Few months ago, iteadstudio.com opened one of the cheapest PCB making service of the web. They claim a 6/6mil and 0,3mm hole size specs. Two layers with top and bottom silkscreen, soldermask for everyone, Woohoo! Their prices start at $12 for ten pieces of a 5x5cm PCB plus $4 shipping (in my case, to France). They even have a special offer right now at $9.90 for 10 pieces of 5x5cm PCB. And for $10 more, you get all the boards e-tested (“only” half of them are e-tested for free).
It seems like it’s not worth any more to bother with home made etching for small boards, for that price! (I pay something like 9 Euros for a 120×150 blank FR4 board (w/o shipping) and I have to make vias myself and of course, no silkscreen, no soldermask)
I needed to make a 120×150 PCB with features impossible to achieve without real vias, so I decided to test iTead Studio with a small 5x5cm board. For a long time, I also wanted to learn USB programming with PICs and to use Altium designer. Three good reasons to try the Chinese fab.
I adapted Microchip’s USB demo board schematics, the one with a 18f87J50 microcontroller and threw the components on the board (after some nights spent with Altium tutorials. Argh, libraries.)
I used the following design rules: track width: 0,2mm. Vias diam:0,5mm. Vias holes: 0,35mm. Solder mask extension:0,1mm. Minimum soldermask sliver: 0,1mm. Silk/Silk: 0,1mm. iTeadStudio advises to not go as low as 6/6mil, but try to use 8/8mil rules. Some people (like Dave Jones from EEVblog.com) had a bad experience with the fab changing his gerbers, but it was before they updated their fab rules.
After checking and double checking my gerbers (it was the first time I sent something to a fab), I ordered and paid for the 5x5x10 PCB service the 24/08/2011 @1:50pm (local times). My order was confirmed ten minutes later, with the address to send my gerbers to, what I did @ 2pm ; the two copper layers, two silk layers, two soldermask layers and the drill file, all zipped and labelled as instructed on the website. I received an answer the 25/08 @4am, saying they submitted my files to the fab and that they’ll keep me updated if there’s a problem. Apparently, my files were all right, because the next iTeadStudio mail was on the 30/08/2011 @3:30pm with a tracking number for my PCBs (I took the air mail shipping, for $4).
The tracking number worked two days later:
Actually, you only get the tracking inside China (at least in my case with France as for destination)
The package was delivered to me on the 09/09/2011. That’s one week shipping, which is really fast! As the value was small, I apparently didn’t have any trouble with French customs.
I got twelve PCB. Six of them have a mark on the side meaning they passed the e-test:
After a quick visual inspection, I noticed a suspicious track on one of the e-tested boards but I checked it myself and it’s ok. An other e-tested board has its silkscreen erased on a 1cm wide band.
e-tested board (top):
(I didn’t take the time to tidy my routing as I usually do. I also forgot to configure the GND poor to integrate all the GND tracks). The board edges could be better, but maybe the rounded corners I defined were too small. I tried tenting on some vias (to see if they would make it). It worked, they’re on the extreme right side and one under the S1 switch. I didn’t try NPTH, I’ll do it next time (but I don’t see why it wouldn’t work, they’re offering to drill slots)
Here, the board with superposed picture from Altium:
As you can see, there’s a tiny offset in the silk printing and the soldermask is a bit strange (it overlaps on the vias). Apart from that, it’s perfect.
Gif animation (click to open):
View of a non e-tested PCB:
You’ll notice the shorts on the upper left corner and under S1. If it’s the only errors, it will be easy to fix. An other non e-tested board has a line of shorts on the big chip footprint (un-fixable). Actually, it looks like a hair on the photomask 🙂
Except these two PCBs, the other non-tested ones look quite OK. I’ll check them if I have time.
Is it worth it?
I’d say YES! Even if you need only one or two boards, it’s still less pain than to etch them yourself. And you’ll have a real silkscreen, a real soldermask and real vias! Even for larger boards, it’s still worth it, in my opinion. You should maybe consider buying the $10 100% e-test when you start to exceed the 10x10cm dimensions. If you’re a hobbyist or even an advanced hobbyist, you’ll be able to have enough-quality PCBs for very cheap. If you’re a professional, maybe you should consider a fab closer from your country, one you can directly talk with, but I’d say iTeadStudio could even be used for the first prototypes. If you have time to wait for the shipping.
All in all, the fabrication and shipping took 16 days, including two weekends. It’s really not bad, but maybe I was lucky. More expensive or bigger orders could be checked more carefully by your country’s customs.
So, where’s the catch?
Well, if I look at the boards, I don’t see any catch. You get what you pay for, even a little more. There’s also SeeedStudio offering the same PCB services and some people were saying iTeadStudio and Seeed use the same fab (makes sense, same price, same options, same DRC rules). It’s the first service for proto boards with such small prices I ever see. I suspect the fab is making those PCBs at the same time as other more legit orders and uses the available room on the boards to process the prototypes. Also, they seem to print as many boards as it takes to reach the 50% OK e-test (I got 12 boards).
But once again, I base my thoughts on the only order I passed and the first one. I’ll update this article when I order more boards. And also when I’ll solder the components on the boards I just got.
[UPDATE]: See then new post about fitting components on the board.