After spending time engineering and designing, your PCB is ready for its prototype build. Congratulations! The design is ready to jump from electronic files to physical boards, and a contract manufacturer (CM) is integral to overseeing this process for those without hardware production experience. There is much to consider here, and CMs possess varying strengths and weaknesses.
Building a PCB prototype will involve many manufacturing processes and associated costs. The CM’s choice of PCB fabricator, the parts and materials used by the CM, and the manufacturing and test methods will heavily impact the PCB prototype price. Armed with an understanding of the processes that go into building a prototype will aid designers in making an informed decision for CM partnerships.
Cost-Benefit Analysis of PCB Prototyping Services
|Documentation||Provides an accurate snapshot of design for future revisions and records||Unnecessary for single-shot designs|
|BOM Review||Checks for obsolescence and replacement of products in or entering end-of-life production status||N/A|
|Layout Review||Determines the best layout for prototyping (emphasis on testability, can ease manufacturability requirements due to low volume runs for faster turnaround times)||Because the layout will differ from prototype to final production a less manufacture-ready board will need to undergo additional layout adjustments|
|Engineering Support||Offers a stand-in or supplement for internal engineering teams with a focus on electronics systems manufacturing (enclosures, wire harnesses/cable assembly, box builds)||OEM service providers may require an additional upfront investment from internally “completed” designs to realize full benefits|
Why Per-Board PCB Prototype Prices Are Higher Than Production Builds
As prototypes are more exploratory by nature than DFM boards, PCB prototype prices will typically exceed final production on a per-board basis. Some of the major factors contributing to this discrepancy include:
- Documentation: The amount and quality of the documentation that accompanies a prototype build may need to be completed, and the manufacturer has to update or create the necessary documents to proceed with the build.
- Component research: The parts in the design may require refining due to lack of availability or being of end–of–life (EOL) production status. As a result, the component engineers will need to spend time researching suitable replacements.
- Engineering: The design may be more conceptual than production-ready and require more engineering analysis to make sure that potential manufacturing errors have been corrected.
- Design for X: For a prototype, there often are more elements of design for assembly, design for testing, and design for debugging that will need to be included. DFA and DFT features will help when the board transitions to production, while a design for debugging is essential in a prototype. Options such as test probe points and component sockets should be added to make exploring the prototype’s performance or investigating alternative design strategies easier.
- Time to market: The CM will fast-track the project through the factory to get prototypes built as quickly as possible. While the manufacturing steps, such as component placement and soldering, will be the same as a regular production board, a prototype will be built in smaller numbers with dedicated team members to guide its progress.
Why The Lowest Price Isn’t Always Best for Prototype Assembly
The first criterion to consider when choosing a CM is what level of contract manufacturing is needed for your project. There are different levels of CM capabilities for building printed circuit boards, which affect how they approach prototyping designs.
The lowest level of a contract manufacturer is the “garage shop” CM. They specialize in quick turns at a low price but may lack the infrastructure to fully support your prototype. Their engineering sophistication may struggle to translate designs to manufacturing or adequately evaluate component selection. On the other end of the spectrum are the “mega” CMs. These shops have the necessary resources for complete engineering and manufacturing support. Unfortunately, their business model is set up for high-volume production runs, and smaller prototype builds may not get the personalized attention they need to evolve the design toward its goals.
Finding a low-volume, high-quality CM that is between these two aforementioned extremes has a greater upfront cost, yet it provides the best environment for building a prototype PCB. While PCB production is an iterative process, working with a CM that is ill-suited for prototype design may delay final manufacturing and incur unnecessary costs:
- Some CMs may not be able to provide a full documentation package that contains the list of modifications made during production. This pushes responsibility back to the design team, which is usually remedied with time and money to duplicate their work. Similarly, some CMs don’t identify and review DFA issues which can lead to yield issues in high-volume production.
- Engineering analysis of potential DFM issues, bill of materials (BOM) validation, and high-quality manufacturing standards may be substandard. CMs that don’t invest in these practices will be able to charge less, but correcting engineering and production problems later can prove costly when scheduling is more compact.
- CMs that do not have a vast network of vendors to use for bare-board materials or components will pay more per board. This may be acceptable during prototyping when the volume is low but becomes an issue with larger lot sizes.
What You Should Expect From Your CM for Your Money
Getting a prototype PCBA built will cost more than a regular production board: in addition to added expenses inherent to prototype manufacturing, it is imperative to know that CMs best suited for the job will cost more. In return, expect a higher level of quality from a CM investment in the following areas:
- Experience: CMs should possess a wealth of experience in building prototypes for multiple market segments backed by industry-standard certifications. This experience can then be leveraged to convert a prototype to a high-volume PCBA run.
- Resources: A CM with good business relationships will have multiple vendors for components, materials, and bare-board fabrication. They can quickly respond to the prototype’s needs using their network of partners.
- Facilities: An up-to-date facility with the latest equipment can handle greater design complexity.
- Personnel: Highly-trained technicians accelerate the manufacturing and testing of PCBAs. Additional experienced engineering staff extends design proficiency to a prototype without requiring further overhead.
At VSE, we have the experience, resources, facilities, and personnel necessary to produce your prototype PCB. Our state-of-the-art manufacturing facility ensures all of the minutiae surrounding a prototype build are taken care of from the initial engineering analysis and component research through manufacturing and testing. Through it all, we work with you to provide a complete documentation package and prototype build ready for mass production, leaving your design team ready to proceed to the next phase of product development with full peace of mind.