An introduction to getting printed circuit boards (or FR4 front panels) fabricated.
First someone needs to design the PCB. Let’s assume that’s done already. Then they have to produce the files known as Gerbers that describe the PCB for the fabricator. Let’s assume that’s done already too. You’ve found a repository that has Gerbers for a PCB you want; what do you do?
Pretty much you just need to compress the Gerbers to .zip format, go to wherever you’re having the fabrication done (see below), upload the .zip file, choose a color and specify a quantity, and open your wallet. There are other options they give you but most you can ignore. Most places have a minimum order of 5 copies of each board, and if you want more it has to be a multiple of 5.
For front panels there are a couple of extra bits. If there’s an option to skip electrical testing, choose it. (At JLCPCB uncheck “flying probe test”.) Also add a note like:
This is a front panel. There is no circuit, only copper fills. Ignore any electrical errors.
Fabricators usually want to silkscreen an order number on the product, and you probably don’t want that on the front of your panel. Request that they omit the order number or put it on the back of the panel. At JLCPCB you can check “Remove Order Number: Specify a location” but for this to work, the PCB design must include “JLCJLCJLCJLC” somewhere on the panel silkscreen to mark where the order number should go. You can tell them not to place the order number at all, but that costs extra.
As for which fabricator to use, it depends on what you’re looking for. Generally JLCPCB has the lowest prices, by a lot in many cases. Then again, several places offer a discounted price — around $5 for five boards — for anything less than 10 cm on a side (and no special options) that renders price considerations minor. PCBWay offers more options including more colors. OSH Park has a good reputation if you want to use a US based company (but at a significantly higher cost than most of the Asian companies, and with few color options). If you want to check prices at a variety of companies you can use https://pcbshopper.com/ . Fill in the form with your PCB’s dimensions, how many you want, what color, and so on, and it does the comparison shopping for you. There also are reviews of various companies, and some get very low ratings, so it’s worth looking at this site before choosing a fabricator.