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I’m interested in getting my own low-cost PCBs made for a custom PC keyboard which will have a non-rectangular shape. Something like this shape:

Nomic62 Keyboard

I’ve checked the excellent price comparison site at pcb shopper, but I'm not sure of the term used for making/milling PCB's that are not square.

I’d just like to know the term used for milling a non-square shaped PCB. Is this something that all PCB fabricators will support?

I assume that I have to add a special cutting layer to the design. Is there a term for that layer?

Basically what do I need to look for to get a board this kind of shape made?

If it's too difficult/expensive I will probably end up cutting the boards myself.

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    \$\begingroup\$ They pretty much all support it. Use a PCB layout tool that lets you define an arbitrary PCB outline (probably all do, certainly "PCB" from the Geda project does). Then you'll probably have to pay for the area af the smallest rectangle that encloses your arbitrary outline. So use this rectangle for the quote software. \$\endgroup\$ – Brian Drummond Sep 23 '16 at 10:56
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    \$\begingroup\$ The word is "routing", from the tool used to do it, or "board outline". Every manufacturer should support it. I do not recommend trying to cut boards after manufacture - it's messy and can cause delamination. Example manufacturer info: docs.oshpark.com/submitting-orders/board-outline (tip: pick your preferred manufacturer first, then setup your software with their rules before doing any layout) \$\endgroup\$ – pjc50 Sep 23 '16 at 10:59
  • \$\begingroup\$ Not directly related to the question, but for the keyboard in that picture: where is the space bar (or its equivalent)? \$\endgroup\$ – Tristan Sep 23 '16 at 14:39
  • \$\begingroup\$ You could put it on any key you want. Boards like this are fully customisable. I have an Ergodox and I have space on one of the right hand thumbkeys. \$\endgroup\$ – localhost Sep 24 '16 at 9:05
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You need to supply a board outline in the CAD design file for the PCB. This gets plotted into the Gerber data along with all of the other artwork features.

I normally setup my projects in such a way that the board outline appears in each of the artwork layers and also in a layer by itself in a layer called the outline layer. The PC board manufacturer can choose then to remove the outline from those layers where it interferes with the board manufacturing process. For example they may remove the board outline from the silkscreen layer so that there is not a sliver of the printing ink left at the routed edges of the finished board.

You definitely do want to include a board fabrication drawing along with your Gerber data sent to the manufacturer. This can show the dimensions of the board and any other special information deemed applicable to the production of your board. Do make sure that when you select a board fab shop that you select one that will actually look at and comprehend any special instructions contained in your fabrication drawing. The drawing is often delivered in an AutoCad compatible format or can be exported to PDF format. I have personally had a bad experience with popular a prototyping shop that refused to consider a fab drawing and thus provided boards that were built based upon assumptions and had to be rejected (the shop thankfully admitted the mistake in the end and re-made the assemblies at no additional cost).

If you ever intend to build boards in a mass production process, where pick and place machinery is used to place parts on the board and then through a re-flow oven to solder the parts, it is common that irregular shaped boards have outriggers designed into the assembly that extend the overall shape to a rectangular outline. These normally are designed with routed breakaways and mouse bite attachment to the circuit board itself so that they can be broken off the assembly after the board level assembly process is complete.

Be aware that some of the PC board houses that specialize in the lowest cost prototyping builds will only provide boards in a rectangular cutout format. That has changed some in the more recent years as more and more shops have adapted to using routing machinery to separate boards from the manufacturing panels. Most shops that do support routing will be happy to produce boards of almost any shape that you can prepare in your board outline. There may be minimum size requirements and the outline be reasonably simple. I routinely take advantage of this to prepare all of my boards with 100 mil radius rounded corners.

Communications with the manufacturer is the all important factor here!!

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The magic term you are looking for is "route points". A rectangular shape requires 4 route points. Board house will usually limit their prototype processes to some maximum number of route points (like 4 or 6), and/or charge extra if you exceed it.

Of course board houses can make PC boards of arbitrary shapes. If the outline is just line segments, then it generally comes down to only the number of route points. Different board houses handle curved edges differently. For some, it may be 3 route points per arc. Others may have other rules altogether. If you want curved edges, you really should talk to your board house before sending them any data.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ The NC rout machines usually support linear and circular arc segments. If you want non circular curves, you really should talk with board house before if it is possible and how. Outlines requiring very small router tools may be more expensive. \$\endgroup\$ – Uwe Sep 23 '16 at 13:37
  • \$\begingroup\$ I recently needed to do a small PCB that is circular (1.5" diameter) plus some additional cutouts. I contacted a couple of suppliers and neither said they would charge anything etc. for the somewhat unusual shape. \$\endgroup\$ – tcrosley Sep 23 '16 at 17:31
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I'm pretty sure the shape of your circuit board is not a problem. PCB manufactures can make custom PCBs almost in any shape, whether it's in square, circle or irregular shape as long as your circuit design is within their manufacturing capabilities.

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