PCB Prototype Shops

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SK-1 MIDI Mod PCBs v1.1 from PCBEX.com

About

With many of the electronics projects that I have been working on recently, I've had a need to have some PCBs manufactured. Here is where I will detail my experiences with the board houses I have worked with in a sort of review format. I found that it was hard to find detailed information about the quality of boards produced by different companies, so hopefully this will shead a bit of light and help others acquire the boards they want.

Quick Review:

  • PCBEX.com: Good boards thus far, friendly customer service. ( Read More...)
  • Advanced Circuits: I've heard they are very good, and they offer excellent pre-sales customer service. ( Read More...)
  • PCBFABEXPRESS: Decent quality boards, customer service was initially difficult to deal with. Has worked to remedy the problem I had, eventually sending another batch of properly made boards. ( Read More...)


PCBEX.com

PCBEX.com is another low-cost online board house which seems to be used by hobbiests and those making prototypes. While their requirements don't allow for as tight of tolerances as PCBFABEXPRESS, they have no restrictions on the number of holes nor if one has paneled PCBs together for later separation.

I ordered my prototype boards for the Casio SK-1 MIDI Mod PCB from PCBEX.com and received them a few days ago. Thus far I'm very happy with the quality of the boards. The silkscreening is especially crisp, the soldermask seems to be of a higher quality, and I was able to find no flaws in this batch of boards.

The only problem I had with PCBEX.com involved shipping. As the boards are manufactured in China they were shipped via DHL. Shipping times were very acceptable and DHL is a reliable delivery service, but as DHL will not leave such a package without someone to sign for it in person, I had to make a trip over to the DHL depot to pick up the package. This is not PCBex.com's fault, it's just something I wanted to note.

I should also note that while waiting for my PCBs to be delivered I contacted PCBEX.com's customer service via telephone. The person I spoke with was friendly and promised to check up on my order and mail me tracking information. Within an hour or so I had received the DHL tracking number. When my order was not delivered on the first attempt, the same customer service person emailed me asking if everything was all right and if there was a problem with the boards being delivered.

In the initial prototype layout for the Casio SK-1 MIDI Mod PCBs I made a critical error. With the initial batch of boards recieved from PCBEX.com being useless to me because of this error I turned them into coasters and ordered another set from a fixed (and improved) board layout. Hopefully this second set of PCBs will be of the same quality as the first. If so, it is likely that I will use PCBex.com for my PCB prototyping in the future.


Advanced Circuits

I have not ordered any boards from Advanced Circuits yet, but there is a good chance I will in the future. From both looking around their website and speaking with their salespeople, the company seems to have great customer service and appears to offer very competitive prices for production PCBs. The company has a fairly high per-board price (~$55 for 10 square inches, if I recall correctly), but waives all tooling charges if production boards are reordered from those. The production board prices, especially for quantities of 100 and up, are especially cheap. They also offer far more options (soldermask color, board routing, etc) than most other online board houses I've come across.

Advanced Circuits also runs the wonderful, free DFM checker FreeDFM. I will occasionally use this to validate Gerber Files before I send them off for prototyping.

When I have the need to produce a production quantity of PCBs, I will likely use Advanced Circuits for both the prototypes and final boards.


PCBFABEXPRESS

PCBFABEXPRESS is a relatively low cost board house who makes low-quantity PCB runs for reasonable prices. This is done by paneling orders together. This is fairly typical for low price / low quantity board houses and generally works out fairly well.

While PCBFABEXPRESS has the typical requirements of a maximum of four board edge routing points and fairly standard tolerances (PCBFABEXPRESS' specifications]), they also have some odd restrictions on orders. For one, they will not let one panel multiple boards together. Their stance is that this is unfair to other board houses when coupled with their low prices, but as other facilities allow such paneling it seems more like an attempt to sell more individual PCBs. There is also a limitation which requires a maximum of 25 drills per square inch (average) across one's entire board. This may initially seem like a lot, but my Casio SK-1 MIDI Mod PCB went over this, and it isn't especially compact.

On a couple of the MIDIbox SID-NUXX boards there was a fingerprint in the soldermask layer. This was on the back side of the board away from the traces and shouldn't affect anything, but it is still a sign of sloppy workmanship.

The silkscreen layer on the MIDIbox SID-NUXX mainboards and front panel boards is also quite light, almost transparent in some areas. It also appears to have been somewhat rubbed off, or perhaps stuck to some plastic from being packaged while it was still wet. While another sign of poor workmanship, this isn't critical because the markings were still readable.


Error in MIDIbox SID-NUXX PCB from PCBFABEXPRESS

Error

On one of the MIDIbox SID-NUXX PCBs I received there was a rather small, but very critical error. Due to a flaw in PCBFABEXPRESS' manufacturing process, a small bridge was left between an annular ring and the groundplane. The error is small enough that unless someone specifically looking it was difficult to notice with the naked eye, but large enough not to heat up and burn away. Because this was on one portion of the AC power connector, the first power adapter I connected failed almost immediately. Chalking the failure up to a faulty power supply I connected another, only to see that one burn up.

Fortunately this bridge wasn't especially difficult to find. If it had been somewhere else, say between a signal pin and ground, it would likely have been less damaging but more difficult to find and fix.

As the rest of the PCB was assembled when I found the error, I ended up fixing it myself using a very fine rotary cutter and a Dremel. However, I still feel the company should offer some sort of compensation for shipping a faulty board. Perhaps another board, a discount on a future order, or something.


