After completing the PCB layout, the next step for first-time designers will be determining how to choose a PCB manufacturer. Like most services, there’s a range of quality outcomes depending on the design requirements and allotted budget. A PCB production cobbled together across multiple manufacturing sites may save money upfront, but design stages may lack cohesiveness. Some contract manufacturers (CMs) will have more experience and capabilities than others, and it will pay to understand better the benefits they offer.
The Advantages of an Experienced CM in PCB Manufacturing
|Circuit board layout design
|A schematic does not indicate how circuits need to physically layout and interface. The layout can significantly affect the performance of the PCBA.
|Additional engineering services
|Does the circuit itself need additional testing or verification? A CM with an engineering team can act as an extra set of eyes and apply their experience to optimize electrical systems.
|Component sourcing expertise
|Sourcing components is a logistics issue that has become dramatically complicated in recent years due to ongoing back orders and extended component lead times.
|PCB production facilities
|Facilities can vary wildly in equipment and technicians – this will be the primary point of investigation for new product development teams.
|Cable assembly and wire harnesses construction
|Multi-board systems or those that require external cabling will need additional manufacturing support to integrate their electrical system.
|Box build or full system manufacturing
|Combining the board, wire harness, cable manufacturing, and enclosure synchronizes these semi-disparate elements such that the sum is greater than the parts.
How to Choose a PCB Manufacturer? Start with Services
Not every PCB manufacturer offers the same capacity or capabilities; differences in market positions (i.e., NPI vs. high-volume), equipment, and personnel expertise will vary by location. While every manufacturer should furnish core services – that is, PCB design, fabrication, and assembly – additional support services can alleviate the need for additional contractors. Generally, designers will be searching for some or all of the following seven primary manufacturing services:
Once a schematic has more-or-less finalized (some reworking of values or periphery features is acceptable), testing the circuit’s performance is necessary. While modern circuit simulators are extremely powerful and accurate, there’s simply no stand-in for a physical product. Translation of the schematic and other design documents occurs in the layout stage: ECAD designers optimize the physical placement of components and copper features to perfect the device’s design intent. Product development teams that do not have a layout designer or capable engineer will need to work with a third party to complete this step.
The most convenient option will be partnering with a contract manufacturer (CM) to design the circuit layout; the CM will incorporate a design for manufacturability that significantly reduces the chance of errors during manufacturing. Working with designers who don’t emphasize manufacturability (or other desired production elements like cost, testability, etc.) may require correction at a later stage, lengthening manufacturing schedules and increasing revision costs. Even for development teams with layout designers on hand, a CM can parallelize designs for multi-board systems or reduce turnaround time owing to DFM correspondence.
PCB layout isn’t the only engineering service that some customers may require: PCBs are parts of larger systems. Mechanical design, schematic capture, or documentation creation are necessary to unite the multiple elements of the electronic system. As an added benefit, a CM can oversee the design of the complementary pieces of the electronic system. Both for smooth production and ease of logistics, a CM is in an excellent position to provide the additional service necessary to support manufacturing.
Finding and selecting the proper components to use on your circuit board can be a severe drain on available engineering resources. There’s more than simply choosing the right parts at the lowest cost; supply chain disruptions have complicated the calculus for procurement. PCB manufacturers usually have a sourcing department with access to large networks of part vendors and distributors that locate the best components for your design. This staff also stays up-to-date on product life cycles to avert assemblies containing end-of-life (EOL) or obsolete (OBS) components.
PCB prototyping is a specific type of PCB manufacturing, but its outcome serves a different goal. General manufacturing is for products deemed ready for market; these boards have extensive research and development into the costs of the bare board and the assembly to minimize per-board expenses in high-volume lots. Prototyping is more concerned with testability and the ongoing development of the board. While both processes produce a circuit board, different considerations go into each to maximize their effectiveness. Accommodating this difference requires an experienced CM specializing in prototyping printed circuit boards.
Cable Assembly, Wire Harnesses, and Box Builds
Circuit boards often comprise a more extensive system involving multiple boards and interfaces. Internally, connecting all these requires intricate wire harnesses; cable assemblies provide rugged external connections. Combining board manufacturing, wire harness, and cable assembly under one roof improves logistics and embraces an all-encapsulated design philosophy that synergizes box builds. The process saves designers time, money, and effort in coordinating multiple vendors.
Additional Considerations When Choosing the Right PCB CM
Deciding how to choose a PCB manufacturer requires some thought and foresight; not every manufacturing job will require all the services available with a PCB CM. However, there are a few advantages to working with a turnkey PCB assembler. For a quick redesign, working with a CM with significant engineering expertise is beneficial to troubleshoot and predict production issues. Furthermore, a single-board design can evolve into a multi-board system; an experienced CM can easily transition to wire harnesses and enclosures.
We’ve worked with innovators at VSE to produce new and exciting electronic systems for over 40 years. We understand the challenges engineers face in getting their products to market quickly, and by bundling your manufacturing services with a single contractor, you reduce the turnaround time spent dealing with multiple parties.