When ‘Bad thing™’ happens….

As part of a wider project I have been looking at how to reuse the keyboards found on Thinkpad laptops.  The connector for these is no longer available (at least not in small quantities), however the Molex SlimStack range appears to be a compatible fit.  I was unable to find a simple breakout board for this series of connectors I decided to produce one of my own.

Now, I am used to producing very fine pitch PCBs as part of $dayjob, so I had to move away from my normal design rule set to something that can be built by the fabs used by the PCB bureaux that cater for the hobbiest (lets face it this is a simple connector breakout board – so it shouldn’t tax any fab plant; going to the hobby bureaux provides access to cheaper fabs that can easily cope with these simple boards, but may not be suitable for the stuff I run through with $dayjob, likewise those more advanced fabs I use for $dayjob would simply be too expensive for this kind of work).

My ‘goto’ guy for this is Mitch at Hackvana, having been recommended to me by a friend, Colin (G8TMV), who has also used Hackvana for several projects, his boards are a little bit smaller than the behemoth that is OpenTAC - actually quite a complex, if only 4 layer board, that Mitch produced for me (photo).

Anyway, back to this story…

I dutifully followed the design rules posted on the Hackvana website (indeed I still owe them a set of Altium Templates but that will be another post), and emailed Mitch version 1.00 CAM files.

I got a response very quickly pointing out that I hadn’t quite complied with the design rules (some of my overlay lines were too thin – turns out I didn’t care if they came out or not).  More importantly though, Mitch suggested that if I shrank my board ever so slightly that the cost would be massively reduced!

Lets just take a moment to think about this.  Here am I with a farily good expectation of the price I am going to pay, I have submitted files to be made, and my supplier has come back and said:

[That will be] USD30.  They'd be USD19 if you can get them to fit within 5x5cm.

Now $30 is a low price for 10 boards no matter how small.  $19 is a fantastic price, and it was all of a matter of a few minutes work to fit inside the smaller size constraint…

PCB Layout
PCB Layout

Great, I made the changes, sent through the updated CAM files and awaited my lovely boards…

Well yesterday came and I got a message form my wife telling me that the boards had arrived.  I got home and inspected them.

PCBs have arrived
PCBs have arrived

Something looks wrong, can you spot the problem?

Faulty board
Faulty board


If you haven’t spotted the problem; there is a plated, arc / partial hole, on the top left of the board (all boards) that is joining the ground plane to pins 5 and 6 of the connector.

I double checked that I hadn’t screwed up by opening the CAM files (into a different package than I created them in) then sent an email containing the above photo to Mitch at Hackvana detailing my problem (and prodded in IRC).  Within 3 minutes I got a response:

That's really not on!

Can you please send me another photo that shows the extent of the problem?
Ie, does it apply to just one board, or does it apply to some (percentage
affected?) or all?

I will get replacements made and shipped to you ASAP.

A short exchange of emails later, including the first photo showing the problem on all of the boards and me explaining that I don’t need the replacement PCBs back in any hurry (I am off to Debconf so will be unable to do anything with these boards even if they arrived tomorrow)

Now that is customer service!  OK it is unrealistic to expect a responce of 3 minutes, but a fast response, acknowledging the problem, and offering to do something about is what I expect, and all to rarely receive.

Customers have a right to expect what they order to arrive on time and defect free.  This should be the norm and so nothing of note here.  However things do, occasionally, go wrong.  In this case I suspect that the board adjacent to mine had a stray pad that for whatever reason got missed (at the prices I am paying it would be unrealistic to expect the fab plant to notice this – hoped for but not expected) and this encroached into the panel space that had been allocated to my board.

Occasionally though, things do go wrong, and ‘Bad thing™’ happens….

Just how a company reacts in these situations is what separates a good company from the bad.   Had this been one of the faceless automated PCB bureaus out there, I suspect that I would still be trying to contact customer support, with Hackvana, however I am now awaiting my replacement boards happy in the knowledge that they have seen the problem and are putting it right.

Of cause what separates a good company from a truly excellent one is that they put measures in place to stop this from happening again…  Only time will tell on that front, but for now, even though I still don’t have my boards, I’m still a happy customer.

CAD packages for building design

Last weekend saw us attend our 2nd Build It Live home building show, this time in Bicester, Oxfordshire.  We went along having pretty much decided that since the turn key builder we had identified had fallen through, we would have to go it alone, and werte looking for CAD packages that could help us.

There were several CAD packages being exhibited at the show, and we wanted a real world demo of each (i.e. don’t start from carfully crafted example files).  I had phoned up one supplier and arranged for the aforsed demo.  We turned up on the stand and met our contact, where we dove streight into the package.

The salesman was very confident in his product (a really good sign – he wasn’t nervous that we would find somthing nasty), so we started by drawing some walls, and adding a window.  Imagine my supprise when I asked where do you tell the package about the amterials used in the wall, only to be greated with bewilderment.  Now I am no architect or builder, but I would like to know what materials a wall is built from, if only because I need to know how thick the walls are.  NO this package can’t do that.  walls are a preset thickness; internal thick or thin, external thick, standard or thin.  you can adjust the exact thickness but you can’t specify the materials.

So we looked a little deeper, the package draws floorplans, and even renders a 3d “model” of the house, but it doesn’t really do anything more than the free packages (sketchup for example) can do.  So what did I think a house design CAD package should do for me?

Build from known materials.  Start by specifing dimentions of materials like beems, blocks, morter thickness, stand off gaps, plaster sheets, etc.
Once I have defined these I can create a ‘wall’ template if you will.  the sandwich of the walls compesition.  i.e. skim coat, plaster board, standoff, blockwork, standoff, plasterboard and skim coat would be a reasonable internal solid wall.  Now if I were to draw a wall using this template the CAD package knows (A) how thick the walls are and (B) can keep track of the Bill Of Materials (BOM).

Better yet I would then expect the system to suggest / optimise the positions of adjoining walls, and opinings (i.e. for doors and windows) to minimise wasteage, the number of cuts blocks etc.  after all materials are relativly cheep, but labour is expensive.  if I only have to cut every 2nd brick for a window opening then I have just saved a considerable amount of time!


So we went and looked at another package, from a differant vendor and lo the same again.  This time however I could buy a companion package that appeared to be a spreadsheet front end that would at least do the materials estimates, and wall ‘template’, so we could at least now go back into the CAD and set walls at the correct thicknesses.  nasty itteratve process but at least I should be able to fit a bath into the bathroom without  it colliding with a wall that was infinatly thin on the drawing but for some reason is 150mm thick in the real world…..

The salesman for this package seamed genuinly supprised when both my wife and I claimed thatthis was one of the reasons we wanted to look at a specilist CAD package, stating that’s not how the building industry works.  “Drawings look nice but it is upto the builder to actuly make them”  WTF!  if that really is the way that building industry works then there is a LOT of money to be made by introducing twentith centry engineering practices  (design rules etc).  Still we are only 16 years into the twenty first centry…