Remember back in February when I was writing about an PM-OLED display I got from Farnell? I recently learned about Seeed, a cheap PCB manufacturing service in China, through Dangerous Prototypes. Since I was not optimistic that I can make a usable footprint for the display with a home-made board I decided to order the design at Seeed and test the display as well as this new manufacturing service.
Ordering a PCB through Seeed Fusion PCB service is quite simple and worked without a hitch for me. You order a correct manufacturing option in the web shop and send the design files (Gerber for artwork and Excellon for drills) in a zip file to their e-mail address. The basic offering is 10 pieces of a two-sided board with silk, solder mask and copper layers on both sides, green finish and a 50% electrical test. You can also add a few options that cost extra, like different solder mask color or RoHS-compliant finish. Price increases in steps in relation to the board dimensions, with the minimum at 5 x 5 cm.
They have a few special requirements that you need to watch for when making design files though. You have to have a board outline on one of the layers and you have to include the order number they send you on the design somewhere. Other than that, the design rules are pretty standard. Minimum trace width is 6 mil. There's also an excellent guide to using the service which goes step by step using CadSoft Eagle.
I used gEDA PCB to make the artwork for this particular board and I didn't have any special problems. Seeed expects the files to be named in the same way Eagle does (foo.GTL versus foo.front.gbr), so you need to do some renaming after exporting the design to Gerber in PCB.
So how did it work in practice?
The cartoon box I received by mail contained 11 boards, one extra over my order of 10 pieces. Perhaps because my Arduino shield design was just a little bit too large for the 5 x 10 cm and I had to pay for 10 x 10 cm. It also appears that all of my boards have been electrically tested, not just 50%, since all of them have markings on the side. Nice surprise there.
I have no complaints over the manufacturing quality. I inspected all eleven boards and I can see no apparent defects (compared to some other cheap PCB manufacturer that managed to botch one board out of four) and drills are perfectly aligned.
If you look closely, straight lines on the silk screen layer have a somewhat jagged, pixelated appearance, which might be because of some calibration procedure (the effect looks similar to what you get on a projector where you correct the perspective in software). But this is just a very minor cosmetic problem and copper layers do not have any such effect. Seeed also inserted some kind of a batch number in small print on the bottom side stop mask layer. In my case it's over the ground fill so I guess they position it in a way that does not affect any artwork.
From the day I sent the email with the order it took 22 days before the package turned up at my local post office. The total cost for the PCB which is the size of a typical shield for Arduino Duemilanove was 26.05 €. I think this is an excellent value for the price. The long turn around time still makes it more practical to make simpler one-off boards at home, but for multiple pieces or smaller dimensions I will definitely use this service again.
And I guess another good thing about dealing with Chinese is that they do know their Unicode and don't mangle my non-ASCII name in their correspondence.