A few years ago, I wrote an article on homemade PCB which is useful to quickly prototype a PCB and produce them at low cost. However, things can get a bit more challenging once you need to produce a bigger dimension PCB or in high quantity or even making it double sided. It is not a mission impossible, but it requires extra effort. Recently, I wanted to play with a RGB LED matrix, which requires some kind of driver to light it up. To prototype it, I can do them on breadboard, but that will be troublesome with all the jumpers going around. So, I decided that this is also a good opportunity for me to try something different, which is to design and manufacture a PCB for the RGB LED Matrix driver.
With some research for PCB manufacturer online, JLCPCB has caught my attention. Simply search “JLCPCB” on Youtube, you can find a lot of reviews from various channels. But the most catchy point of JLCPCB is that you can actually make you own PCB for $2 dollars. In this article, I will share some of my experience on getting a manufactured PCB, hopefully it will benefit and encourage you to try manufacture your first PCB.
To manufacture your PCB, first you need to design your own PCB layout. In this case, I am using the KiCad to design. This is also my first time using the KiCad tools as oppose to the Eagle. But I will not go into details regarding the design tools. Anyway, the layout looks as the figure below.
While you are excited to design your layout, do not forget to check the capabilities of your PCB manufacturer. Each manufacturer has different capabilities that they can achieve. Some of the things that you want to look for such as the minimum trace width, spacing, dimension, layer, drill hole size and etc. Checking this before your design and use them in your design rules to make sure you do not violate any of them. If you noticed that violate any of these rules at the late stage of design, it might requires you to redesign your layout, which can be time consuming and troublesome.
Once the layout is complete, you need to send the design files to the PCB manufacturer. There are various design tools available, each might have different output files. Instead of having the PCB manufacturer to have all the tools to open the files, Gerber file is used. A quick search on Wiki, a Gerber is the standard used to describe the printed circuit boards such as the copper layers, solder mask, and etc.
Since this was my first time, I wasn’t too sure about generating the required gerber files for manufacturing. Luckily, there is a guide provided by JLCPCB at the end of the home page. On the most left side image below, there are several guides, which are useful for reference. Since I am using the KiCad, I would refer to the “KiCad PCB to gerber files“. If you are using other tools (eg. Eagle, Altium) guide is also available. From there, steps-by-steps guide is provided to show you how to generate the necessary Gerber and Drill files.
Once you followed all the steps provided, you will end up with a .zip file that contains the Gerber and drill files. In my case, the necessary files to be included in the Gerber are the Top and Bottom copper layer, silkscreen layer, solder mask layer and the edge cut. Below are simple explanations to the files and what it means:
- Copper layer: Contains all the copper traces and pads on the PCB
- Silkscreen layer: Contains all the silkscreen printings which could be the ref des of components and etc.
- Solder mask layer: Describe which area should be covered by solder mask (usually green) and mask away the pads which required for soldering.
- Edge cut: Describe the edge of the PCB (eg. what shape and how big it is).
Once the design file is ready, head over to the JLCPCB website, and go for a fast quote. In this page, there are various options that you can choose with, such as the PCB quantity, dimension, PCB solder mask colour and etc. For your info, even without a design files, you can still play around with the options and get an instant quote to estimate how much does your board costs. This is also useful if you are trying to compare among various vendors.
Earlier in this article, I mentioned you can manufacture your PCB for $2 dollar. In order to eligible for this offer, take note on these few things:
- The board dimension must not exceed 100mm x 100mm. Anything less than that is eligible for the offer.
- Board order quantity at maximum 10 pieces. The $2 dollar is valid for 5 and 10 pieces, but anything above will cost a lot more extra charge.
- Use the default options such as the PCB colour, surface finish and etc.
Although there are some constraints, but for simple DIY project, I think this is sufficient and the best offer you can get to prototype your PCB. To make your order, upload the .zip files you created. Once the file is uploaded, the dimension will be automatically updated to reflect your actual design. When you are satisfied, save to cart and make the payment, it is that easy. It seems that for first time purchase, JLCPCB is generous enough to provide a free DHL shipping which shortens the time to receive the PCB. I am suspecting the first time free, as when I tried for the second time, they are no longer free.
[Update 02-Jan] It is confirmed that free shipping for your first order with JLCPCB. However, it will not available these few days due to maintenance. Mostly will be available on next few days.
After the payment is made, it took a few days for them to process and manufacture the PCB. I made my order during the weekend, and checked the status everyday after that. They do not work during the weekend, but once the working week starts, the processing speed was fast. By the end of Wednesday when I checked, the board has completed and shipped. Since the shipping uses DHL delivery, I received my PCB on the next day. From the ordering until receiving the PCB, it took less than a week, I am impressed.
The package came with a box with the label JLCPCB. Opening the box, there is another yellow envelope that contains a wall of bubble wrap.
And finally, the PCB are well protected in the envelope with extra layer of vacuum sealed bubble wrap. There are three layers of protection to the PCB, to make sure boards are received in good condition.
And here is what it looks like from behind.
I ordered ten PCBs, and from visual inspection they looks good to me.
A closer look at the bottom side of PCB. There is no issue with all the traces and pads. The silkscreen also looks clear. For the signal trace, I am using trace width of 0.25mm, whereas power and GND trace uses 1mm trace width. So far they look good, but will test them out once everything is soldered in.
A few more photos to share.
Noticed that on the top of white rectangle (included by intentional), there is a small line of numbering added by JLCPCB. It is probably used for referencing in the production.
Overall, the process of ordering your own PCB is not difficult as what I imagined initially. JLCPCB is definitely a good choice if you want to go beyond homebrew PCB. It offers prototyping at low cost and fast manufacturing time. With the low cost option to manufacture PCB, you can create as many prototype as you like. The quality of the PCB is also decent, everything
In the meantime, I am still waiting for my components to arrive before I can complete the PCB and test it. Once they are done, I will cover more about the function of this board in the coming article.
Happy new year to you and have a great year ahead!