OK, I know, the title of the post sounds a bit like something you'd see on a shelf in a kids toy store along the same lines as "My First Book", but recently I got down to the very serious business of making my first proper printed circuit board. You are probably wondering how such a geek got this far in life without commissioning a proper PCB for one of their electronics projects, after all they make your projects neater, smaller and look alot more professional compared to some junk cobbled together on some prototyping board. However until recently I was firm in the belief that getting a small run of PCBs for hobbyist or small projects was not really viable due to cost, but all that changed when I started seeing a whole bunch of electronics YouTubers starting to get sponsored by a Chinese company "JLCPCB". Claiming to produce small batches of 10 boards up to 100x100mm for only $2 (USD) plus shipping, this seemed to good to be true, but at that price I wanted to give it a go, it was a no brainer.
I decided I would try converting one of my old designs, the Internet of Things DHT22 WiFi Temperature and Humidity Sensor, which I previously built on veroboard and later dotted prototyping board into a two layer PCB design, I felt this was a good start as it is a very simple circuit which I am already familiar with. The first step was to get acquainted with EasyEDA, an online electronic design tool which allows export directly to JLCPCB when you want to go to production. Using the schematic editor and the component selector I recreated the circuit, once I was happy with the design I continued to convert into a PCB layout. After some time I had placed all of the components in a reasonable location and used the auto routing feature to suggest how to lay out the traces, it did a pretty good job keeping to the clearance rules. Just for comparison my smallest dotted prototyping board design measures 1300mm^2 and there was no opportunity to reduce the footprint further, however with the PCB I managed to reduce the footprint down to 1125mm^2. In reflection I probably could have gone a bit smaller but I wanted to make sure I had reasonable clearance between the components to make it easier to solder.
After checking the PCB design was sane I decided to order a run of boards, following checking out on the JLCPCB website my order totalled $2 for the boards and $8 for shipping, pretty reasonable if you ask me. When they arrived I eagerly opened up the pack to check out the quality as at such a price I was skeptical, however I was pleasantly surprised, they are great.
I collected up the parts required to complete a board and began soldering, the solder adhered to the pads on the board very well and all drill holes where perfectly sized for the components. I added an 8 pin header between the board and the ESP8266 so I could easily remove the ESP8266 break out board for re-programming.
Overall I am very impressed with the service from JLCPCB, it really opens up an option for hobbyist to begin producing professional looking projects and prototypes without breaking the bank. I will definitely consider using them for any future projects once I am past the breadboard stage, the only down side is the delivery times from China are quite long if you opt for standard postage and the expedited DHL options are considerably more expensive. Also I am confused why a run of 10 up 100x100mm boards costs only $2 yet an additional 10 boards added to the same order are charged at $5, either way if you needed more boards it still makes sense to group the shipping rather than completing seperate orders and even at $5 for 10 boards JLCPCB are significantly cheaper than the other alternatives.