Email Exchange

I attempted to contact PCBFABEXPRESS about the error and initially they were somewhat unresponse and unwilling to help. After a few days of exchanging email back and forth I spoke with someone who promised to remedy the issue. I have documented the extent of the email exchange here, and the [[PCB Prototype Shops#Potential Resolution|next section] contains the info about PCBFABEXPRESS' proposed resolution to the problem.


My initial note to PCBFABEXPRESS' customer service about the error:

Hello,

When working with one of the PCBs I received as part of order #FXA12893FG04 I
found a manufacturing defect. If you look here you can see a photo of this
defect:

http://www.nuxx.net/gallery/v/stuffivemade/midibox_sid_nuxx/in_progress/IMG_4702
.JPG.html

It is a small bridge between the ground plane and an AC power input. Because of
the small size of the error it wasn't noticed during assembly and caused the
failure of two wall-wart type power supplies before it was found.

Thank you,

-Steve Vigneau


The reply I received suggested that I fix the error myself:

Dear Steve, The board you speak in your concern was ordered using our "no
interference" policy. What this implies is; no electrical test performed.
Because of this; your boards were manufactured with the least cost to you. We
respectfully suggest you correct the condition by removing the minor bridging
between the plated hole and plane with an exacto knife PLEASE USE THE REPLY
BUTTON TO RESPOND TO THIS EMAIL, SO YOU CAN REACH THE RIGHT Customer Service
Rep. Regards, Sales Support Team sales@pcbfabexpress.com 408-522-1500.


My response to the suggestion that I repair the board myself:

I understand that no electrical test was performed and thusly this error wasn't
caught by you. However, now that the error has been identified, I am curious if
you will send a functional board as a replacement for the defective one. I do
not feel that I should have to correct a board-level error when they were
designed to within your specified tolerances and I purchased them with the
expectation that they would be manufactured correctly.

I would like to know whether not you will replace the PCB which your company
manufactured improperly with a non-defective one.

Thank you.

-Steve Vigneau


It seems they have a "No Touch" policy which is not documented on their website, but results in their not replacing defective PCBs:

Hi Steve,

We do not have a replacement board.  If we had; a replacement would already have
been sent.Our policy for "No Touch" prohibits a Remake to replace board with
this minor problem.

We sincerely apologize.

Regards,

Sales Support Team


My reply:

Thank you for the reply. Could you please tell me where this policy is
documented on your website?

Before placing this order I was unaware of your stated policy of not remaking a
board which has a "minor problem".

Q7 in PCBFABEXPRESS' FAQ states that: "If your printed circuit boards are not
made to your specifications, we will remake them immediately." One of my PCBs
was not made to my specifications (that is, without manufacturing defects) so
I'm curious why you will not remake it, as you state, "immediately"? Why is
PCBFABEXPRESS refusing to follow their publicly stated policy?

Additionally, there is no mention of such policy in any portion of
PCBFABEXPRESS' website; neither the FAQ, Glossary, nor any of the pages viewed
when placing an order. In fact, I am unable to find the phrase "No Touch" on any
portion of PCBFABEXPRESS' website.

I look forward to your response.

-Steve Vigneau


After this point I received a note asking for me to call PCBFABEXPRESS. Before I had a chance to call, one of the employees called me and we came to what seems to be a fair resolution.


Resolution

Around 15:30 EDT on 14-Sep-2006 I received a call from Shiva at PCBFABEXPRESS. After discussing the issue with him and explaining that the issue is clearly a manufacturing defect and not a design error, he made a reasonable offer. He said that said that he will look around their stock and see if they have any leftover pieces from my design, and if so, they'll ship one out immediately. If they do not have any, another run of five boards will be produced and sent to me.

If the company follows through as promised I'll be satisfied with this resolution.


As of 05-Oct-2006 @ 14:20 EDT I have yet to hear anything from PCBFABEXPRESS nor receive any replacement PCBs. I sent the following note via PCBFABEXPRESS' Customer Service / Feedback system and am waiting for a reply:

Hello,

On 14-Sep-2006 I spoke with Shiva in regard to a defective PCB I received as
part of order #FXA12893FG04. He promised me that he would look around for a
spare board from this order and if he found one, that he would send that. He
also promised that if he were unable to find a spare board from the order that
he would order a new run of this part, to be shipped to me.

As of today, 05-Oct-2006, I have not received any shipment from PCBFABEXPRESS to
replace the defective PCB.

Could you please let me know the status of the shipment of the replacement
PCB(s)?

Thank you, I look forward to your reply.

-Steve Vigneau


On 10-Oct-2006 @ ~19:40 EDT I received a phone call from Shiva with PCBFABEXPRESS. He explained to me that due to an internal communication issue at their company the replacement boards were never ordered. He then apologized for the error and promised to order a new set of boards for me with two-day turnaround, stating that they should be delivered by the morning of Friday, 13-Oct-2006.


On Monday, 16-Oct-2006 I received a phone call from Shiva checking up on the replacement boards. As I hadn't yet received the package, I asked him for the FedEx tracking number. Checking that I found that the PCBs were delivered that morning. When I got home I collected the package of boards and checked them over. All the boards look great, of better quality than the previous set made off of the same Gerbers.

Looking closely at them I cannot see any of the errors observed before (fingerprints, bridge, etc) making these boards, in my opinion, quite nice. As long as future boards from PCBFABEXPRESS are of this same level of quality, I can recommend their use.