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In the Wild, professional make, Reflections, Snapshots

Where PCBs are made

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In a previous post, we covered how to tackle the digital vendor worlds of Taobao. Here, I will discuss together with Amanda from Fabule and Tarun and Josh from LightUp, where and how digital PCB (Printed Circuit Board) designs are made tangibly real – just like the PCB coster depicted here, that was designed by LightUp to detect temperature of a cup and display it visually.

Over the last months at HAXLR8R, many of us have begun working with HQPCB, a Shenzhen-based manufacturer of PCBs. What we found was a service that extends way beyond a linear transaction from a digital design into physical board. HQPCB basically functions like a “friendly neighborhood” PCB shop. HQ does not stand for high quality as the name might imply, but literally for the neighborhood of the PCB shop in Shenzhen: HuaQiang.

Working with HQPCB has been a learning experience for us on many levels. While in the United States, for instance, PCB prototyping often feels like a very distant manufacturing process, working with HQPCB takes on a much more personalized note. Even though orders are submitted online, they are verified over the phone or even in person at the HQPCB office. In these conversations, we learned things like “if we order 10.000 boards, can you produce a special shape,” or “can you do two layers of solder masks instead of silk screening” (as described in Bunnie Huang’s post on “Where Arduino’s are born”). So even though the interaction with HQPCB starts off with an online transaction, it quickly turns into a personalized experience.

This becomes more immediately visible, when we introduce you to Kevin Lau from HQPCB, one of their English-speaking customer representatives: On one of our first order’s, Kevin reached out to us over the phone and one of us walked over to the physical shop of HQPCB. This way, the payment could occur in cash (which is great if you don’t have a Chinese bank account). Kevin took care of the payment out of Amanda’s HQPCB customer account. This required us to share our account info with Kevin, which at first created a feeling of unease. Sharing account information can be a quite common practice in China, especially when the relationship is based on mutual trust (check out one of my earlier papers where I have written more extensively bout this). Generally, our interactions with Kevin have been very personable. He has gone out of his way to help us with orders on weekends and even while he was out of town. He always followed up within hours of receiving a delivery to make sure everything is OK. And he ordered batches to be redone, if they were not within the specified tolerance or of there were any issues with the boards.

A central aspect of these interactions was the mutual learning process. We often met with Kevin to talk about particular PCB art techniques. This included, for instance, a conversation about how to accomplish a board design based on two coats of solder mask, in different color, rather than solder mask and silk screen. This technique allows to achieve a better resolution on the PCB’s decorative elements, which is crucial when the boards are a visible part of the consumer end product. For instance, think of the aesthetics of the Arduino board with graphical elements such as the geographical map of Italy, which make the board immediately recognizable. This design also helps to identify “fake” Arduino boards, which mostly rely on low-resolution graphics, i.e. a pixelated or blurry map of Italy.

Double coating of solder masks is a non-standard technique that HQPCB was not familiar with before our work with them. And so, we learned together, as HQPCB experimented with the technique, how it worked in practice. What we found out was that the double coating does not require the use of machines other than those already in use at a standard PCB manufacturers. It does require a slight alteration of the assembly line process.

Some basics for those interested in working with HQPCB:
The standard delivery with HQPCB takes 4-5 days. If you want to have express delivery within 24 hours the costs increase: We had an order, for instance, for 100RMB (Chinese Renminbi) within 48 hours, and 200 RMB within 24 hours. 24 hours means that the PCBs are finished within 24 hours and then delivery occurs the next day. Generally, with HQPCB the price depends on the size of your board and the color of the solder mask (white solder mask is more expensive than the green). So for a small green board is 50RMB and a big one is 100RMB. You submit through a form that updates live. HQPCB then gives you an estimate of the costs, after about 30 minutes of reviewing the files. If a PCB design is more complicated or any other questions come up, they will call and discuss details.

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