There are many reasons why the SUV rose to a high level of popularity about 25 years ago. Certainly, the ability to combine off-road capabilities with your regular vehicle, plus the additional space for people and cargo, were all factors. But one of the main reasons for its popularity was how well it filled a missing hole between the two extremes of vehicle choices. The SUV offered a desirable alternative between small, fuel-efficient cars and large (often gas-guzzling) trucks, while still handling all of your driving requirements.
Even though there’s quite a difference between an automobile and a circuit board, there is a lot to be said for that business model when choosing a contract manufacturer for your PCB assembly low-volume builds. CMs can be broken into different categories that describe the level of service they provide. They start at the lowest level with basic service and go all the way to the highest level with complicated systems of bureaucracy. The key to choosing a CM to partner with for your prototype or low-volume production runs is to find one between those two extremes that will give you the best services without the associated problems.
The Garage Shop CM
The lowest tier in the hierarchy of contract manufacturers is the smaller operations, or garage shop CMs. In the same way that a small car will get you from point A to point B rather inexpensively, these smaller CMs will quickly manufacture your prototype builds and low-volume production runs for you. They also have the advantage of being flexible to quickly adapt to your specific needs. Where they struggle, however, is in their inability to provide the stability and resources of a major CM. Consider these issues with a lower-tier CM:
- They may not have the resources to validate your design and documentation prior to assembly.
- They may not have the quality controls in place to ensure your boards are manufactured to the highest standards in design rules.
- They may not have the ability to optimize your build for speed or cost.
- They probably won’t have advanced engineering capability to identify even marginal design or assembly issues pre-production, let alone work with you on resolving the issues.
- They probably can’t provide a bill of materials analysis, or have component vendor relationships they can leverage to help navigate through part shortages or other procurement problems.
- They may lack the documentation and other capabilities that allow for customers to transition to large-volume manufacturing.
- They probably don’t have adequate testing and development capabilities.
The Mega CMs
On the other side of the CM spectrum are the larger operations. These upper-tier CMs are usually the mega-manufacturers that are often located overseas and are known for building massive amounts of PCBAs for smartphones and other personal electronics. The biggest advantages to working with these CMs is that they have the resources, staff, quality controls, and external relationships that many smaller shops often don’t have access to.
On the other hand, there are also some major disadvantages when working with a mega-CM:
- Their processes will likely be rigid, inflexible, and geared only toward high-volume, high-spend customers.
- They usually have massive lead times due to all of their work.
- There are often multiple levels of bureaucracy for the customer to go through, which can slow communication and contribute to a lack of personal relationships.
- Differing time zones between you and the CM can also hinder communication and delay the production of your PCBAs, especially in the event that design or assembly issues need to be addressed.
The Right CM for Your PCB Assembly Low-Volume Builds
Just as the SUV was so successful at striking the right blend between the extremes of small and large trucks, so will a good mid-level CM be for providing low-volume runs of your boards. Like a smaller garage shop, a mid-level CM has the ability to be flexible and responsive to your requests, without the rigid bureaucracy of the larger CMs. They will be able to offer you top-level CM services, such as full engineering capability as well as state-of-the-art facilities and processes without the time-consuming and costly overhead of a mega-company.
When choosing a mid-level CM for low-volume PCBAs, look for the following:
- Full electrical and mechanical engineering capability to assist you in resolving any manufacturing and component design issues, including identifying alternate parts if your initial parts aren’t available.
- Facilities and processes that adhere to the strictest industry standards.
- Prompt, personalized service that cuts through the red tape to deliver on time.
- The flexibility and capability to support unusual product requirements or unique process flows.
- The ability to provide design documentation to transition to high-volume production.
- Design for excellence analysis and the ability to implement solutions to enhance your product’s manufacturability and performance.
At VSE, we know what you need for your PCB assembly low-volume runs, and we have built a thriving business taking care of customers who have needs similar to yours. We have all the sophistication and benefits of a top-level CM, but the flexibility of a low-volume shop to give you a quicker turn. We can complete full production runs to meet the needs of our clients, but we specialize in low-volume, high-mix manufacturing. Whether you need a thousand pieces or just one, we can expertly build your PCBA for you.