Advanced Circuits (also known as 4PCB.com) manufacturers printed circuit boards in facilities in Colorado, Arizona, and Minnesota. Their PCBs are of excellent quality. This article demonstrates how to order boards from Advanced Circuits using Copper Connection software.
Advanced Circuits's least expensive option is a bare bones prototype. However, it lacks the silkscreen and solder mask that I believe is valuable for reasons explained in another PCB article. So, I chose the $33 two-layer prototype with silkscreen and solder mask. In fact, this option allows silkscreen on both sides.
Advanced Circuits's $33 boards can be up to 60 square inches, which is pretty big.
Advanced Circuits printed circuit board PCB
There is no minimum quantity for students, but for everyone else the minimum is four boards. Therefore, the usual price is $33 × 4, plus shipping. For example, I paid $132 + $18.55 (UPS ground) for a total of $150.55.
However, I suspect that I didn't fill out the order form correctly. There is a checkbox for "Multiple Images" that adds $50 to the price. I didn't know what that was, so I didn't check it.
In hindsight, it appears that if you self-panelize like I do (combine different boards into a single file) then this fee applies. That would have brought my order to over $200. Advanced Circuits processed my order without the box checked and didn't give me any grief -- but you should be aware of the possibility.
In either case, the price per square inch is under $1 if you maximize the board size to 60 square inches.
The quality is excellent. The holes are well-centered in the pads, no errors or blotches, and the silkscreen is crisp and legible (even with a thickness of only 6 thou).
Advanced Circuits PCB quality
The plating on their pads has a slightly different appearance than I've seen before. It appears gritty close up in a certain light. However, it is smooth to the touch and solders just fine. Photos make it look a lot more sparkly and bumpy than it really is.
Comparison of granular vs globular PCB pad plating
Below is a photo comparing a diode silkscreen on boards manufactured by Advanced Circuits (top of image) versus other manufacturers. This is an extreme close up. All of the silkscreens look fine at normal viewing distances.
Silkscreen of diode (Advanced Circuits shown at top)
Copper Connection allows you to order from the manufacturer of your choosing. You are not locked in to a single supplier. One of the benefits is that non-proprietary manufacturers offer a wider range of hole sizes. (Aside: Large holes are usually routed, not drilled. So, there is usually not an upper limit.)
To test this, I intentionally included a 0.540 inch hole for a magnifying lens. Indeed, Advanced Circuits handled this without complaint. And, like all other holes, it is plated through!
PCB with large plated hole
Advanced Circuits adds an order number to an empty place in your board. It doesn't take up much room and can be used for traceability.
Advanced Circuits order number added in blank space
To order boards, you need to upload your file to the manufacturer's website in an industry standard format. With the exception of the specific export settings, the following steps will need to be followed regardless of the manufacturer you choose.
1. Open the board in Copper Connection.
2. (optional) If you have given your parts schematic ids and part numbers, then choose Bill of Materials in the Data menu. Double-check that everything looks right and matches the labels on the board.
3. (optional) Choose Design Rule Check in the Data menu to check for errors. Although the automated check won't catch everything, it can help avoid delays due to common mistakes that could put an order on hold.
4. Click on the board outline. The width, height, and area of the board are displayed in the Size and Position section of the main ribbon. You'll need the width and height information for the order.
Width height and area in the Size and Position section of the ribbon
5. When you're ready, choose "Export to Gerber and Excellon" from the Copper Connection Data menu.
6. Advanced Circuits accepts files with Copper Connection's default settings. However, you should select them by name, just in case:
Choose Advanced Circuits in Copper Connection Export window
7. Click the Export button and choose a folder to store the Gerber and Excellon files. I usually pick an empty folder on my desktop. Click Save to output the files.
In Windows, the folder where you exported the files should be open. Copper Connection created a bunch of files with the project file name. These files represent the industry-standard layers and drill locations for your board. You can use a Gerber viewer application to check them before ordering.
Copper Connection also copies the files into a single compressed file ('.zip'). Not only does the compressed file save upload time, but it keeps all of the layers together. The 'zip' file is the only file that the manufacturer needs to make your boards.
Advanced Circuits accepts orders on the web, email, or with a salesperson. For prototype orders, you'll likely just use the web. However, it is nice to know you can talk to a real person if you have any questions or want a more complicated manufacturing option (colors, materials, etc).
1. Go to http://www.advancedcircuits.com/
2. Register, if you haven't already. Make sure to select the option "Referral" and say "David Cook at Robot Room" when prompted to tell how you heard about Advanced Circuits.
3. Go to the home page and choose the $33 Specials in the Specials menu.
4. Click the link that appears saying "Click Here to Upload Files and Place Order".
5. Log in.
6. Upload your board file by clicking Browse, selecting the .zip that you exported earlier, clicking Open, and then clicking the Upload Now button.
7. Here is the second step of the order form:
8. The final step of the order form summarizes the description, price, shipping, and payment information. Click the Place Order button.
After placing your order, you'll receive email updates to let you know they have received the order, and when it ships. My order shipped on time (after five business days) and arrived four days later.
They threw in some free whole-grain popcorn. ;)
After cutting and soldering a few boards, I can say that I'm truly pleased with the product offered by Advanced Circuits. I will order from them again in the future.
Robot Room has no affiliation with Advanced Circuits. The use of their trademarks is for comparison purposes. Information accurate as of when the article was written (April 2013).