Owning DirtyPCBs: an opportunity lost


With the Chinese company out of the way, I’ve had some time to work on projects and plan what to do next. One thing I have to do is own DirtyPCBs, I’ve failed at some basic stuff.

DirtyPCBs.com was a joke. It started as a quick script so our team and a few Shenzhen locals could get PCBs from our cheap fab with less hassle. A comment on a blog post said the PCB silk screen sucked, so we started calling it “Dirt cheap, dirty boards”. Unfortunately DirtyBoards.com was taken, so we stuck the site up at DirtyPCBs.com.

It stayed below radar for about 4 months, taking a couple orders a week from friends and neighbors. Then BAM! It’s on Hack a Day and suddenly getting hundreds of orders.

It isn’t a feasible business, but it’s so cool to see people actually use this thing I built. People have done some really incredible stuff with DirtyPCBs, and I’ve met a bunch of amazing hackers because of it.

Even as everything “dirty” became a common reference at Hacker Camp Shenzhen and around the BBQ joint, I kept it at arms length. I’ve been really hesitant to own it or fold it into Dangerous Prototypes. The dirty cheap PCB business model doesn’t pay for the level of support I want to offer.

I was wrong, that was a huge mistake.

Over the past two years it became a big support nightmare anyways, while also not being profitable. If we had spent that time building a DirtyPCBs community things could have been different. That doesn’t mean marketing, social media, or “community development managers” – all we needed was a forum.

This is the most basic tenant of open hardware shops. Adafruit covers it in their earliest tutorials, and I’ve talked about it at Maker Faires and accelerators.

I failed big time.

Whether we meet here in Shenzhen, or just via support email, DirtyPCBs customers are insanely awesome! For the last two years I should have brought them together to help document the service and lighten the support load. At the very least I should answer questions in a forum once, instead of every day by private email.

It’s a simple thing, and I got it wrong.

Here’s a new DirtyPCBs forum, right here at Dangerous Prototypes. Vimark and I will handle all design questions there in the future. DirtyPCBs.com has been updated with lots of crass reminders to seek help in the forum.


There are two links to the forum in the menu. “Forum”, and if you miss that, “*Help*” goes to the same place.


Hacker Camp Shenzhen is another meat-space thing that’s been hard to bring online. Hacker camp gets a forum too, and I’ll handle future camp questions there. Also open for general Shenzhen trip help.

The Chinese company and Dangercore have been all-consuming monster projects. The worst seems to be over. It’s great to be back blogging a couple times a week and documenting what we’re working on. I think we have some really freaking exciting (and buggy) stuff coming, but DirtyPCBs has been an uncomfortable reminder that small stuff makes a huge difference in the long run.

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  1. Just as an FYI…..”Dangercore” isnt the best name for something…..just google is (as I just did) to see why! But maybe not at work………it brings up very NFSW results!!

  2. I have to admit, I don’t understand what the big deal about DirtyPCBs is. There are well-known, cheap, reputable Chinese manufacturers, they’re easy to find on the web, they do a fine job, and they’re frequently cheaper than DirtyPCBs. So what’s the point of running a money-losing, time-absorbing front end to a Chinese factory?

    1. Do share. Seeed is okay but isn’t much cheaper. Oshpark is certainly not cheaper and (in my experience) just as fast/slow as seeed or dirty (took little over 2 weeks before the boards were in my mailbox in Canada)

      Only other services I have found is dealing with sellers on aliexpress (No experience with them but prices I was quoted were competitive)

      The big deal and why I order frequently from dirty is mainly it’s dead simple, don’t even need a account. Prices are clear, and you have lots of choice of silkscreen colors (I like pretty colors) and shipping is very consistent.

      My only gripe with all manufacturers is large boards get pricey which costs me time and makes some things like using a PCB to connect lots of things together, or as a piece of the construction (like mounting a transformer or large component like a character display) less attractive.

      But seriously, if you know a better cheaper source I think I and many folks are all ears. (and on the assumption this is a money losing operation I don’t think they would be upset with posting cheaper alternatives)

  3. Good day Ian,

    I think you and your colleagues should be commended and thanked for all the hard work you have done…DirtyPCBs and other projects! I am simply amazed at what you all have accomplished! Kudos to you all!



