Custom Boards

If you’ve ever worked with electronics hardware before, you’ll know that it can sometimes get a little messy to build your own circuits. Using solderless breadboards and female wire connectors can quickly get out of hand if you need to make several connections. Soldered breadboards can be an even bigger mess if you have several connections that you need to short using extra wire or solder. Not only can it be impractical to assemble custom circuits with breadboards, they can often be infeasible to use due to if your project has a tight space constraint for its electronics. 

Though breadboards and breadboard wire are both valuable prototyping tools, it is often necessary to design a custom board for certain projects. This is especially useful if the circuit is fully designed and determined and will most likely not need to be changed in the near future. But there is a problem. PCB manufacturing equipment is not a luxury many people have. Even though there have been a handful products that have introduced desktop PCB manufacturing into the workspace, these are generally priced far beyond what many designers and makers can afford. 

Thankfully, there are a number of companies that provide this manufacturing service for a reasonable price. JLCPCB is one these companies. In this tutorial, we will look at how to take a PCB design and outsource it to JLCPCB (note that this assumes you already have a design made).

Preparing a Gerber File

For this tutorial, we will be using a PCB designed by Adham Elarabawy for the spot_mini_mini project. This custom board was designed to distribute power to several servo motors and connect them to PWM pins on a Teensy 4.0. The boards and schematics can be found here. This will take you to a page on EasyEDA which is an online PCB design software. Open the link and open the “Spot_PDB_SS” board in the editor by clicking the “Open in Editor” button above the design.

This will open the design in the EasyEDA PCB editor. Most PCB manufacturers use machines that take in a set of instructions within a certain file format to mill out the custom board and print in the lines and pads that connect all the nodes together. For PCB manufacture, this file is generally a Gerber file. We will need this file in order to get a quote and eventually place our order to JLC. 

To export a Gerber file from a PCB design on EasyED select “File” then “Generate PCB Fabrication File(Gerber)” from the list.

You will then be prompted to check the DRC rules, which you should say yes to. You will then get a pop-up window that will give you a multitude of options for the look and finish of the PCB.

Since EasyEDA is part of JLCPCB’s services, they have an integrated option for you to place a PCB fabrication order straight from the editor. Even thought you will be sending the order to JLC, we will ignore these options since you may want to outsource your design elsewhere. Hit the “Generate Gerber” button at the bottom of the window to download the Gerber file for your board.

Placing Your Order

Go to JLCPC’s website. From here, you can simply drop the Gerber folder you downloaded into the “Add Gerber File” box.

The file will then be processed and a preview image will be displayed for you. You will then be presented with a number of settings about the materials, look, and finish you want for your board. You should leave most of these unchanged unless you know what you’re doing. It is good to verify a couple of the settings from this list so that you know you designed the board properly. For instance, the PCB design we are using has two layers: a front and a back. This is confirmed by the layers option on the order form.

The only thing you might want to change is the color of the board, which you can easily change in the “PCB Color” option. Once you’ve selected what you want, you can hit the “Save to Cart” button and then place in your order from the cart.