Making the move from breadboard to PCB

June 2, 2016 OpenSystems Media

As a MakerPro, and likely in many more serious engineering endeavors, a design starts out as a prototype on a solderless breadboard. This is great, because it lets you test your designs by simply plugging wires into different sockets until you find the right components or component values for the job.

Once this is done, you can make the design more permanent with a solderable breadboard. This makes things much less likely to shake loose, and can still be changed with more effort. Sparkfun has a good introduction to these products.

If you’re extremely confident in your design, you can try your hand at printed circuit boards (PCBs). Jason Baird, who runs Skinny Research and Development, has been working with these boards for years. His company makes highly specialized niche products so, while he often needs a quick turnaround for his boards, they still need to look professional and perform as such.

According to Baird, “Breadboards are great for prototyping and design work, but if you need 15 to 50 units of the same design, a PCB is best.” He adds, “Customers want to see something that looks like it came from a factory, not from a 10th grade science experiment.”

The good news for the aspiring MakerPro is that there are several tools and vendors that can help make professional-looking boards a reality. Baird used KiCad because it’s free and there were several good tutorials online. Eagle is another popular option, though it’s not free beyond a trial version.

Once designed, there are a few options for how to get your board actually made. If you want to make them yourself, you can go through a chemical etching process or route them with a CNC machine for same-day “delivery.” On the other hand, you may not want to have the required chemicals or router in your home shop.

Baird, as well as others, chooses to outsource this task to his preferred vendors, OSH Park and Dirty PCBs. According to him, the OSH Park turn-around time is less than two weeks, and they can produce a PCB in five days if needed. This lets him fill orders quickly without keeping a lot of inventory on hand. He uses Dirty PCBs for larger non-time sensitive orders. Their prices are good, but lead times are generally longer.

For another take on things, you can design and order your own device with modules already integrated with Gumstix and its Geppetto tool. With a 3D preview, you can see your custom-designed module come to life before it arrives on your doorstep in 15 days. When done correctly, you end up with a professional-looking PCB at a reasonable price.

Note that there are a few disadvantages to having a PCB made. The most obvious issue is that you have to wait at least a few days to get your design back. If you’re excited to see how it performs, this can certainly be agonizing.

On the flip side, as Baird notes, “Once you send that PCB to the manufacturer, you’re committed to the design.” If it doesn’t work, “You’re tossing it in the trash.” Even with careful design, mistakes happen, and Baird claims that he’s usually satisfied if he can get it right by the third try. These minor issues aside, when a finished board works, it certainly beats what you could make on a breadboard.

Jeremy S. Cook is a freelance tech journalist and engineering consultant with over 10 years of factory automation experience. An avid maker and experimenter, you can follow his exploits on Twitter, @JeremySCook.

Jeremy Cook, Engineering Consultant
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