a tool to automatically panelize a smaller board).

  6. Although I use Eagle now my first experience was with Ultimate schematic and PCB design software from the Netherlands, this part of my job at the time and we were always waiting for the next version on a set of floppy discs to arrive, better than a 9600 bps modem link though 😁

    1. Hmmm, you may have forgotten about gen'ing disks, and setting up term caps, getting cables correct and setting up printers for the system. 😉

      Also we didn't have the cornucopia of plenty when it comes to software.

      I worked with more than just CP/M, also OS9, Atari, Apple and early DOS (1.0). Fun times! 🙂

      My first CAD experience was with pencil also and then got to play with Autocad on the DOS machines. And I'm now using Kicad (I'm mostly a hobbiest now).

    2. CP/M and FigFORTH using a homebrew 8085 PC, 16k RAM and a dot-matrix readout. That was powerful, heady stuff.

  7. Hi Pete, just following your guide to install Aidans gerber script, and can't find 'process all'...
    I've installed Eagle 9.0.0 in Windows 10, created the GERBER subdirectory within the EAGLE9.0.0 installation directory.
    Downloaded Aidan's script to my desktop, run the script and it opens into the 'CAM processor' window - as per the screenshot.
    I can't see 'process all' and the button 'Process Job' does not appear to do anything when clicked.

    1. OK, it's actually the "Process JOb" button - I was thinking of an early version of Eagle, I think - or dementia is setting in!

      It should run very quickly, depending upon how big your PCB is - often just a second or so. The output will end up in the GERBER folder (which you have to create) in your \Program Files (x86)\Eagle folder. I'm only using version 6.5.0, so I wonder if there's in incompatibilty? On the other hand, if it's not reporting any errors, it may have put the files elsewhere.

      Try renaming your GERBER folder and if the CAM processor doesn't complain then it's not putting them there- maybe a PATH issue - then try searching for something like *.drl which should locate where the GERBERs are being placed.

      Eagle normally has a version conversion tool for previous versions of the PCB files, so I'll check to see if there's a compatibilty issue. I guess that I can download the demo of Eagle 9 and check it out.

      Leave it for a couple of days, unless anyone else knows better?

      1. Hi Pete & Aidan. I really appreciate your work and starting to tinker with different boards and HW for the moment. There is a PNG on dropbox link marked as ESP-DEV9, but no apparent associated .brd/.sch, is there anything new/repaired vs the seemingly the most updated version DEV7 (the .brd/.sch without dashes in the name)? Thanks in advance.

  8. I've used JLCPCB for a while. I really like them but it's always nice to have alternatives 🙂
    They put nice cutouts in my boards (as do seeed). My last board has a 25mm hole right in the middle which wasn't cut with a drill!

    I've never got on with Eagle. I use Diptrace which I find far more intuitive. Each to their own I guess. The free version of Diptrace is limited to 300 pads afaicr but there's no limit to board size.

    There is also a 'panelize' function built in with Diptace which I use as I sometimes make very small boards. When I've done this with JLCPCB the boards have come back scored & ready to snap but I've needed to cut boards from seeed. This isn't a big issue - I get small boards in 0.6mm thickness which cuts nicely with a pair of scissors.

    1. Hey Neil, I've been using Design Spark PCB since it came out and have designed probably 60+ PCB's over the years. I like it a lot.

      The only complaint I hear is about its libraries but it has the ECAD Part Wizard now and you can import Eagle libraries if you want.

      It's main benefit for me was it had no commercial limitations unlike Eagle where using its free version has a no-commercial use restriction.

  9. Just received my first PCB's from JLCPCB.COM via normal post to the Netherlands in just over 10 days. 10 pcs 70x40mm ‎€9.31 in total (no DHL). Quality very good and it;s nice you can follow the process

  10. All,

    After reading this thread I thought I would give JLCPCB.COM a go on a development board that I have previously purchased from the PCB Train. My PCB (a 2 layer 167mm x 113mm) previously cost approx £250 for 6 units from the PCB Train. When I loaded the gerber data into JLCPCB.COM it came back with what seemed a ridiculous cost (around £30 for 10 boards with a foils, delivered). I thought for that cost there must be a mistake, but I ordered them anyway to see what would turn up........

    Well today the package arrived and I am pleased to say that all 10 PCB are good. What a service - I couldn't be more pleased with them.... I can't see me using the PCB Pool or Train ever again.

    Cheers Chaps

  11. Have you tried WellPCB(https://www.wellpcb.com/), the smallest order can be 1 pcs.
    (Although one board is not necessary to be manufactured)
    However, their order quantity can be ordered according to their own needs. This is not displayed on their website and needs to be contacted by email.

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