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  1. #1
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    Jan 2005
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    PCB design software and low count PCB manufacturers

    So I've been playing around with microcontrollers and circuits for several years now and have to this point used perforated prototyping boards. I am a hobbyist and have a project I would like to design a circuit board for and have the board manufactured. Initially I'm only going to be using through hole components. The boards I would be having made would be smallish ones, maybe 3" x 3". So, that brings up a couple questions:

    1. Recommendations for a decent free software for designing PCB's?

    2. A vendor for producing PCB's in low quantities (<10) at decent prices?

    I've done a little researching and there are so many options for both of these questions that I am just a bit overwhelmed. I'm thinking there may be a vendor out there catering to the maker crowd. I'm not sure how much location plays into this, but I'm located Just outside of Chicago, Illinois, USA, if it makes a difference.

    Thanks

    John Brannen

  2. #2

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    Jun 2018
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    Re: PCB design software and low count PCB manufacturers

    There are quite a few circuit/PCB packages out there. Even Fusion 360 has such a module but I've never seen it.

    For a good easy to use (but not [exactly] free) package have a look at DipTrace. Site: https://diptrace.com/

    Their pricing has about halved since last time I looked and they now have a pretty good deal for non-profit users which is even better than before.

    See: https://diptrace.com/buy/non-profit/


    Cheers,

    HarryE.
    ===

  3. #3
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    Re: PCB design software and low count PCB manufacturers

    For work, I use Altium Designer (formerly Protel) which will pretty much do anything and has so much functionality built into it that it lets you get stuff done pretty quickly. At the price, though, it's pretty hard to justify the thousands of dollars for a few small boards.

    Eagle is popular in the hobbyist world and AFAIK still has a cheap or free version limited by number of layers and board size. Many of the Chinese PCB manufacturers accept Eagle PCB files direct now, rather than needing you to create gerber files.

    If you need something with a little more kick, the last time I used KiCAD was ages ago and it was pretty horrible but everything I'm reading about it lately is pointing toward it being a lot better polished and pretty good now, and it's free. And more commercial operations are adopting it so the support community is getting better. The other open source one is gEDA but it's a proper nerdly Linux FOSS environment ie a complete pain to set up and use.

    My personal preference would be Altium if you don't mind pirated software or can find a sponsor for the job to pay for your licence, then either Eagle if you're only ever going to do simple stuff or KiCAD if you might want to more complicated or larger stuff down the road. Bear in mind the learning curve on all of them is steep and long, so once you've picked one and done a couple of projects it becomes quite a challenge to change later on.

    As far as suppliers go, I like SEEED - they've done a few boards for me now and have proven good quality, cheap and with a fast turnaround. They have an assembly service where they can supply components and solder the boards for you. They also have a marketplace where you can sell those boards for a markup if that's what you want to do.

    Others I've encountered are PCBWay and OSHPark, popular from what I've read but I haven't had boards done with them.

    Commercially I've used Fastprint in China and their boards are much, much cheaper but you need to buy a panel's worth and their setup fees knock them out of contention if you're only doing a couple of boards rather than production runs.

  4. #4
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    Re: PCB design software and low count PCB manufacturers

    I have used ExpressPCB in the past. Their free software is quite good for hobby-level projects. Unfortunately, it can only be used to order circuit boards from them (no Gerber export).

  5. #5
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    Re: PCB design software and low count PCB manufacturers

    The other thing to consider is your investment in a library. Pretty much all of them come with libraries of parts with schematics, PCB footprints and often 3D models these days. And the best advice I ever received was "don't use them, create your own". The PCB footprints in particular often aren't quite a perfect match for the parts you get in, or the pads aren't quite the manufacturer recommended size or spacing or mask clearance or whatever, or you plain don't have the footprint for the part you want in the standard libraries. So you end up spending a sizeable chunk of time with those footprint diagrams at the bottom of the datasheets, putting together your own parts in the environment.

    You'll be surprised at the size of the library you end up with quite quickly. And it's a good process to help you climb some of that learning curve.

    But then you go to change your EDA software and, chances are, it's time to start again.

    No way would I ever use a an EDA package that was hard linked to a single manufacturer. I like to have the ability to shop around a bit!

  6. #6
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    Re: PCB design software and low count PCB manufacturers

    Thanks guys. I'll take a look at those vendors. I went ahead and downloaded the eagle software and it looks like autodesk has made this free for hobbyists like they did for Fusion360. It also looks like it has a bit of a learning curve. I'll see how it goes and I might take an easier route

    Thanks for the suggestions

  7. #7
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    Re: PCB design software and low count PCB manufacturers

    https://jlcpcb.com/

    10 units of PCB - double sided, 100mm x 100mm max per unit --> 2Dollar!!!!

  8. #8
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    Jun 2011
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    Re: PCB design software and low count PCB manufacturers

    I've used this site before to pick a manufacturer: https://pcbshopper.com/
    Eagle and Diptrace both have free non-commercial versions with some limitations. Both are 2 signal layers (I believe diptrace will allow power planes beyond the 2 layers,) diptrace only allows 500 pins worth of components, Eagle only allows 80 cm2 of routable board area (used to be you could have a larger PCB, but components and traces had to be within an 80x100mm rectangle. Not sure if this is still the same.)

  9. #9
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    Re: PCB design software and low count PCB manufacturers

    Hi,
    I use the free version of Eagle. Limited to two signal layers and boards 80 x 100 mm but otherwise fully functional.

    I use the ULP program pcg-gcode which converts the artwork to Gcode and isolation route the PCB on my mill. Getting
    the PCB exactly flat is a challenge and is required to get good results. Autoleveller is a freeware software utilility that helps.

    Using Eagle/pcb-gcode/Autoleveller has allowed me to make surface mount boards down to TSSOP ic outlines (0.2mm between pin pads)
    so with care and some practice very nice surface mount boards can be made.

    Isolation routing obviously requires a suitable mill or router and is slow. Its not uncommon to spend one hour per side. The advantage is that
    for prototyping you don't have to send your artwork off to a PCB manufacturer, at a cost. Just alter the board artwork to accommodate the next
    bigger heatsink or whatever, run pcb-gcode, set a PCB blank in your machine, run Autoleveller and isolation route your board, no cost or delay involved.

    Craig

  10. #10
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    Re: PCB design software and low count PCB manufacturers

    Yeah I downloaded Eagle but haven't had time to use it enough to actually make a useful PCB design. I only played around without following any tutorials or anything for 20 or 30 minutes so far. Next will be to pull up some tutorials and go about learning it the right way.

    As for the board, I will eventually either cut one myself on my mill, or have a PCB made (preferred), but to get one board I could actually use right now I just used the old tried and true prototyping PCB with jumpers, solder bridges, etc. where needed. I got it done in about an hours because it wasn't very involved and it is working. For now it will do but I do plan to replace it in the future with a nicer PCB.

    Thanks for all of your advice. Just got busy again and don't have the time right now to act on all your suggestions.

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