Prototyping PCBs has become much easier over the last few decades as software and services have been developed that help make low cost and high quality PCB prototyping possible. PCB design software, or EDA software, is available that is simple to use and offers advanced capabilities and features that speed design and reduce errors. Many of the free PCB design packages are offered by PCB manufacturers that offer affordable low volume PCB prototype manufacturing which is often a great alternative to making a PCB at home.
Low Cost PCB Manufacturing
Making PCBs at home, while it can be very affordable, imposes several limitations. Typically thin traces are very hard to make reliably, vias or plated through holes must be manually installed as miniature rivits or soldered in wires or not used at all, and multilayer boards are not possible. The limitations imposed by homemade PCB manufacturing are addressed by even the lowest cost PCB manufacturers.
Even though PCB Prototyping services address many of the limitations of homemade PCBs, they do not include the most advanced features and tightest specifications. While the typical PCB capabilities are quite good, with trace widths as small as 6 mils, the most advanced components, such as dense BGA components, are too demanding for these PCB manufacturer options and full service PCB manufacturing solutions will be needed. Also, board layers are often limited to two layers and at most 4 layers before prices begin to go up substantially. For the most part, a four layer PCB prototype will suffice for all but the most demanding hobbiest work.
Several companies offer a quick PCB prototyping service. Below are a several companies that offer such services and a summary of their service and capabilities.
Advanced Circuits offers several low cost PCB manufacturing services, each aimed at a different market and offered at a different price point. Through their BarebonesPCB service you can get a bare two layer board without silkscreen or solder mask starting at $35 plus a per sq.in. fee. Students can take advantage of their $33 each deal which is a 60 sq.in. board with soldermask and silkscreen. There are no minimum orders for students, but shipping is extra. Non-students must order at least three boards at $33 each.
Gold Phoenix is a low cost PCB manufacturer based in China and offers up to 1000 sqcm of PCB starting at $100. PCB specs start out with 7 mil spacing, 15 mil min. hole size, 1 oz copper, 2 layers, and 5 day lead time (plus 3-4 day shipping). Tighter spacing is available for a charge of $20 per 1 mil tighter spacing down to 4 mil spacing. Small minimum drills are also available for additional charges with drills going down to 8 mils. Up to 6 layer boards, multiple colder mask colors, copper thicknesses, and other advanced options are also available.
PCB Express is a division of Sunstone Circuits, a PCB manufacturer that provides all levels of PCB manufacturing services. Their E1 service offers a 2 layer PCB without silk screen or solder mask starts at $109 for 2 pieces of boards up to 9 sq.in with a turn around of just one day. Upgrading to the E2 service adds $20 to the base price and a day to the processing but adds silk screening and solder masks. Their E4 service offers four layer boards with solder mask and silk screen starting at $194 for two pieces with up to 9 sq.in. of board size each. Drill sizes are limited, starting at 8 mils and trace spacing of 7 mils. Enhanced capabilities are available through their Sunstone Circuits portal.
Sierra Circuits is one of several low cost PCB manufacturers that offers an online service for prototyping PCBs. Their NoTouch service is a direct manufacturing service without any design rule checking or file checking that allows 10 mil minimum hole size, 5 mil trace width and spacing, 5 mil angular ring, silk screen and solder masks with up to 6 layer boards.
Batch PCB Manufacturers
When time is not an issue, a batch PCB manufacturer can be a great option for PCB Prototyping. Batch manufacturers combine several customer orders in to one batch on a large PCB panel. This lowers the cost but can add several days or weeks to the manufacturing time.
BatchPCB (SparkFun Prototyping)
SparkFun operates a PCB manufacturing batching service called BatchPCB that uses Gold Phoenix to build their orders. Their prices start at $10 + $2.50 per sq.in. Turnaround time is slow at about 3 weeks depending on how many PCBs are in the order and the number of higher priority jobs at Gold Phoenix.
OSHPark is cheaper for small boards than SparkFun's BatchPCB with pricing at $5 per sq.in. for three copies for two layer boards and $10 per sq.in. for four layer boards. The boards are manufactured in the US and shipping is included in the price with a maximum turnaround time of about 12 days. The minimum specs are 6 mil traces with 6 mil spaces, and 13 mil drills with 7 mil annular rings. Internal cutouts are supported. Also medium volume runs start at $1 per sq.in. with a minimum order of 150 sq.in. Multiple designs may be ordered but they must be ordered in multiples of 10.
ITead Studio PCB Prototyping
ITead is a China based PCB manufacturer that offers a 10 PCB run for a low price. Turnaround time is 4-6 days (excluding the Chinese New Year) not including shipping. Prices start at $9.90 for a 5cm x 5cm green PCB ($15 for colored PCBs) and go up to $24.90 for a 10cm x 10cm board ($35 for colors). Each order includes 10 copies of your board. Four layer PCBs are also available starting at $65 for 10 pieces with a maximum 5cm x 5cm board size. ITead offers 6 mil minimum spacing, PCB solder mask available in green, red, yellow, blue, white, and black, one to four layer boards, electrical testing and multiple board thicknesses.
SeeedStudio's FusionPCB service is similar to ITead's PCB manufacturing service. Both offer 6 mil spacing, PCB solder mask available in green, red, yellow, blue, white, and black, one or two layer boards, electrical testing and multiple board thicknesses. SeeedStudio allows board sizes up to 20cm x 20cm as standard with for $129.90 for 10 pieces. Only one or two layer boards are available through SeeedStudio.