When you’re working with PCBs and making single units to knock out in those Chinese fabs, going from layout to manufacturable Gerber files is just a few button presses, no matter what PCB layout tool you prefer. But, once you get into producing sets of PCBs that form a larger system, or are making multiple copies for efficient manufacturing, then you’re not going to get far without delving into the art of PCB panelization. We’ve seen a few options over the years, and here’s yet another one that’s looking quite promising — hm-panelizer by [halfmarble] is a cross platform Python GUI application, which leverages Kivy, so it should run on pretty well on most major platforms without too much hassle. The tool is early in development, so is restricted to handling only straight PCB edges, with horizontal mouse-bites for now, but we’re sure it will quickly grow more general purpose capabilities given time and support.
In an ideal world, open source tools like KiCAD would have a built-in panelizer, but for now we can dream and hm-panelizer might just be good enough for some people. For more choices on panelizing, checkout our guide to making it easy, and just to muddy the waters here’s another way to do it.
For reasons that will remain undisclosed until some time in the future, I recently had a need to panelize a few PCBs. Panelization is the art of taking PCB designs you already have, whether they’re KiCad board files, Eagle board files, or just Gerbers, and turning them into a single collection of PCBs that can be sent off to a fab house.
If you’re still wondering what this means, take a look at the last board you got from OSH Park, Seeed, Itead, or Dirty PCBs. Around the perimeter of your board, you’ll find some rough spots. These are ‘mouse bites’ and tabs, places where the boards are strung together to form a gigantic rectangular panel sent off to a manufacturer. You can check out this great interview with [Laen] from OSH Park to get an idea of how this works, but the basic process is to take a bunch of Gerbers, add tabs and mouse bites, solve the knapsack problem, and send the completed panel off to a board house.
Panelizing boards is something most of us won’t have to do often. Really, you only want a panel of boards when you’re manufacturing something. For small-scale production and prototypes, bare boards will do just fine. Simply by virtue of the fact that panelizing boards is far less common than throwing some Gerbers at OSH Park or Seeed, there aren’t many (good) tutorials, and even fewer (good) tools to do so. This is how you panelize boards quickly and easily using Open Source tools.