Choosing a PCB Manufacturer29 Jun 2013
Definitions: A “mil” refers to a thousandth of an inch. While most engineering processes have standardized on the far more understandable metric system, physical products still rely on imperial units. “Clearance” refers to the separation from the edge of one trace to the nearest edge of another.
While one manufacturer may be able to produce 6 mil traces with 6 mil clearances (3/3) another manufacturer may be limited to a (8/8) setup. You do not want to design your board and route all of your traces at a very small width only to find that your manufacturer cannot produce the board at that specification. This could leave you resorting to much more expensive manufacturing options, or receiving a non-working PCB when the manufacturing house attempts to manufacture your design anyways.
If you thought there were a lot of CAD packages to choose from, then you would be truly overwhelmed by the number of different manufacturers and assembly houses there are. Rather than compiling a huge list of all of the PCB manufacturers and assemblers, I am just going to post a short list of those that I either have personal experience with or that have made a strong impression on me.
- OSH Park (Low cost fabrication, U.S. based company) - If you just need to do a small order of PCBs, don't need assembly, and your design fits within their limitations, I fully recommend OSH Park. The turnaround time isn't stellar, but in the 2 weeks you may end up waiting for a board, you can always start working on other projects.
- Advanced Circuits (Incredible flexibility and turnaround time, also offer assembly, U.S. based operations) - I have never used their services personally but I have to say I am impressed with what they offer and others seem to be happy with their results. Their prices for short run fabrication are much higher than OSH Park, but their medium run prices (50+ boards) are perfectly reasonable and they offer a wide range of fabrication options. They also offer a "Barebones" option that is excellent for prototyping.
- Gold Phoenix (Cheap higher quantity orders, non U.S. based) - I have also never used Gold Phoenix but they are apparently often used by SparkFun and offer good prices on larger orders. Their services are based out of China and their boards are not as high of quality as Advanced Circuits, but they are worth a shot for medium run production.
- ExpressPCB (Software integrated solution, reasonable pricing) - ExpressPCB is the only one on this list that also showed up on the CAD list as well. From what I can tell, their quality seems to be about on par with Gold Phoenix with a similar pricing structure to Advanced Circuits.
- Seeed Studio (Reasonable pricing, not as many options as Advanced Circuits, but more freedom than OSH Park) - Seeed studio has made a point to focus on hobbyist work and their dedication is clear. You can get a 2-layer 5cm x 5cm board starting at $9.99, and they include free testing which is a great deal.
- SFCircuits (Not as low budget as others, better suited for large or complex boards, including assembly) – I've also never used their services personally but have heard good things. They offer a couple U.S. made hobbyist specials but it's not their core service. They are a good place to start for larger production runs and more complex layouts.
These are just some of my recommendations, but as I noted earlier, there are many, many more out there. Suggest your own favorites in the comments below.