You may have seen the sign on the street as you drive by that declares that a PCB manufacturer is established here. If you need a circuit board built, then a company like this is who you are going to want to work with. Did you realize though that a PCB contract manufacturer can often do a lot more for you than just build a printed circuit board? Some of these companies can offer many different services including the following:
- Circuit board layout design
- Additional engineering services
- Component sourcing expertise
- Prototyping capabilities
- PCB production facilities
- Cable assembly and wire harnesses construction
- Box build, or full system manufacturing
When it comes time to choose who to work with, you will need to determine which PCB CM will be the best choice for what you need to be done. Some CMs will have more experience and capabilities than others, and it will pay to have a better understanding of who they are and what they have to offer. Let’s look further into these different services so that you will have a better idea of how to choose a PCB Manufacturer that will be right for your needs.
The Services to Consider in Understanding How to Choose a PCB Manufacturer
There are many different services that a PCB contract manufacturer may have to offer, and here we will break them down into the top seven capabilities that you should be aware of:
If your company doesn’t already have PCB layout capabilities, you will need to find someone to do this for you. The most convenient resource for this will be the layout services of the same PCB contract manufacturer that you choose to build your circuit boards. This positions the CM to be able to best optimize the layout for their own manufacturing processes. Also, layouts that come in from outside sources will often need design for manufacturability (DFM) changes in order to make them ready for error-free assembly. Even if you do have your own design resources, using the layout services of the CM for DFM changes is far more efficient than sending the design back and forth in order to optimize it for manufacturing.
PCB layout isn’t the only engineering service that some customers may require. If your company needs help with mechanical design, schematic capture, or documentation creation, the additional engineering resources at a PCB manufacturer can be exactly what you need. Since they are already building the boards for you, the CM is in an excellent position to provide the additional engineering expertise that you need. This will save you the effort of hiring and training additional staff, and free you up to focus purely on the design.
Finding and selecting the proper components to use on your circuit board can be a serious drain on your own engineering resources. It isn’t just a matter of finding the right components electrically, but also finding components that are readily available and for the lowest price. PCB manufacturers usually have a whole team of component sourcing experts with access to large networks of part vendors and distributors in order to find the best components for your design. Additionally, they will also know which parts may be changing in their product life cycles so that you don’t select components that have been reclassified as end of life (EOL) or obsolete (OBS).
Most likely, you are looking for a PCB manufacturer because you have a circuit board that needs to be built. Although this may seem like a standard that every PCB CM can meet, it pays to look a little deeper. For instance, does the CM that you are considering have the industry certifications and training that you need for the production of your boards? Can they handle any unique characteristics of your PCB designs, and produce the boards in the time and quantities that you require? You will also want to know about their partnerships with circuit board fabricators and other material vendors. And lastly, find out if they have a company culture that promotes quality and success in their business to make sure that your dollars will be well-spent.
Not everyone understands that there is a difference between regular PCB production and PCB prototyping. Both processes will produce a circuit board, but there are differences between the two that require a manufacturer skilled in prototyping in order to guarantee success. Prototype designs are often still being enhanced after the manufacturing process has begun, and in many cases, they haven’t been optimized for automated assembly. They may go through component updates resulting in changes to the PCB footprint shapes and locations on the board, and in some cases, these changes may require some manual assembly. To accommodate all of this requires an experienced CM that specializes in prototyping printed circuit boards.
Cable & Wire Harness Assembly
Circuit boards are often part of a larger system involving multiple boards and other system interfaces. To connect all of these together requires intricate wiring harnesses, and to connect external systems together requires custom cable assemblies. While another contract manufacturer can build these wire harnesses and cables, using the same PCB CM that is building your boards will help guarantee the success of the final product. The wire harnesses and cable assemblies can be built to match the boards that are being built, instead of fitting them together retroactively. This will save you time, money, and effort in trying to coordinate multiple vendors.
The PCB contract manufacturer that also specializes in a full system, or “box build” assembly, can give you the best service overall. Instead of spending your engineering time coordinating the assembly of your system by multiple vendors, the PCB CM can build all three components of your system at the same time. The circuit boards, cable and wire assemblies, and system enclosures can all be built together under the same roof allowing for seamless integration of all the pieces together. This will help to prevent some of the common errors that often result from using multiple vendors including cable pin-outs that don’t match their mating connectors, and inaccessible components due to incorrectly designed system enclosures.
Additional Considerations When Choosing the Right PCB CM
Although not every electronics project will require all of the services that we’ve listed above, there are some important reasons to consider all of them when choosing a PCB CM. If you need a quick redesign, it is helpful to be working with a CM that already has the engineering expertise that you will need. If your single-board project turns into a multiple board system, it is also helpful to be working with a CM that can easily transition to building the entire system.
At VSE, we’ve been working with innovators like you that are bringing new and exciting electronic systems to market for almost 40 years now. We understand the different challenges faced by engineers in getting their products to market quickly, and our ability to offer all of the services listed here will be a major asset to your next project.