REVIEW: PCB suppliers

Here’s a quick post on PCB suppliers I’ve used. It’s not exhaustive, but I’ll try to give a brief pros and cons I’ve encountered.

Also I’m doing crazy RF grade PCBs, but also not basic single layer boards. I mostly do development boards (test circuits) at 2 layer boards or a full product solutions on 4 layer boards. My newest board (at time of writing) is actually 6 layers due to space constraints.

I’ve tried to include some images, but as a lot of my PCBs are for clients, I can’t generally show overviews, only specific components.

I’ll keep adding to the list as I try new suppliers. As I live in Australia, I’m yet to try European or American suppliers due to shipping costs. Also, the designs themselves are all done by me. Some of the boards in the photos are quite old so my layout may be not great on some of the layouts. I’m always learning and refining.

Let me know of what details I should include!


PCBZone/Circuit Labs (NZ)

Pros:

  • Good quality boards.
  • Supporting a more “local” company
  • Nice colours in solder mask
  • Cheap shipping $25AUD

Cons:

  • Expensive for 2 layer boards.
  • On the expensive side, but not crazy expensive for larger/multilayer boards
  • No transparency on price per board and setup costs (PCB Zone), only one figure which depending on quantity changes dramatically

Storm Circuit (China)

Pros:

  • Reasonable Quality Boards
  • Medium cost for PCBs
  • Transparent in costs – Setup fee, plus cost per board
  • Shipping cost ~$40USD

Cons:

  • I’ve had a set of boards come in the wrong colour.
    • In their defense, they offered to send replacements, but I only needed one
  • They once put on codes used for manufacture onto the silkscreen

Elecrow (China)

Pros:

  • Very Cheap!
  • Quality seems reasonable
  • All online process for standard PCBs
  • Have a good range of solder mask colours

Cons:

  • When I got a quote for a six-layer board with blind vias, they quoted one price, but hadn’t seen the blind vias. This changed the cost from ~$350US to ~$950US. I kindly refused.

A-Tech Circuits (China)

I nearly didn’t buy through A-Tech as their original shipping price was $150US but I queried this and by changing to DHL, it got reduced to $70US (its more expensive than I normally pay but seeing it has a stencil, I’ll cop it).

Pros:

  • Looks to be quality
  • Very good communication!
  • They made an extra board and tested for soldermask issues and cut a bit out to show layers
  • Good accuracy
  • Stencils frames are optional but no more expensive!
  • One of the cheapest for 6 layers with blind vias

Cons:

  • 10 day standard turn-around

 

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AliExpress Storm32 BGC

A couple of months ago, a friend of mine decided he wanted to build a camera gimbal (or stabiliser) for an upcoming holiday to Japan. He didn’t know where to start however on building one so came to me for help. My current paid job includes dealing with stabilised platforms on drones so I have some experience with gimbals.

i-fly_gopro_handheld_gimbal
A camera gimbal

I recommended the BaseCam SimpleBGC 32 as that is what I’ve used and know, plus it has a very nice GUI for configuration. However, as the gimbal is meant for hobbyist use, and cost was a factor, this platform was abandoned. After some further searching, my mate found some forums that recommended the Storm32 BGC, but once again these were expensive.

Being a proficient online shopper however, I had a look on AliExpress for some clones of both the controllers. The SimpleBGC was about a tenth of the price at approx. $12USD compared to $120USD, while the Storm32 was $20USD.

storm32-bgc-front
Top side of Clone Storm32 v1.4 PCB
storm32-bgc-back
Bottom side of Clone Storm32 v1.4 PCB

When they arrived, neither of them worked when plugged in via USB. I investigated the SimpleBGC board first, and found it was the 8bit version that ran on an Atmel MCU (I think it was an AT90 chip – I’ve since lost the board). I had a look for firmware I could upload via an Atmel AVRISP mkII, but couldn’t find any binary files.

I quickly gave up, and looked into the Storm32. While plugged in via USB the LED acted as if in normal operation, but the USB communication refused to work (meaning no device showed up at all in Windows Device Manager or Mac’s System Profiler). I had a look at the soldering to see if there were any faults, and reflowed them just in case but still no luck. I checked the official website for trouble shooting information and found the version I had (v1.4) did not officially exist, with the latest being v1.3.

I then realised the onboard microcontroller, was the same series (STM32) as I had just recently bought the official programmer for! This was great as the official software has support for uploading firmware via the programmer (the SimpleBGC seemingly only has this functionally via USB).

Programming the Storm32 in this method however, is seemingly uncommon. As such, the pins on the circuit board were not populated. So before being able to upload an official version of the firmware (which still wasn’t guaranteed to work, being a clone device), the PCB had to be modified to attach some pin headers.

wiring

The two devices connected via jumpers. Power and USB not connected yet

With the headers attached, the ST-Link/V2 (the programmer) could be connected using the SWD protocol. Below are some diagrams on how its attached. The pins on the Storm32 are labelled, and just need matching up to those on the ST-Link/V2 (see the ST-Link/V2 manual – UM1075 for more info). I used female-female jumper wires to connect the two devices.

I then powered the Storm32 via USB (I could have also used external power leads, but that would have meant an external power supply, when I’m constrained by size on my desk), and initiated the reprogramming of the firmware to the STM32 microcontroller.

The official software could now see the device via USB. Success!

Notes:

  • Throughout the whole sequence there weren’t any motors attached and the external IMU sensor board was not attached.
  • The attached power cable needed to be removed so a more useful connection could be used. For the gimbal designed, an AAA battery pack was used.
  • A USB-to-Serial converter may have been able to be used instead of direct programming, but this would require the microcontroller’s bootloader to be fully functional (an unknown). Also, I had the programmer easily at hand, while a USB-to-serial adapter that gave TTL logic I did not (I have heaps of USB-to-serial RS232 cables).

A post about the gimbal build itself will be up when completed.

Sorry about the picture sizes, I’m just learning WordPress but from what I can find, the image control is utterly useless, its worse than MS Word! What I mean, is you can’t have multiple images on a line that when next to each other, are not the full width and thus HUGE!