Part 1, Screaming Circuits and the Maker community

Can Screaming Circuits, a full-service assembly provider, compete with a “no-frills” assembly house?

Upon first thought, it might seem like Screaming Circuits, would be too expensive for anything but well-funded big-business and big-education. In reality, that may not at all be the case. Like so many other things in life, there are trade-offs between time, effort, and money. The nice thing about Screaming Circuits is that, unlike the low-cost small volume manufacturers, we can cover both ends of the spectrum.

Our least expensive service is not as cheap as the lowest-cost assemblers. We don’t sell on price, but when you start to add in reality and practicality, the cost difference gets much smaller.

OpenHardware logoIf you need that maximum performance, “I need it now, now, now!” service, there’s no question that you need a premium manufacturer, like Screaming Circuits. But let’s do some compare and contrast on the other end of the spectrum. Can Screaming Circuits be a good deal for a maker?

I’ve got an open source Arduino-compatible robot motor board that I designed a while back. I’ve hand-built a few, because I enjoy soldering, but for this exercise, we’ll pretend I’m a maker with a Kickstarter and I need more built up.

I’ll need 250 for the hypothetical Kickstarter project. The 1.5” x 3.5" board uses an ATMEGA32U4 processor with the Arduino Leonardo bootloader. From a software perspective, it looks just like a Leonardo. It uses a different hardware form-factor than the standard Arduino to better fit a mobile robot.

1-DSC_0001It’s got 26 different components (26 line items in the Bill of Materials). Due to some part types being used in multiple places, that’s a total of 48 surface mount (SMT) placements. I’ll ignore the few thru-hole parts. As a Kickstarter, I would supply the board with all of the SMT parts installed and let the customer solder in the thru-hole parts. That’s pretty common practice in the hobby, maker and Open Source world.

You can quote the assembly on the Screaming Circuits website without registering, so let’s do just that. It’s got:

  • 250 desired board quantity
  • 26 unique parts (BOM line items)
  • SMT on 2 sides? Yes
  • Lead-Free? No (If you’re shipping into Europe, you’ll need lead-free)
  • Class III? No
  • ITAR? No
  • 48 SMT parts
  • 0 thru-hole
  • 0 BGA/QFN

For 20 day, Short-Run production service, this comes out to $9.81 per board - less than $10.00 each.

Soldering by hand, I can do about two an hour. Some folks are faster than me, but some are slower. At two per hour, I’d spend 12 ten-hour days hand soldering the 250 boards. Ouch!

You can most likely find a cheap overseas manufacturer that would build 250 them for less, but they may not want such a small job. You may end up with concerns about intellectual property theft, and you may not get the yields you need.

At Screaming Circuits, we treat every job as proprietary, we’re happy with a run of 250 without any commitments for more, and we promise 100% assembly yield. Finally, a job like this, that totals out to $2,452.48, gets the same process and care as does a $10,000 quick-turn complex prototype.

Food for thought.

Duane Benson
Here's a Kickstarter we built back in 2012

National Low Earth Orbit (LEO) Month

Sputnik 1Coming soon, on the heals of National High Voltage AC month, Screaming Circuits has declared October 2014 to be National National Low Earth Orbit (LEO) Month in honor of the October 4, 1957 launch of Sputnik.

This month, rather than T-shirts, we're offering a custom coffee mug sporting the schematic diagram of Sputnik 1's transmitter. The first 100 customers who place an order in September, 2014, will have the opportunity to get one of these mugs for free.

After your order is confirmed, we'll send you instructions explaining how you can get yours and what the deadlines are.

If you don't have anything to order, you can still get your mug by buying one (through ebay) for a measly $10.00. The whole price, less ebay/PayPal fees will be donated to FREE GEEKs. From the FREE GEEK website: "a Portland-based
NLEO month mockup501(c)(3) nonprofit offering free computers, technology and education powered by reuse & recycling in association with Oregon E-Cycles."

We think that's pretty cool, so the money from these mug sales will go to them.

Also, the first person to build a working copy of the transmitter will get another mug free. It could be hard, though. You might have to fabricate the tubes yourself (People do that, you know). If you can get it working and into ordit, you'll get one more for free.

Duane Benson
WARNING! This is a plot complication!
WARNING! This is a plot complication!

Remote ESD

ESD, or electrostatic discharge, is of great concern to anyone who deals with electronics. That's obvious. What's not necessarily so obvious, is that some times, you don't even need to be all that close to the circuit board or component to damage it.

This article by Douglas C. Smith illustrates why sometimes, just a wrist strap isn't enough.

That's why we don't only use wrist straps, but also have a grounded conductive floor and use ESD jackets and conductive foot straps to protect the boards and components out on our manufacturing floor.

Here's a video showing the dreaded ESD monster and us protecting your gear from him: 

Duane Benson
Greased lightning is an interesting concept
Would it reduce power line transmission losses?

Warped PC boards

So... You just got a nice big PC board back from the fab shop. You set one on your desk to admire only to discover that it's warped. What do you do?

There are two primary types of causes of board warping: process related at the fab or assembly shop, and layout related issues. If it's warped before assembly, it's between fab and layout. If it's flat before assembly and warped, after, it's most likely between layout and assembly - although, sometimes a fab problem won't show up until a pass through the reflow oven at your assembly partner.

Determining the root cause is generally a bit of an iterative process. It's tempting to start right off with your fab or assembly partner, but you need some information before giving them a call. You'll need such things as the amount of warpage per inch, board size, and thickness. With that, you need to take a good look at your design and consider copper pours, component size, and component placement.

With that information in hand, you can make your phone call. If the board is warped before assembly, call your fab shop. If it's flat pre-assembly and warped post assembly, call your assembly house.

The shop you call will want to talk over your design to help you pinpoint the cause. If you can rule out a design issue,then you need to talk with your partner to determine whether it's a fab or assembly issue and next steps to take care of you.

 Here are a few design issues that could contribute to warping:

  • Uneven copper pour. Copper and FR4 are a good match relative to thermal expansion, but they aren't exact. A large pour on one side or corner of your board can lead to warping due to dissimilar expansion characteristics. This could cause warpage either at the fab shop or the assembly house.
  • Components with large thermal mass grouped together on the board. This would be more likely to cause problems during assembly than during fab. The thermal mass will act as a heat sink for that area on the board, which can lead to uneven expansion and uneven soldering.
  • A board that's too thin for the size or number of components could lead to warping at any stage.
  • Odd shapes or large cut-outs could also lead to warping at any point.

There may be other, more obscure causes, but those are the main design related causes. If it's none of those, talk with your partner.

Occasionally, design requirements lead to a board that is essentially non-manufacturable. Hopefully, you never have this situation, but if you do, make sure that thickness, component location, pours, or cut outs really, really, really, need to be the way they are.

If you absolutely, positively can't change anything, go back and try again. Then you can to look for heroic means to get the board fabbed and built.

Slight warpage might go away when the board is mounted. Just be careful with that. Some components may not stay securely soldered when you flatten it.

The board may need a special fixture during assembly to prevent warping. This will likely cost extra, but if you can't change your design, and still need it built, it may be your best option.

Finally, if nothing works, you may need to look harder at the design, or look for a new fab or assembly house. We all like to think we can do just about anything, but every shop has its limits, and on rare occasion those limits can be difficult to spot.

Duane Benson
What if Godot was late because he was waiting for John Galt?

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