There have always been inventive ideas that don’t make it into production because they couldn’t be mass-produced efficiently enough to return a profit. Cost-effective manufacturing also applies to electronics, where refining a product for production is essential to its ultimate success. It is important to design electronics for production-ready assembly, to ensure their success in development. To help, here is a new product introduction checklist for manufacturing to keep in mind.
New Product Introduction: Refining a Prototype into a Production Ready Product
Prototype circuit boards can take many forms in electronic design. In some cases, a simple breadboard is considered a prototype, while in others, the prototype is a completed product that is nearly production-ready. Usually, the actual prototype falls somewhere between these extremes and has to be refined for production through the new product introduction, or as it is more commonly referred to, NPI.
While a prototype PCB is necessary for debugging circuits and proof of concept, it rarely is ready for regular production. It may be using outdated parts or components that are difficult to source. The parts may not be placed in an optimum configuration for PCB assembly, or the board may lack adequate testpoint access for automated checking. Some prototypes use sockets that are often removed or additional components for specific test and debugging purposes that don’t need to be included in the final build.
For any or all of these reasons, a newly designed circuit board will need to be refined to ensure that it can be built as rapidly, inexpensively, and error-free as possible. However, not all PCB contract manufacturers are as skilled, experienced, and prepared for NPI as other assemblers. You must know before you start which vendor will give you the best NPI results with your design. Here are some items to consider before you commit.
The New Product Introduction Checklist for Manufacturing Printed Circuit Boards
When evaluating circuit board manufacturers to work with for your new product introductions, there are several items that you should consider.
Circuit board manufacturers are scattered across the globe, and while some larger manufacturers overseas may offer lower prices, they may not be the best choice. For example, time-zone and language challenges can slow down the rapid change cycle common with NPI builds. Getting fast and inexpensive shipping to work with your boards quickly is also something to consider. On the other hand, a local manufacturer will be able to work with you in real-time and get a finished product to you quickly to keep the NPI process moving along swiftly. You can also be more confident of a local manufacturer’s qualifications, certifications, and capabilities.
PCB contract manufacturers vary in size and capabilities, and you need to find one that excels in flexibility. PCB CMs that focus on high-volume production may not have the ability to efficiently alter their processes to handle the sudden design changes that are common during the NPI cycle. However, a manufacturer specializing in high-mix builds instead of high-volume is already used to a rapidly changing production environment. These CMs typically make for a better NPI manufacturing partner. They will have multiple checkpoints built into their manufacturing lines for manual oversight and quickly adapt to any prototype, or NPI build changes.
Since the PCB NPI process focuses on readying the design for production builds, the manufacturer you choose must have a high degree of engineering expertise. The PCB CM will need to review the board for design for manufacturability (DFM) problems and verify the bill of materials (BOM) for assembly. As design changes arise during NPI, the CM should also have the ability to implement these alterations to both the layout and the schematic. Additionally, the CM should have the circuit, mechanical, and system-level design capabilities and capture all NPI changes in fresh documentation.
One of the keys to full-scale mass-production of circuit boards is using quality components available at a good price. Often prototypes are designed with older or unavailable parts that need to be updated, and the CM needs to find these undesirable components and source adequate replacements. This process requires a procurement staff with a vast network of component manufacturers, distributors, and brokers, plus experience working with the electronic components supply chain. They need to plan for long-term production quantities and look for form, fit, and functional replacements when necessary. The CM should also carry a good supply of stock parts and have the experience to avoid counterfeit components.
A good CM for NPI builds will also have a network of business relationships that they can draw on. Examples include circuit board fabricators, parts and materials vendors, and outside engineering services for additional tests or qualifications.
Lastly, a good NPI manufacturer will offer other services that can help you. These services include turnkey production, box builds, cable and wire harness assembly, and 3D printing.
Once you’ve qualified your vendor, you will be ready to have your NPI circuit board built. But first, there are a few things to do on your end that will help your manufacturer complete your project efficiently.
Preparing Your Project for NPI Manufacturing
As we said, the first step is to choose your manufacturing partner carefully. Next, make sure that the conceptual and prototype phase of the project is completed as much as possible. When preparing for production, you don’t want to debug and make functional design changes. You also need to provide complete documentation to your CM so they don’t have to continually put the project on hold to ask you another question.
At VSE, we are a high-mix, mid-volume PCB manufacturer known for our flexibility in building prototypes and NPI boards for our customers. We understand the challenges you face as you prepare a design for full production. Our staff of experienced engineers and procurement specialists will ensure that your NPI design is configured correctly. Our goal is your success, and we are committed to helping you develop and build a high-quality circuit board.