  4. Do you have a link or is that a bit of trolling? I guess the appeal is not ordering on qq and a westernish level of service. We are cheapest for low volume at listed on the PCB supplier site, sorry, forget URL.

  5. Not that I defend that, as should be evident from tone of this post. I do it cause its fun to see it run. And it employs a couple people and gives their family health care, and that seems like a net plus to me.

  6. Ian, I don’t have a link and I don’t mean to troll. I’ve used PCBWay, ITEAD, and Elecrow. I haven’t used Seeed, but I know about them. PCBShopper lists still more manufacturers. Basically, cheap Chinese manufacturers are easy to find.

    I’ll grant you that DirtyPCBs seems to be the cheapest US-run channel to Chinese manufacturers.

    I don’t know what “ordering on qq” means.

    I guess what struck me about your blog entry was that you give several reasons why DirtyPCBs is difficult to run (consumes time, loses money), but you don’t give a compelling reason for why you’re doing it. You mention that it’s fun, and if that’s all the reason you need, well then I guess that’s fine.

    1. > I don’t know what “ordering on qq” means.

      Joel, just go to Wikipedia and type in “QQ”. (I don’t include the link here, because it would take some time to clear a post containing links). In short, QQ is a messenger used in China…

  7. No that’s literally it. We meet cool people and we see them around the world. A surprising number have moved to china and live here in south park. I don’t know why, but that’s cool to me and keeping a couple people employed and insured is cool too.

    I don’t personally profit from the sale of PCBs. Use us or not. I guess it just makes me really happy to see it used. I’m not sure if I can explain it more than that, but please come hang out with us in Shenzhen, I think a lot of people who do see why we do this.

    1. Heya! Just an extra “thankyou” from Amsterdam.

      We have had a blast using/abusing your service for quite some time now (including writing the nearly exclusively-for-dirtypcbs panelizer tool -> grab a beta while you can, “panelpanel” is the password – http://blog.thisisnotrocketscience.nl/projects/pcb-panelizer-beta/ )

      So far we have gotten back mostly perfect boards & “no questions asked” about silly silkscreen designs or odd boardfeatures – something that cost us a lot of headaches with other boardhouses.

      Thank you very much for the great service! And we will most definately trek back to Shenzhen this year to toast some china-coladas!



  8. I really want to thank you for all the work you did and continue to do in setting up and running DirtyPCBs. It’s absolutely changed the way I work and do my own projects. The service is so simple to use that even if it were a little bit more expensive, I’d still use it. I like it much more than OSHPark too to be honest because I like the choice of colours as well as the choice of FR4 thicknesses. Being able to do thin 0.8mm boards is awesome in some cases and I can’t believe it’s possible for as cheap it is. Furthermore, despite being in China, your guys’ boards often get to my door before OSHPark’s do.
    Expanding the dirty services on offer is a dream come true as well. I have a couple projects I’d like to get assembled and maybe one day I can do that the dirty way too. If not, all the more reason to finally take time to make a trip to Shenzhen and buy you beer & BBQ for running this stuff.

    Thanks again!

  9. Hi Ian. Has the contract layout service gone away at DirtyPCB’s? I don’t see any mention of it any longer! Perhaps you might have a list of freelance PCB designers that you’d recommend? John

  10. Ian, I’ve used DirtyPCBs three times now and each time was excellent in terms of the entire experience. There *may* be other vendors that are cheaper but your prices are barely above “free” as far as I’m concerned. Thanks for the hard work to keep it going for us!

  11. If you’re doing it below cost, then doesn’t that strike you as unfair competition? That’s taking business away from companies that are charging a sustainable amount for their services.

  12. Ian, I have to echo the thanks of others. Your guys are responsive and helpful when needed and being a project of DP means its from a trusted source that I’m delighted to support where possible. Hopefully it will pay its way in time also.

    There could always be cheaper options elsewhere from China, that’s a given no matter how cheap you do this. As others have mentioned, the colour options are fun and the results overall are perfectly fine. I love the idea that the storefront is expanding also.

  13. No complaints here. ☺ now hoping you will find some time for neoden 4 review, help push it in the right direction in terms of better software, and then sell me one.

