Hardware Hacking in China: PCBs for less than 100USD in 5 days

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jpJonathan Palley is the co-founder and CEO of Spire.   Previously, he spent 7 years building big-data companies in China, hacking on hardware and circumventing Chinese censors (you have to ask).   This is the first in a series of posts on getting things done in China.


If you’re working on a hardware startup, being in China means you’re at the center of the world’s global electronics supply chain.  That has some advantages, but it can be daunting as well. In this brief article, I’ll outline what’s involved in acting as your own mini supply chain to get prototype PCBs made to order quickly and inexpensively in China.

Requirements: 

  • PCB Board layout and GERBER files (easily produced by any PCB layout program like Eagle or Altium).
  • Basic Chinese language skills (or friend with these skills).
  • 5 days in a major Chinese city.

Step 1: Head to the Market

Head to your local electronics market (电子市场).  I’m in Beijing so I head to Zhongfa (中发) in ZhongGuanCun (中关村), the so called “Silicon Valley of Beijing” (or China, depending upon who you talk to).

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Step 2: Find a PCB Manufacturer

Inside the market you’ll find lots of booths with all different types of vendors and factories.  Find a PCB manufacturer to work with.  The PCB vendors will be grouped together and have their price sheet published at their booth along with stacks of random product samples.  You can expect a starter fee (around 100RMB or $16.5USD) and various tooling/production fees based on the PCB size and number of layers .

A few copies of an Arduino Uno sized two-layer board can run around 400RMB (65USD) and be made in 3 days.  We use SJPCB.pic3 pic2

Step 3: Send your CAD files

Provide the GERBER files to the chosen PCB manufacturer.  Their sales team will use either MSN (yes, remember that?) or a local instant messaging service called QQ (which dominates the Chinese market).

Step 4: IC Component Sourcing Step 1 – Research

The first thing to be aware of is that many ICs sold in China will have a “real” version and a “fake” version (either a manufactured copy or a chip that’s been ripped off of a recycled board).  Find the approximate going price in the US (use digikey or the 1k price on the vendors websites).  If someone in China offers you a price that is much better then the volume pricing in the U.S., you know it’s a fake.

Step 5: IC Component Sourcing Step 2 – Finding or Ordering

There are two options for buying components easily online in China.  The first is to use taobao – China’s ebay/amazon.  You’ll need a way to make local payments (and navigate a Chinese website) and you won’t be able to find everything. However, Taobao provides seller feedback and ratings, which allows you to have a bit more confidence in the quality of goods.

The second option is to use ic.net.cn (or similar) to find a reseller that carries your component.  IC resellers will list their inventory on this site (accuracy varies).  You need to use MSN/QQ/phone to contact these sellers and discuss pricing.

Ultimately, you can have the ICs shipped to your door, paying cash on delivery.  Shipping in China is very fast and very cheap.  You can basically get anything in China shipped domestically, within 24-48 hrs, for 10RMB (1.60USD).  Many resellers will also have a booth at the local electronic market you can pick the component up from.

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Step 6: Other Component Sourcing

With the ICs you ordered, head back to the market.  We now need to find resistors/capacitors/LEDs/connectors.  These should all cost very close to nothing.  Find booths that sell what you need (and if you enjoy haggling over a few pennies, start negotiating).

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Step 7: Assembly

Many PCB manufacturers will also do assembly (approximately 20USD depending upon complexity of board and number to produce).  Inspect your completed PCBs and give your components to the manufacturer for assembly.

But, to get a PCB assembled quickly I used a bit of a hack.  First, I head to the basements of the consumer electronic markets.  Here you will usually find smartphone repair booths – complete with SMT/BGA repair equipment. I provide the repair guys my PCB and components (and BOM) and ask them to do the assembly.  They will be surprised at your request, but are skilled at soldering SMT components and very fast.  Less then 10USD and a few hours later you will have a completed PCB.

Enjoy!

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