Wednesday, 24 September 2014

ExpressPCB to Gerber software

As ever, we're always planning one step ahead with our projects. So while we've only just got everything ready to hand-print a few prototype boards, we're already considering the possibilities of having boards manufactured (there are UK-based companies that can manufacture medium quantities of PCBs at roughly the same cost as buying in China - without the 8 week delay and import duty costs!).

Manufacturing PCBs means Gerber files.
And Gerber files mean having to move away from our preferred PCB editor, ExpressPCB. We've played with RS Component's own offering DesignSpark and found it to be a pain to set up and use. Freeware KiCAD gets good write ups, be when you're using software that doesn't even snap to it's own component pads, something isn't quite right!

We've used DipTrace in the past, and that was ok.
In fact, it was quite good. But most of what was learned has been forgotten, and the idea of spending a chunk of money on a licence for, and relearn all the quirks and get used to the interface for, some software that we're only likely to use only every now and again is a bit depressing.

For quick-n-dirty home-etching, ExpressPCB still rules!
We use CutePDF to print our ExpressPCB designs out and etch from there. But not many fabrication houses will manufacture PCBs from a PDF file! If only there was some way of coverting the easy-to-use super-quick-to-create ExpressPCB files to gerbers....

David Cook's Copper Connection is not only a PCB editor in it's own right - with an interface and workflow very similar to ExpressPCB - it's also an importer of ExpressPCB files. In fact, using the Open File dialogue even displays a handy thumbnail of all the ExpressPCB .pcb files on your computer!

And the best bit?
Of course - it can not only open ExpressPCB files, but it can export them as gerber files, ready to send to your favourite PCB manufacturing lab. For us, it's the perfect piece of software!

Now let's get this straight.
It's not free. The "studio edition" costs $49.
But many of the gerber-exporting alternatives we were looking at were not free either. DipTrace isn't free. To do anything beyond 100mm square boards in Eagle isn't free. Commercial licences for most pcb editing software are not free.

Not only is Copper Connection substantially less than a lot of other PCB editing software, it also means we can continue to use our favoured, easy-and-simple ExpressPCB software for designing and laying out boards, without having to learn a whole new, complicated PCB layout package.

It's win-win.
So that's a whole evening wasted, installing, trying and rejecting lots of different PCB editing software. We can now just stick with what we know, and use Copper Connection much as we do Inkscape for converting vector images - to load in one file format and get it to export as another, more useful one.

At least we can forget about PCB manufacture for a little while, safe in the knowledge that we don't have to recreate our fully-tested-and-working PCBs in some other software application and hope we didn't screw anything up while re-drawing the boards: we can now simply export the very boards we've home-etched and send them off for manufacture!