PCBWay assembly service (my experience)

Hi folks. I just pulled the trigger on a set of 10 proto PCBs from PCBway, with included purchasing and assembly. Here’s my log of the events. I’ll add more once I get the boards, but I want to start now while it’s fresh in my memory.

  1. Order of 20 PCBs, 48 x 40mm, 4 layer, 0.8mm, 0.15/0.15mm space/trace, 0.25mm drill.
    Cost: $133

  2. Stencil
    Cost: $10

  3. Assembly of 10 PCBs, all SMT, 81 parts, 50 uniques, lots of 0201.
    Cost: $142 ($14.20 per PCB)
    Note: cost goes down to $3/unit for large volume

  4. Component Procurement
    Cost: generally a 2x markup on all parts. Original quote was ~$50/unit, I removed three ICs (two QFN, one LGA), quote became ~$20/unit.

So far, it’s a decent deal. Basically a $24 additional cost per board. We will need to do the QFNs and LGAs ourselves, but these parts are easy for us to solder as long as the solder paste is already there (it will be). Moreover, we’ll need to rework these parts anyway during testing for energy and impedance.

The giant pains for us are applying solder paste and soldering lots of 0201s and other micro components. These two activities are purportedly solved for $24/board. Worth it.

Final note is that I could easily compete with this price ($14 labor + $10 hidden handling cost per board) with an operation in Ukraine. Probably I should talk to the guys at Diptrace about this – one click PCB build and stuff would be a nice feature.

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That’s a great idea, especially with the 0201s. I did a simple LED board with a lot of 0603s on board (200 total). However, I had to get 15 boards so it was worth it to outsource and reasonably priced as well. My main complaint was that they kept insisting that even though I was ordering about 1500 LEDs through them, my per piece price would be the price at 100 parts per board. That was a frustrating bit of communication.

To clarify on the QFN and BGAs, you’re leaving that part of the stencil open and will just flux it and reflow it when you receive it?

Interesting side note. In your experience, what is the import/export situation like from Ukraine? Specifically:

Duty & Restrictions for US->Ukraine
Duty & Restrictions for Ukraine -> US
Duty & Restrictions for China -> Ukraine

Assuming that the Ukrainian CM would be building PCBs locally (extremely viable) and sourcing components from European distributors, the Ukraine-China duties aren’t a big deal. The component cost from PCBWay is not a good deal. Buying from distribution is cheaper.

As for US import, I need to do some translations, but they are in the MFN category.

In any case, I’m not in the manufacturing business. It’s just an idea, given than the cost of PCBWay is worth it, but not so low that it’s a no-brainer.

I’ve had a mixed track record more recently with PCBWay. The assembly service itself has been okay, but on one batch of boards, the assembly started with some number of bare boards that had bad soldermask alignment issues and that resulted in connector pins shorting to copper pours that peaked out from under the soldermask. It wasn’t caught either at board fab or assembly inspection, so I received boards with these shorts that I couldn’t easily rework myself (40 pin connector, with the shorting solder heatsinking directly into copper pours). Fortunately, I had enough good boards for the client to get started. The rework is in progress right now (they are paying for round-trip shipping for the rework).

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@ChrisGammell Yes, the paste will be reflowed onto the empty pads. I’ll just flux it, plop the component on there, and hit it with hot air.

On this topic, I had a Hakko hot air station until recently (went kaput), and I replaced it with a much cheaper “Quick 861DW” that I was able to get 2-day on Amazon Prime in an emergency. I actually like this one better. Was $300 IIRC.

Good to know. I have no connectors (plastic) on these boards, and no through-hole. So hot air or hot plate will be OK for fixes. Hopefully none required.

Great to read this from a viable source. I have always had my doubts about reviews of pcbway due to their ways before of paying for good reviews. I have a number of simple boards coming up. Will try to let an do t it all.

PCB way assembly doesn’t seem to have options for assembly turn times. It’s usually been 1 week for the boards, and another 4 weeks for assembly.

You can contact your sales rep after you start the process to get quotes for expedited processing. Keep in mind that they may be partly blocked on sourcing lead times if you are trying to assemble anything beyond common popcorn and really popular ICs.

I can report that I had a small PCB fab and assembly done by JLC. They only do single sided assembly, which may be a issue for you. My parts were 0805 and SOT23-6, one medium size L. The boards came in 9 days via DHL, almost as fast as ordering blank boards.

They have a poor way of indicating diode orientation which was discussed on the KiCad forum a few weeks ago. There DFM report has a canned “can’t find location of ???” which is clearly noted on the silk screen. Yet they did place the part properly. Not sure what that issue really is.

