Tuesday, 7 March 2017

ExpressPCB acquires RobotRoom Copper Connection

This morning, David from RobotRoom sent us an email so full of exciting news, upbeat and happy smiles all around, you could almost hear Katrina and the Waves singing "Walking on Sunshine".

ExpressPCB has acquired Copper Connection.
We put our head(s) in our collective hands.

ExpressPCB - as a few of us have insisted over the years - is, far and away, the quickest and easiest software for producing quality PCBs. It's simple, quick to learn, has no fancy plugins, but the schematic and PCB layout applications integrate so nicely together that it's almost a joy to be able to lay down a circuit board from a schematic in next to no time.

The one area that ExpressPCB was lacking was output (or exporting). ExpressPCB is free software provided by a PCB manufacturing company. They don't make it easy for you to produce your own designs or to send files generated by their software to other manufacturers. And why would they - after all they've provided the software for free, it's not unreasonable that they tie the user into using them to produce the boards!

For homebrew boards, you can print your design from ExpressPCB onto toner transfer paper and make them yourself at home - the company obviously has no problem with that (it's only fair that you get to produce a prototype board before committing to a production run). Which is fine for hobbyists using through-hole components (as many hobbyists do, as they transfer designs from a breadboard to a PCB).

When designing for surface mount boards, however, things get a bit trickier. If our design was entirely SMT, we'd "print" the board to a PDF (using CutePDF) then open the pdf in inkscape, mirror, then print (so after toner-transferring the design, it would appear the "correct way around" on the copper). An alternative approach is to design a library of components that are all mirrored (with pin one at the top right instead of the top left) and we've also done this successfully in the past. But it's also all to easy to print and etch an entire SMT board only to realise - too late - that the entire design needs flipping to be useable!

One of the really nice features of RobotRoom's Copper Connection is the print facility to produce printouts either for inspection/proof (the design is printed the correct way around) or for transfer etching (the design is automatically mirrored so that it appears the right way around after doing the toner transfer process).

As mentioned, it's not an insurmountable problem to export and flip your designs from ExpressPCB if you don't have Copper Connection (or if, as we suspect might happen in the future, the print option disappears in upcoming versions of the software).

But the absolute best thing about Copper Connection - and it's whole selling point for users of ExpressPCB (and probably the first thing to go now that ExpressPCB has acquired RobotRoom) is the Gerber/Excellon export.

Without Copper Connection we'd have had to pay hundreds of pounds for "professional level" licences for Eagle or DipTrace to producer Gerber files in order to get our PCBs manufactured by factories in China. Unlike some, we've never had a problem with any of the gerber files produced by Copper Connection - our PCBs have been a doddle to create (thanks to the excellent ExpressPCB software) and a two-click process to turn into Gerbers (thanks to Robot Room's Copper Connection).

It stands to reason that export to Gerber will either be the first thing to go from Copper Connection, else maybe a "pro level" licence to cover the cost of producing the software (after all ExpressPCB aren't going to want to give software away for free that lets you take your designs to any old manufacturer).

Of course David from RobotRoom is excited that his produce has been acquired by ExpressPCB. Of course ExpressPCB are happy to have taken out a "competitor" to their software. But we can't help but feel that it'll mean the end of our cheapskate way of producing PCBs - both home-etched and pro manufactured - without quite a bit of messing about (or, worse still, learning Eagle!)