No one best PCB fab house

-August 21, 2016

There is no one best fab house. It depends what you need and the kind of boards you are making. For a one-off hobby or test project, maybe OSH Park is best. For high-tech boards, Sierra Proto Express may be able to do the buried vias you need. For a dependable low-cost board you can have assembled too, Advanced Circuits is great and Sunstone has really made a name for itself by partnering with distributors and assembly houses to get you a working prototype fast. You can get a quote for your prototypes in minutes, but make sure you understand the specs of the boards.

A fellow engineer asked me what PCB fab houses I like and I told him the ones I know about. There are four I like.

Sierra Proto Express is the PCB fab house I have used for decades. Owner Ken Bahl invented fast-turn low-cost prototypes right in Sunnyvale, where I used to live. Another thing to love is that Sunnyvale has some of the strictest environmental regulations in the country, so boards made at Proto Express tread as lightly as possible on the Bay Area ecosystems.

Ken Bahl was one of the the first PCB fab house owners to specialize in low-cost quick-turn prototypes.

A highly-regarded PCB fab house is Sunstone Circuits. They offer the PCBExpress fast service, and a free PCB design tool, PCB123. The deal is that its free if you use Sunstone to make the board, $100 if you want the Gerbers to take anywhere. A really neat feature is that if you do use Sunstone that first time, they give you the Gerber files. Don’t take this to mean Sunstone only wants to do prototype work, they will gladly quote large-volume orders too.

Sunstone Circuits has been making PCBs for 40 years and pioneered online ordering.

Another well-known PCB fab outfit is Advanced Circuits in Colorado. They do great work. I have worked with them when I was a consultant. One really neat thing Advanced Circuits does is offer FreeDFM, a free online design rule checker where you can send your Gerbers. DFM means design for manufacturing. If your Gerbers violate the design rules that Advanced or any other fab house needs, the tool will flag the errors in your design in a matter of minutes.

If you don’t need super fast turns, there is an outfit in Oregon called OSH Park. It was started by James “Laen” Neal, a system admin that figured out how to add your board to a shared panel and get a low price. No same-day turns here, but usually a better price. They have been adding capabilities so that you can now get four-layer and finer geometries. Since they are panelizing your board with other customers, you may have to wait a bit to get your boards, but its hard to beat their price. As their business has grown, that wait has gotten shorter and shorter. Their trademark is a purple soldermask.

This is OSH Park's fab test coupon, used for quality testing of potential new vendors. The left coupon is from a budget prototype fab, it has serious problems. The right coupon is from an OSH Park fab and has no shorts or defects.

Do make and send a fab drawing. I have sent out drawings as native OrCAD 9.2 Gerber format, but now I print out a PDF to include with the layer Gerber files. This saved me once years ago when I needed 1-oz copper and the fab house low-cost option was only 1/2-oz copper. I missed it, but since my fab drawing specified copper thicknesses, the fab house caught it and saved me a spin. It was a modest surcharge to use the copper thickness I wanted. Your fab drawing is a contract, use it.

You can copy the tech specs from the fab house to put on your fab drawing. This is especially good if you have purchasing agents that want to send the board to Albania for three guys with a drum of ferric chloride who will work really cheap. The better specs offered by the vendors in this article will ensure you get the PCB you want, even in production, and be too bad for the purchasing agent that tries to be a hero by shopping price, not cost.

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