Hobbyist electricians who do not have the time, capacity, and resources to perform PCB fabrication themselvescan always turn to specialized PCB production houses to do the work for them. This way, they can concentrate more on soldering the necessary components, testing them out, and finalizing them for public consumption. If the hobbyist electrician is more into prototyping and experimentation, leaving PCB fabrication to those production houses is the norm. With the advent of the Internet, online PCB orders are commonplace for those hobbyists.
For the production houses to have an idea of what the finalized PCB will be like, the one who will be ordering the PCBs must first submit the following: the schematic diagram, the bill of materials, the data sheets of the components to be soldered into the PCB, the finalized layout file generated by a CAD program, and a file containing information on holes, or donuts, to be drilled. The requirements may vary from house to house, therefore contacting the house for a list of requirements or consulting the house’s website is a must. A minimum order requirement is also implemented; therefore a house that best meets the needed amount of PCBs must be selected carefully.
The PCB fabrication house may take a week or two, or even a month, in manufacturing the boards depending on the volume of the order; but the end result will always be a professional-quality batch of PCBs made to last. Characteristics of a professionally-made PCB include the following: 1) the substrate is made from FR-4, which is a flame-resistant woven glass-reinforced epoxy resin commonly found in PCBs of consumer electronics; 2) the usual PCB fabrication process is appended with additional steps such as E-testing, routing/V-scoring, and inspection – which are all performed between the etching and the final cleaning steps; 3) the PCB is compliant with environmental standards such as RoHS (the Restriction of Hazardous Substances) in Europe; 4) the donuts, or plated through holes, are smoother, more recognizable, and properly marked; 5) the traces and lines are clearly defined; and 6) there is an additional solder mask that mitigates the effects of overheating during soldering.
Depending on the size of the production house, a professionally-made PCB is made with advanced direct etching processes that skip the use of chemicals. A specialized cutter-plotter that etches the copper based on the digital pattern file fed from a computer into it is usually employed, but the plotter is slow and contributes to the long wait times most production houses implement.
There are some hobbyist electricians who prefer to order in low volumes at cheaper prices due to reasons such as one-time prototyping and small-scale production of custom-made electronic devices. Due to mass production, the cost of an actual small-sized PCB can be less than $2, if the production house wills it. China is a good source of cheap PCBs, but their quality can be compromised. Bootleg versions of popular gadgets such as iPhones are made with cheap PCBs that may run afoul of safety regulations. The price also depends on the layering of the foil. More layers mean higher prices. An extensive comparative analysis of prices from different production houses is required to get the best deal.
The last resort for those hobbyists is making the PCBs themselves, since cheap options such as using photo paper, laser printers, household clothes irons, and affordable chemicals are available. Drilling the donuts is another story due to the requirement of drills, drill stands, and drill bits. If the hobbyist is particularly not adept in drilling holes, there are also production houses that accept drilling services by themselves. If the requested PCB is a surface-mount one, drilling is out of the question, saving the hobbyists money.
PCB fabrication is all about the assembly of circuit boards used in electronics and computers. The layers of Printed circuit board are assembled along with their specific surface patterns in order for them to be used in manufacturing electronics.