Do you remember being part of small project groups for some of the classes you took in school? There were many good things that came from those groups—teamwork, communication, and an esprit de corps that helped motivate you. But there could be downsides, too—especially if you made the wrong choice when it came to the members of your group. If someone didn’t contribute as expected, it likely cost you time, added to your workload, and possibly even lowered your grade.
When you have an NPI prototype printed circuit board that needs to be built, you also want to make sure you make the best choices when assembling the team that will help produce your PCB. To start, you’ll be working with a contract manufacturer, and your CM will be selecting a PCB fabricator for the project. Making sure to partner with a CM that will make the right choice for your PCB prototype fabrication is extremely important to the success of your project. Here are some thoughts to keep in mind as you go through this process.
The Role of the PCB Fabricator in Building Your NPI Prototype
When you bring your prototype design to a contract manufacturer, they will quickly evaluate the design and identify a fabricator to work with. The PCB fabricator’s job is to create the bare board (the PCB before parts are assembled on it).
The different fabricators are categorized by their capabilities. For instance, some will only fabricate boards with a minimal layer count. Others are better set up for boards with high layer counts. The CM will typically already have relationships with various PCB fabricators and will know their capabilities. The CM will identify the best fabricator for your project by considering factors such as:
- Location: A local fabricator is desired for quick-turn prototypes simply because close proximity makes it easier to get the boards faster.
- PCB technology: Fabricators are set up for different board technologies. A circuit board intended for high-speed applications may require more advanced board materials, such as PTFE, to help with signal integrity. For fabricators that focus only on standard board materials, like FR-4, this PCB technology would be beyond their capabilities. Your CM should know which fabricator to choose based on your specific board.
- PCB complexity: Fabricators also differ in how complex a PCB is that they can fabricate. For a fabricator that normally does board designs with no more than six layers, a 16-layer, high-density interconnect design will exceed their capabilities. Again, your CM will know which one to choose based on your board requirements.
- Production: If your prototype is going to transition into full production, your CM will choose a fabricator that can carry the first article over into regular production.
- Industry standards compliance: Your CM will also know which PCB fabricator is certified for which standards. If you need your board to be certified to be RoHS compliant, your CM will choose the appropriate fabricator for the job.
- Quick-turn capability: The PCB fabrication process is the same whether it is quick-turn or regular production. The difference is in the expertise of the fabricator. Those that are skilled in creating quick-turn PCBs will have the ability to be flexible to get prototype fabrications through quickly, and their processes will be robust enough to handle faster turns. Your CM can’t afford to deal with unusable first articles from the fabricator when they are building a prototype and will, therefore, use the best quick-turn fabricator they can.
The list of fabricators the CM will work with will have been developed from a qualification process that the CM has in place for its partners. This qualification process usually includes a questionnaire, a site audit, and regular performance meetings. The CM will continually update their fabricator information so hey can always make the best choice for your projects.
Working with Your CM to Choose the Right PCB Prototype Fabricator
To help your CM make the best PCB fabricator choice for your prototype boards, you need to give them as much information about your board as possible. Usually, your CM will present you with a list of questions that address the following:
- BGA density
- Pitch requirements (which will dictate via requirements)
- Signal density
- Signal integrity requirements
- Power requirements
- Unusual footprints that may require hand-processing
With data like this, your CM should be able to match your board requirements up with the best choice of fabricator among those they are working with. Asking questions about this information is key to providing you with the highest level of service you need for your prototype project.
Partner with the Right CM for Your PCB Prototype
When you’re down to the wire in getting your NPI prototype built and ready to go, having your CM’s support is critical. That starts with identifying the right board fabricator and extends throughout the prototype assembly process, including working with you through DFM and DFT issues, conducting adequate functional tests, and providing you with engineering debugging solutions to validate your prototype faster. Partnering with a CM that has the experience to guide your prototype project from start to finish will help contribute to its ultimate success.
At VSE, we’ve built strong relationships with the many PCB fabricators we partner with, and we know how to best match them with your PCB fabrication requirements. Contact us today and let us show you how our NPI prototyping capabilities are the quality services you need for your next project.