Ordering Boards from Electronic Interconnect

Electronic Interconnect is a US manufacturer of printed circuit boards. They have excellent quality and low prices. This article demonstrates how to order boards from Electronic Interconnect using Copper Connection software.

For this example, we're going to focus on their least expensive option, a two-layer prototype with silkscreen and solder mask. The ordering process is similar for production orders.

Plain, or Add Silkscreen and Solder Mask?

When I first began making printed circuit boards, I chose 2 layer boards without solder mask or silkscreen, due to the lower cost. This forced me to place part labels on the copper layer, or to forgo labels where there wasn't enough room.

As my collection of boards grew, I recognized this was a false savings. It takes a lot of time to figure out where parts go on boards that lack sufficient labeling, particularly if the board was designed a while ago. Lack of labels may result in a part being soldered in the wrong location, or forgotten about completely.

A lack of solder mask isn't as much of an issue, yet a solder mask can reduce soldering time by guiding solder to the pads. (In any case, I haven't run across a manufacturer that offers silkscreen without solder mask.)

Therefore, in recent years, I exclusively order boards with solder mask and silkscreen.

The Finished Boards

Electronic Interconnect's fixed-cost prototype boards can be up to 30 square inches [25 square inches as of May 2013], which is a good size.

PCB manufactured by Electronic Interconnect

PCB manufactured by Electronic Interconnect

Normally, the price is around $73.50 for two boards ($25×2), handling ($15), and UPS ground shipping ($8.50). However, depending on current promotions and where you are located, your price may be different. For example, my order included a free extra board and free ground shipping, so I paid $65 for three boards (plus sales tax because I'm in the same state).

The quality is impressive. 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).

Silkscreen showing Tiny font and ground symbol

Silkscreen showing Tiny font and ground symbol

Here is a photo comparing a diode silkscreen on boards manufactured by ExpressPCB and Electronic Interconnect. When examined close-up, the ExpressPCB silkscreen appears to be a bit runny and milky, whereas the Electronic Interconnect is more evenly colored, but stair-stepped and pixilated. They both are legible and clean looking at normal viewing distances.

Comparison silkscreen of diode

Comparison silkscreen of diode

Like many manufacturers, Electronic Interconnect adds a mark to the silkscreen layer. It has their logo, job number, and the week/year of production. This is an advantage if you like traceability, or a disadvantage if it simply adds clutter.

Electronic Interconnect job marking on PCB

Electronic Interconnect job marking on PCB

Preparing the File to Order

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

Width height and area in the Size and Position section of the ribbon

5. In the example pictured above, you see that I have optimized the value of my order by making a board area almost the maximum allowed [which has since been reduced]. You can accomplish this with either a design that is actually that size, or by placing multiple designs per board.

Placing multiple designs per board is called 'panelizing'. Electronic Interconnect permits you to panelize, but they won't cut within the interior for the fixed prototype price. So, if your board is small, and you are willing to cut your boards after you receive them, you can enlarge the board outline and duplicate multiple copies of your design (or copy other small designs from other files).

6. When you're ready, choose "Export to Gerber and Excellon" from the Copper Connection Data menu.

7. Electronic Interconnect accepts files with Copper Connection's default settings. However, you should select them by name, just in case:

Choose Electronic Interconnect in Copper Connection Export window

Choose Electronic Interconnect in Copper Connection Export window

8. 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.

Placing the Order

Electronic Interconnect accepts orders on the web 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.eiconnect.com/

2. Register, if you haven't already. Then log in.

Register and login

Register and login

3. Go to the home page and find the 2-layer prototype deal. Click on the ad.

Electronic Interconnect two layer ad

Electronic Interconnect two-layer advertisement

4. The first step of the order form appears. It displays the technical specifications, such as the number of layers, the silkscreen, and the solder mask.

5. Using the information obtained earlier, enter the board width in Size X and the board height in Size Y. Enter quantity 2 (or whatever) and click Show Price.

Order part 1

Order part 1

6. On the next step, you may then be offered electrical tests or other options. Decline and continue.

7. On step three, you need to enter part and revision information (anything you want). That information is simply to track your order and allow you to order more at a later date. Change the Gerber format to "Yes". Click the browse button and select the zip file that you created earlier.

Part information and Gerber file

Part information and Gerber file

8. On the next step, enter your shipping address and billing information.

9. On step five, choose the shipping method and payment method.

Shipping and payment method

Shipping and payment method

10. At this point, you'll see the $15 handling fee (packaging and boxing). You'll also see that they 'authorize' (not charge) the card for $100 more than the order amount because the actual shipping cost can only be determined when the boards are finished. They need to authorize your card before producing the boards, because they obviously don't want to be stuck with a bunch of custom boards if your card is declined.

Why can't the exact shipping cost at the time of placing the order? The package weight is difficult to calculate:

A. The prototype deal is not a fixed size for everyone. You are allowed to specify the dimensions for your board. Therefore, the weight will change.

B. You can specify a non-rectangular outline for your board. So, the web software would somehow need to read the contents of the zip file, accurately determine the actual shape and size, and calculate the weight.

C. Electronic Interconnect combines jobs onto large panels. They run the panels through their machine as many times as necessary to ensure that enough boards are produced to complete everyone's order with high quality. As such, they MAY end up with extra boards -- which they give you for free. That makes the package heavier.

11. On the final step, you'll see the authorization amount and probably panic a little bit. Even if specials are running (like free shipping), it doesn't appear to be calculated properly on this web form. Grit your teeth and finish the order.

I am pleased with their flexibility in prototype board sizes, potential free boards, and running specials/promotions. I appreciate the difficulty of maintaining web site code that takes all of these factors into account. However, if I had one suggestion, it would be to simplify the final order page to say 'Price estimate: $65 + shipping, minus promotions and coupons.'

Receiving

After placing your order, Electronic Interconnect emails updates to let you know they have received the order, and when it ships. Although they specified five days to manufacturer and 5-6 days of shipping, they shipped my order in 4 days and I received it the next day (we're both in the Midwest). [As of May 2013, their low=cost deal specifies up to 3 weeks for manufacturing.]

Experience

After cutting and soldering a few boards, I can say that I'm truly pleased with the product and price offered by Electronic Interconnect. I will order from them again in the future.

Robot Room has no affiliation with Electronic Interconnect or ExpressPCB. The use of their trademarks is for comparison purposes. Information accurate as of when the article was written (March 2013) or updated (May 2013).