  14. I luuuurve me some dirty pcbs. Especially the extra-no-fuss order process, the cheap price including shipping (esp for non-green) and the fact that they don’t complain about routed slots and mouse-bite panellizing on protopacks.

    I’d be happy to pay a bit more to make it profitable, it should be profitable (or at least not a loss making venture) for you guys.

    NB: Ian, I have never managed to get an order status, or even password reset email out of the dev store, you should really look into that, I don’t know if being in China would be a problem, but mailgun.com and mandrill.com are both super easy to connect to (either just direct SMTP, or use their respective HTTP api) and have good deliverability, free or nearly so depending on your volumes.

  15. Honestly, having purchased PCBs from many sources, I think there’s a misconception here. DirtyPCBs isn’t worse than “real” PCB houses, it’s better. So maybe DirtyPCBs doesn’t look or feel like a “real” PCB prototype website. There’s no phone number to call. There’s no intricate quote process. There’s no long list of design requirements and restrictions and articles about how to use the service. It’s just one slightly ugly page with everything thrown on it. You upload your PCB file and twiddle some listboxes and that’s all you can do.

    And you know what? It fricking works. You can order a PCB in any color in a variety of substrate thicknesses. You can get a laser cut steel solder paste stencil. You can choose the desired quantity. You can choose your shipping method. The price is right there updated live while you pick you options. You can use any board outline and you can create internal slots and cutouts with no sales rep hemming and hawing about how hard and expensive it will be.

    DirtyPCBs isn’t doing anything substandard or wrong. The other PCB prototype houses are.

  16. I sometimes see the term QQ: [Name or cryptic reference of the end-recipient] on shipping documents. (NO in this case QQ does NOT mean the Tencent “QQ” instant messenger Social Media platform. But just to make things worse, a shipping document generated by a shipping non-professional may actually include QQ: with a Tencent URL! Talk about dangerous shipping practices!)

    I’m working mostly from memory/experience here, so YMMV…

    QQ (or Q.Q.) in shipping documents stands for “Qualitate Qua” (Latin, roughly for “”On Behalf Of” in shipping terms only).

    So you see on shipping documents (e.g., Commercial Invoice, Bill of Lading, and/or Air Waybill, etc.) something like this:

    Ship To: One Hung Lo, Hong-Kong (Address, tel., etc. typically including also the acronym PIC which means Person-in-Charge).

    QQ: PT. Prototipe berbahaya, Jakarta (Address, etc…)

    Ship To: Is the Forwarder or Agent that will receive the goods as the first end-point. The Forwarder or Agent will then Forward (re-ship) to the QQ: End-Recipient.

    Often, the QQ details DO NOT include fine detail such as the end-recipient’s address, contact information etc. Just the Company Name or a shared code between the Forwarder and the End-Recipient. Example:

    Ship To: One Hung Lo, Hong-Kong (Address, tel., etc. typically including also the acronymn PIC which means Person in Charge).

    QQ: PT. Prototipe berbahaya (NO further details, and maybe even be a known shared code for the Forwarder or Agent).

    So the short or “coded” QQ: Reference lacks details – intentionally. This may because the the forwarder/agent is going to re-ship to the end-recipient under a DIFFERENT set of documents – which may aid in circumventing the likes of end destination Customs and/or Tax charges. This is where it gets WEIRD…

    And this is where my contribution on this subject ends.

    Have Fun, David

  17. Hi Ian
    Not really having noticed progress in the BusPirate made me worry if you are well or Dangerous Prototypen out of Business. Gkad to hear you are on the way back.

    Coming to Shenzhen is the top item on my travel list. It is just a little bit difficult with family at home and responsible for child care – BUT if one day I will get the trip and hope you will still be there. Good luck with all your ventures, Olivier / author of the MiniPirate

  18. Just had to jump in (late) and express my own sincere thanks for your dirtypcbs efforts. It is such an easy website ordering system to use, so clear, and I really (really!!) appreciate it. I’ve only done a couple of PCBs over the past couple of years, both done this way, but they have turned out beautifully. It’s been way easier and (as far as I can tell after weeks and weeks of web-searching) cheaper than any other solution.

    Thanks a whole bunch. Truly appreciated.

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