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iTead Studio PCBs

posted Feb 17, 2012, 4:47 AM by Kevin Fodor   [ updated Mar 8, 2012, 5:00 AM ]
The PCBs have arrived!
I recently had an opportunity to start thinking about a new PCB design and having it fabricated. In the past I have relied on BatchPCB (a part of the folks at SparkFun) for all my hobby prototype PCBs. They have always provided good quality, at reasonable speed and I consider them an overall great service. Recently however, I have heard a lot of talk about iTead Studio and wanted to try out their PCB prototyping service.

I designed a very simple 4A-Bridge Rectifier (something that can be handy in the lab) and figured I would give them a shot with that board design. It's super simple (just a few components) through-hole design and pretty small as well (1.5" x 1.5").  iTead Studio was running a special and I figured their 10 pcs, 10cm x 10cm board special for $9.90 (+$4 shipping) was a great deal and I would give them a try. I didn't need 10 pieces, but at what comes out to be $1.39 ea it hardly seemed like an issue. Overall I was very happy with the speed and quality of the PCBs. Granted I am not working on very complex stuff, so my requirements are not very demanding. I really just want something cheap and something that works in a reasonable amount of time. The service iTead Studio is running seemed perfect.

In mid-January I finished the design and sent it off right away to iTead Studios on Friday the 13th. I should have figured something would be up with submitting a board on Friday the 13th! But I'll get to that later. Anyway, I was hoping to just beat the shutdown starting on January 15th for the Chinese New Year celebration. I got it off in what I thought was enough time, but they informed me on January 14th it wouldn't be fabricated until after January 30th due to the Chinese Holiday. Oh well, at least i tried. No big deal, I am not in a rush so I waited.

The next I heard from iTead Studios was on January 17th, when they informed me via email that it had been shipped via Registered Air Mail from China. So perhaps due to its size, they squeezed it in. The boards themselves finally showed up in my mailbox on February 4th. So even with the 15 day shutdown the boards arrived 22 days after I submitted the design. Not bad! I think somebody in China was still working over the holidays :)

Cool...bubble wrap.
When the boards arrived, there were 10 copies just as promised and the boards visually looked pretty good. I populated them and they worked fine. Solder mask was in good shape, silk screen looked nice. Overall I was pretty happy.

Boards look good.

But what about that submission on Friday the 13th? Well, in my haste to ship off the design before the deadline, I didn't run my usual FreeDFM check using their online DRC checker. If you haven't ever used this before, you should. It's a great way to double-check your work as it will spot all kinds of potential manufacturing problems. I like using it, but it can be sometimes a bit too aggressive I think in spotting problems. However, I think it is always better to be informed and ignore a problem rather than to have not known about it at all.

That being said, without running the check, sure enough I had a fabrication problem. The ground pour I placed on the board had too shallow clearance between it and one of the fuse clip pads. Interestingly I did later submit this board to BatchPCB (to run their DRC bot). BatchPCB caught the problem right away sending me an email alerting me of the issue.

BatchPCB DRC - Design: 4A_Bridge_Rectifier failed.

Thank you for submitting your design to BatchPCB!

Unfortunately, your design "4A_Bridge_Rectifier" violates our design rules
of 8 mil traces with 8 mil trace spacing.

Very nice, yea BatchPCB! This would have been nice to know, had I actually slowed down and run this before I submitted the design. The lesson here is that BatchPCB refused to fabricate my board due to the problem. iTead Studio was happy to go ahead and build it regardless of the issue. Again, I don't necessarily expect anything to actually check my work for me, but it was a nice bonus to see from the folks at BatchPCB.

Oops! Dumb mistake.

As you can see the iTead Studio folks fabricated the board exactly to my specifications, problems and all. Oh well at least it is not a huge issue. Nothing a Dremel tool can't fix by grinding away at the extra ground pour to create a larger clearance between it and the pad.

Just for comparison's sake, the same board would have cost me about $21.25 for a single board from BatchPCB. Now to be completely fair there are some costs baked into that price. First off their shipping is $5.50. Add to that their one time per order $10 handling charge. I would normally batch up my own PCBs in a single order to help amortize the $10 cost over several designs. But even taking the $10 fee out of the picture that is still $11.25 for a single board. Now I really like BatchPCB, and I think their service is great, but you really can't beat the iTead Studio cost. I didn't need 10 boards either, but it's almost like I got 9 free for using the iTead Studio service. Using BatchPCB that same order of 10 pieces would have been $73. Again, this doesn't mean I'll never use BatchPCB again. But if iTead Studio can be this cheap for at least my trial and error prototype boards, it really seems worth it. Later if I want perhaps something with better quality or more quickly I can consider BatchPCB (or others) for fabrication of the finalized design. Well something to consider anyway.

In the mean time, while I was waiting for my first order above to arrive, I decided to submit another design as well. This design is aagain another through-hole design 1.75" x 2.5". This fits into iTead Studio's 10 piece 5cm x 10cm service. With their "holiday" discount coupon the total was $24.58 which includes $5 shipping. That makes this $2.46 per board. Not bad. The timeline went like so;

Day -5 - January 23rd - Placed order with iTead Studio

Day -3 - January 25th - Submitted design to iTead Studio

Day 0 - January 27th - e-mail received to indicate I submitted to the wrong email address (oops)

Day 0 - January 27th - Resubmitted design to correct email address.

Day +3 - January 30th - Received email to confirm design was submitted to fabrication.

Day +10 - February 6th - Received email to confirm the boards have shipped.

Day +15 - February 11th - Received information that boards have entered Hong Kong.

Day +17 - February 13th - Received information that the boards are in New York City.

Day +22 - February 18th - Received boards. Yea!

Yep! 22 days again and the boards arrived. They look pretty good.