One of the moderators on Aron’s diystompboxes forum, Peter Snowberg, has repeatedly suggested using a “fab house,” or a PCB fabrication company, to make PCBs. There are lots of reasons for doing this, including convenience, accuracy, and less pollution. I have been wanting to give this a try and waiting for the right project to do it. And I was not sure which company to try. Finally, I took the plunge by sending olimex.com a smaller version of markusw’s 9V electric mistress project that I have been working on.
Several things came together to push me over the brink. First, markusw mentioned that he had seen an Olimex board made by another forumite and thought highly of it. Another factor was that my project fit nicely as three copies onto a single small board as manufactured by Olimex. Because Olimex will arrange the copies (they call it panelization) on the board for you and cut the board up into the individual boards (they call that de-panelization) all for free, I could get three boards for a fairly low price. The final reason was that I could easily go with a 2-sided board for not much more money and that helped to keep my version of markusw’s project small.
To keep things inexpensive, you have to design within the specifications of Olimex, but that is not difficult. The gaussmarkov Eagle libraries all use a 0.7mm drill which is one of the default sizes that Olimex uses, so meeting that requirement was trivial. The only extra work that I had to do was replace the off-board components often pictured in layouts with pads for each connection. I am not sure yet what Olimex does with components that are positioned outside the perimeter of the board.
One other detail, which will not be an issue next time, is that the text for the silkscreen printing of component placement on the component side needs to be 50mils high or the text may not show properly. Olimex requires a 10mil width on the lines in the silkscreen layer. So I just told them not to print the silkscreen layer and made that easy. For the future, I am gradually working my way through the gaussmarkov libraries and increasing the text size from its current 40mil size.
Once I had the board ready to go, I only had to send Olimex the Eagle .brd file. I emailed it and the next day I received an email reply saying that I was good to go. Olimex also checks to make sure your board meets their requirements. They gave me a final price, which had an extra $3.30 charge for drilling over 100 holes on a board. I did not count my holes ahead of time, but it was no surprise so that was fine. Then I faxed them my credit card to pay for it.
Olimex promises a 3 to 5 working-day turnaround and they were finished my board after 5 days and shipped it immediately. I chose airmail delivery because I was not in a hurry. From Bulgaria to California, delivery took 8 days. And part way through that time, I got another email telling me that a package was on its way.
As you can tell, communication was good. If you are chatty, don’t look for a conversation partner at Olimex. The email I got confirming shipping contained just one word: “shipped.” And be ready to learn that you made a mistake when you get your boards. I have a feeling they do exactly what you ask, even if you did not know that was what you were asking for.
I have not populated my boards yet. But I am satisfied with the whole process and I will probably go with Olimex again when I attempt a rendition of the Deluxe Memory Man, our next two-sided project. And I am thinking about including an Olimex-ready version of some projects in the Circuits section of this site.