The importance of PCBs in developing technology and new products can’t be understated. Look around the room you’re in now, and you’ll likely find a dozen or more PCBs. If you’re with a group of people, everyone has a smartphone with multiple circuit boards and other electronics. These products are the silent workhorses that make modern life possible.
Companies developing new electronic products for release to market will need to move through a specific process to create basic and functional prototypes and eventually scale with a contract manufacturer (CM). Many technology companies are moving beyond software development and into smart devices with a hardware-centric component. Still, they may not have the experience required to take electronics to market at scale.
This article will look at the importance of PCBs in developing technology and their role in electronics product development.
How PCBs Are Used in Product Development
When developing a new electronic product for release to market, the design will need to be built on top of a PCB. The board and its components form the backbone of an electronic system. The role of the PCB is to hold and connect all the critical components in a design into a compact, reliable package that can be manufactured with low cost, high yield, and high quality. If designed properly, subject to the right testing and inspection regimen, and built with the right materials, companies can assume their product will be reliable and function as intended.
The Development Process
A design will follow a particular process to meet these objectives. Designs typically start as a proof-of-concept, often using prototyping and application development platforms like Arduino or Raspberry Pi. The following revisions will focus on building functional prototypes for thorough testing and use in further application development. Finally, after successive rounds of development, design modifications, and testing, a design is consolidated and prepared for high-volume production with a qualified CM.
The Role of PCBs in Product Development
The PCB assembly (PCBA) for a new product will be built in multiple revisions so that a design team can prove the feasibility of their product, manufacturability, and debug hardware, firmware, and software. A design team will perform several functions as their PCB design is transformed from a set of CAD files into a physical product:
- Act as a test platform for a design: In the first iteration of a functional prototype, many PCBs are built with multiple test points, exposed I/Os on connectors, and form factor that enables testability. Some circuits may be omitted so that the design team can focus on verifying critical components, circuits, and capabilities in the device. The first revision of firmware and software is typically evaluated and debugged in early revisions.
- Enable testing in the intended environment: In the next iteration, a revision of the design is produced that much more closely resembles the end product with all circuits present, many test fixtures removed, and with a form factor that closely matches the device’s enclosure. These boards receive more rigorous testing and final debugging, often in multiple rounds to resolve all outstanding problems.
- Prove manufacturability: Throughout the process, the design needs to be qualified for production on each prototyping run and, eventually, before high-volume production. An experienced CM can put the design through their DFM review process before production to ensure manufacturability.
By building everything onto a PCB at multiple stages in the product development process, a design team and manufacturer ensure the product will be safe, reliable, manufacturable, and function as intended.
From Prototype to Market, Consumer to Industrial
PCBs perform many functions beyond connecting components to each other in a small package, and they need to be carefully designed to secure functionality. Specific designs that perform embedded computing functions or products with wireless capabilities require unique design practices to ensure data and signals are transferred correctly throughout the PCB.
Many of today’s consumer products need to satisfy these requirements. Consumer devices are packing more digital and analog components into smaller packages with diverse features, creating signal integrity and FCC/CE compliance challenges for designers. Some examples of these products include:
- Smart appliances
- Mobile or wearable devices
- Home office equipment
- Home automation devices
- Personal health devices
Industrial PCBAs must be more rugged, and they often need to comply with a different set of safety, reliability, and producibility standards before acceptance in the marketplace. IEC, UL, IEEE, FCC/CE, and other industry standards are placed on PCBAs for industrial systems. Some example products in the industrial domain include:
- Power management systems, including alternative energy
- Motor drive and control systems
- Industrial IoT platforms for equipment management and monitoring
- Replacements or upgrades to legacy production assets
No matter what functions a new PCB design needs to perform, companies can ensure their design will be manufacturable at the required volume when they work with the right CM. An experienced CM can act as a trusted partner throughout the development process, aiding design, parts procurement, and manufacturing at each stage and ensuring high quality.