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If you are paying overboard for PCB designs, there is an alternative. Robin Mitchell is a Masters of Engineering student who has launched his own business producing low-cost PCB boards for students and consumers alike.
“Several years ago I began to create more elaborate electronic projects”, says Robin, who juggles his studies at the University of Warwick with running Mitch Electronics in his spare time and during the holidays. “With complexity comes more wires which eventually meant I needed PCBs. I looked for the best price but the smallest I could find was £30. And what if the board was faulty due to an error I could easily make? I needed another solution, so I decided to create my own PCBs.”
That was two years ago, and from a hobby he realised there was a gap in the market for anyone with the technical expertise and entrepreneurial spirit to fill it. While some companies charge £40 to manufacture a single PCB there is no guarantee the finished product does not contain errors, and there are further risks regarding intellectual property for products in development. “Nothing is stopping the manufacturer from stealing your design”, Robin told us. “I wanted to offer a service that would not only enable customers to have their PCBs manufactured to a high quality but to have the peace of mind that all the served files associated with the PCB design remain confidential.”
Since he formed Mitch Electronics in 2010, Robin has worked hard to perfect the various etching techniques. “Like most people I use the toner transfer method, but my two years research into homebrew PCBs has allowed me to refine the process and I am currently able to make double sided PCBs, trace width down to 7mil (with great care), solder masks and basic silk screens. I also get considerably lower failure rates through my own bespoke methods and processes.” Solder masks and silk screens enable the production of boards which are of better quality and are significantly easier to solder.
Customers unsure of their design and who do not want to spend a fortune on a PCB can get a quote from Robin for design and assembly. “My boards are not gold plated nor through hole plated but they do the job just as well. The kits are made using low cost PCBs but do not contain missing tracks and allow customers to learn, gain soldering skills and become interested in electronics – without emptying their wallets.”
During college holidays he works from a shed at the bottom of his family's garden at East Cowes on the Isle of Wight, surrounded by copper blue chickens and black pigs. As well as PCBs Robin fabricates other electronic kits and makes custom-built devices upon request.
Indeed, his most rewarding moment came when he made a timer device which helped an 8-year-old boy in America to break the habit of walking on his toes and learn to walk properly. Robin created a circuit which used very low profile switches or pads attached to the boy's feet which sound a beeper after a period of time has elapsed when the pads have not been pressed. It is obvious Robin is incredibly proud of the difference his design has been able to make to someone's life. There were tears from Robin's mother when she learnt what message he had been asked by the boy's father to etch onto the PCB.
Robin has no doubt about his No 1 supplier for the components he needs for kits and single sided and double sided boards. “I buy everything I possibly can from Rapid. Components, wire, PCB equipment, even etchant. Why? Free delivery and cost. I have NEVER had a bad experience with Rapid and they could not be more helpful when it comes to dealing with issues with orders and parts I need. There are some components I buy from Rapid that I simply can't find anywhere else (except from eBay!)”.
One of our customers has recently appeared on Dragons Den. If you were pitching your business to the Dragons as an investment opportunity, what would you say?
“That the low cost pricing of my products would make them a unique addition to the market and improve the skills and projects of the UK's engineering sector. The connections and support I have from suppliers such as Rapid would enable me to grow my business and give it both educational and economic value.”
Before Robin heads back to university he manages to tantalise us with some of his future projects.
“I am confident that MitchElectronics will be a big success when I graduate”, Robin says. Very soon he plans to start a YouTube video blog (in the style of the outspoken Australian engineer Dave Jones's ‘EEV Blog'), in which he hopes to demonstrate that electronics can be fun without costing a fortune. Robin is adamant that a decent electronics lab can be built for under £100.
“I am also in the process of setting up a partnership with my partners abroad. This is a very exciting development which I must keep under wraps for the time being. All I can say is that it involves economic regeneration of poor communities in India and doing something for the revival of manufacturing in the UK."
Grand designs indeed.