There parts prices are LOW and they have “basic parts” preloaded in PNP and “extended parts” where they need to insert a cassette. There is a limit on the number of extended parts which may be a problem in the future.

Overall I was happy with the result.

Thanks, it’s good to know about JLC. I’ll try them next time.

Re: “can’t find the location of”
Did you send the centroid file together with the gerbers?

You need to do a little homework on their site before you order. They have a separate BOM file with their part number and another placement file, also with their part number. Both of these are .CSV can easily be done using a spreadsheet, mostly rearranging some columns.

The bigger time effort is looking up their PN on their web site. The search feature is reasonably good as you can look for “10k 0805” in a single search. Not all parts are available in all packages. I prefer SOIC but have to go with TSSOP sometimes.

Their support is ok. Most of the emails make sense. Once submitted, they can’t change even small things (company policy I think). They will cancel and refund, then you have to make a change an upload again. Slightly painful, but it absolves them of responsibility for errors.

You do have to look closely at the orientation of ICs, diodes, etc. Nice graphics, but marking diodes with + and - is not always intuitive.

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OK, they finished the work and will be shipping tomorrow (15 Jan). So, that’s basically a 3-week turn, maybe 4 with shipping. That’s acceptable.

They sent me photos of the PCBs, and were very communicative during the process. There were two discrepancies in the BOM/assembly, and we resolved them over email very efficiently. I would absolutely consider using them again. The only thing that would really be a “cherry-on-top” is if they offered to use lead solder. For proto boards, I’m often reworking something, and leaded is so much better at dealing with rework.

If you haven’t tried it already, buy some ChipQuik low-temp solder. It’s pricey, but great for tricky removals, especially on high-value boards. I never regretted using it. I have regretted not using it many times.

Mostly I’m referring to resilience under multiple heat cycles and that lower temp leased stuff has much less chance of scorching pads under rework. But yes, the tin-bismuth compounds are great. I use them also when I need to solder lipoly battery leads in proto work.

Final Update: PCBs received. It took about 4 weeks total.

The quality of the PCBs is very good.
Alignment of solder mask, drill, and silk are all very good. I’m not pushing the boundaries of their fab on this PCB (0.8mm FR-4, 0.1mm space/trace, 0.25mm min drill). The Proto-2 of this board will use the STM32WL, which is BGA, and I’ll need to go to 0.075 space/trace and 0.15 min drill for that, but I have confidence they can do that without issue.

The quality of the soldering is good.
I had only 10 PCBs assembled, so they did it by hand, also using a manual paste dispenser rather than a stencil. If I did it in the lab with a stencil and reflow / hot-plate, the quality would be slightly better, but it’s not a big difference. There is a little bit of leftover flux on the PCBs, but there are NO rogue solder balls floating around. They used lead-free solder, which is suboptimal for proto work, but I can understand why they did.

A nice touch is that they included all the components they bought. They bought a lot of extra passives, which is nice, because it’s such a pain to order all those passives.

In contrast, if I used Tempo Automation the quality of everything would be excellent and the turnaround in days, but at much greater cost – I paid $433 for everything. (FWIW I subleased an office from Tempo in their very early days and I know the founders, so there’s undoubtedly personal bias, but they’ve always been “quality-first”).

Great update, thanks for that.

Any estimate on the equivalent board assembly with Tempo?

Did PCBway do any testing? If they were doing hand assembly, I assume they didn’t throw it into a flying probe tester?

Since JLC and pcbway are in this lineup, I wanted to add a brief note about Elecrow. Known for low cost, I received both bare PCBs and turnkey boards from them. The bare boards were ok, silk a little off but not bad. Out of the 5 assembled boards with a mix of through-hole connectors, an ESP32, and a bunch of 0603s, only 2 were fully working on delivery. The other boards had a mix of bad components and weird short circuits that I was unable to fix.

Based on a recommendation of another member here some time ago, I started using PCBWin (not to be confused with PCBWay) for boards and assembly. PCBWin does both operations under the same roof - they’re a board manufacturer and assembly house. To date we’ve produced over four hundred boards large and small with numerous fine-pitch ICs and some small QFNs, and quite a few through-hole parts including some connectors whose perpendicularity is difficult to control. The boards have all been perfect. They’re not doing any test for us, but so far I think there have been maybe three non-working ones, and I suspect those may have suffered ESD damage in my client’s hands. I’m very satisfied with their service and quality.