Where’s your first stop when you enter the store to shop? If you’re anything like me, you’re a bargain hunter, and it’s straight to the clearance rack. Even when grocery bills aren’t soaring, I appreciate the simple surprise of trying a new product I’d otherwise pass over or stocking up on a favorite. This shopping mentality presupposes that the items you pick are more or less equivalent. While cost efficiency is always important, selecting among the most inexpensive options is unlikely to yield positive results every time.
Naturally, designing printed circuit boards incurs costs. It’s not advisable to seek inexpensive components or processes as quality will suffer, yet budget limitations are a real constraint. Circuit boards can quickly surpass cost projections because of money spent during development or due to poor design decisions that require revisions, up to and including scrapping what once were valuable board materials. Some design teams have older workflows that could use an update or force design decisions that are no longer applicable. Take a moment and look at the four main areas where you can reduce your PCB design cost while ensuring board production reaches completion.
Reduce Your PCB Design Costs with Layout and Fabrication Best Practices
The outset of board design has to forecast layout, fabrication, and assembly, but the interplay of these sequential processes is more of a balancing act than a simple flowchart. For most PCBs, the functionality of the circuits arises from the components themselves. The schematic indicates how the parts are connected and their identity, as certain chips may be better suited for a particular environment or use than others. The density of the schematic and allowable board space (constrained by the fixture the board will ultimately reside within) determines the amount of routing space and, therefore, the number of layers necessary to place and route the board during layout. The more complex the design (typically a combo of a dense schematic over a small area), the more difficult the fabrication, leading to performance issues during assembly. This process illustrates that the board design is somewhat cyclical – changes at one stage are not made in a vacuum.
In general, reducing cost comes down to implementing the fewest revision cycles possible by catching errors during the design phase that can develop into defects during fabrication. Revisions are a normal part of every design cycle – it is exceedingly rare for a board of minimal complexity not to have its design honed over multiple iterations. Instead, design teams should be on the lookout for issues that may manifest into production issues.
Streamlining PCB Design and Layout
While designing a circuit board essentially remains unchanged, there have been numerous CAD and CAM software improvements that can help streamline design flow. For example, board outlines can now be imported from mechanical drawings instead of creating them manually in the EDA software. New or improved processes can also be implemented to leverage the power of these design tools further and help reduce expenses:
- Review. Ensure each design portion is reviewed and signed off to reduce rework. If you have team-sharing software, this can help speed up the design review process. But even the standard design review meeting can be enhanced with projected design views highlighting specific components, sensitive nets, and trace routing.
- PCB Library. Have a well-developed design library, so you aren’t continually rebuilding the same parts. Another option is to use a PCB library vendor to directly provide component symbols and footprints from the part manufacturer.
- Reuse. Save and reuse common circuitry areas to save a lot of time and effort in the same way a design library can.
- Backup. Ensure your design data is backed up and protected against data loss.
Cutting Circuit Board Fabrication Expenses
A lot of money can be spent fabricating the raw circuit board, and it will help your bottom line to find ways to reduce these costs:
- Look for ways to reduce board layer count when possible. However, a higher layer count may be necessary for better signal integrity and the circuit board’s overall performance. In this case, a slight increase in cost may save you more in the long run than having to revise and manufacture a board with sufficient capabilities.
- Look at the board materials you plan to use to see if there are better cost alternatives. In many cases, standard FR-4 will do the job you need without going to a more expensive option.
- Examine your PCB design technology for ways to reduce expense. For example, does the design require blind and buried vias, or could that cost be offset with a different layer stackup configuration or a different routing strategy?
- Ensure that the board is laid out with the best design for fabrication (DFF) practices so that the boards can be produced as efficiently as possible.
Assembly Tips for Completing a Cost-Efficient PCBA
Reducing Component Expenses
Make sure that the components you’re using on the circuit board are not adding unexpected costs by checking for the following:
- Don’t specify components that are suspected of being illegitimate or counterfeit. These may fail prematurely during ruggedness testing – or worse, in the field.
- Ensure that the components you use on the board are available and have the best price. With component supply shortages ongoing and allocation in place through many suppliers and distributors, procurement must enact a sourcing plan as soon as possible during development. Design teams can support procurement by offering multiple workable part variants to increase the potential pool to draw from.
- Check for component life cycles to ensure they’ll be available for the board’s production. Once more, shortages have caused many suppliers to take a long look at product lines to ensure their operations are producing the most valuable chips possible. Expect obsolescence and be prepared to navigate around changes in catalog offerings.
- Look for ways to reduce the use of expensive components or parts that are difficult to work with by finding alternates or redesigning the circuitry.
Making PCB Assembly More Efficient with Good DFM Practices
Just as with circuit board fabrication, there can be excessive expenses in how the board is designed for assembly. Here are some ideas to consider:
- Make sure to optimize the layout for soldering processes. What may work best for the wave solder could cause problems during solder reflow. These types of issues could result in unexpected rework expenses.
- Avoid placing components in a way that forces them to be manually assembled. For example, smaller parts placed in the shadow of larger components may have to be installed by hand, which adds cost to the board.
- Make sure that your component placement provides enough room for debugging and rework on the board. Parts that are difficult to access for the rework technicians will also add to the board’s manufacturing costs.
- The board must be enabled for automatic testing to ensure it’s been assembled correctly. If the board has not been built as a design for test (DFT), the manufacturer will either add testability or test each board manually.
Choosing the Right PCB Contract Manufacturer for Cost and Quality
Another way to reduce your PCB design costs is to partner with a contract manufacturer that understands the business of circuit board design and manufacturing. PCB CMs like this will have a full technical staff available that can help in the following areas:
- Component procurement
- Electrical and mechanical design engineering
- Manufacturing expertise
- Test engineering
As a PCB contract manufacturer, we have served clients’ needs for over 40 years. Our facilities have manufacturing capacity from new product introductions, high-volume lots, and low-volume, high-mix manufacturing. We at VSE understand the importance of refining a design to reduce expenses without sacrificing quality. From the moment you contact our team of engineers, we focus on the singular goal of collaborating to build your electronics to exacting specifications and maximum performance.