Whether preparing a small proof of concept design or a large run of complete turnkey assemblies, finding the proper PCB contract manufacturer to produce a circuit board is essential. Many PCB CMs can provide various services, and knowing the exact capabilities of the assembly shop is key for smooth production. The following questions to ask a contract manufacturer are some of the topics that are worth exploring.
|What’s the CM’s reputation? Can they point to successful products or difficult design accomplishments?
|Are they a turnkey solution or just part of the PCBA manufacturing chain? Can they accommodate additional post-board manufacturing?
|Location is key – are they nearby for a tour of the facility? Will distance hamper delivery times on tight time-to-market schedules?
|Are they currently at capacity and waiting to fulfill orders in queue? What’s their average turnaround time for similar productions?
|What makes this CM stand out from the field? Besides the final product, what’s to gain from a manufacturing partnership?
|Do they commit to quality or simply meet contractual obligations?
The Main Six Questions to Ask a Contract Manufacturer
With all the different expenses and expectations of building electronic hardware, it is sometimes necessary to use a contract manufacturer for extra design and production capacity. When searching for a PCB CM to develop a circuit board, it’s worth understanding its capabilities before conducting in-depth site visits and interviews. Here are the six general topics to determine if a potential PCB CM candidate will meet the minimum design requirements.
1. Does their experience match with board requirements?
For a standard circuit board built on FR-4 with minimal high-speed requirements, most PCB CMs will likely be able to build the design. On the other hand, a more specialized manufacturing process for hybrid, flex designs, or exotic board materials for harsh operating environments may require additional research. Not all PCB CMs have the same level of expertise in every aspect of PCB manufacturing; knowing a CM’s capabilities is essential.
2. What is their specialty in manufacturing?
For a quick-turn prototype, an assembly shop that traditionally builds large runs of production boards may be unable to provide satisfactory service. Prototyping requires agility and responsiveness to rapid design changes by the customer, and some CMs cannot provide that. Additionally, a shop that only manufactures boards may lack complete turnkey manufacturing services, cable assemblies, wiring harnesses, or box builds.
3. What certifications do they possess?
This may be the most important of questions to ask a contract manufacturer. Quality is essential: at minimum, a PCB CM must have an ISO 9001 certification for quality management and repeatable manufacturing. Beyond that, inquire if they have industry certifications for the board’s application, such as ISO 13485 for medical equipment or UL 508A for industrial electronics. It’s also important to inquire if they keep their certifications current and have training programs to keep their staff certified.
4. What kind of engineering resources do they have?
While any circuit board manufacturing could require engineering help, developing prototypes and new product introductions usually requires a lot of engineering expertise:
- Component engineers to find form, fit, and function part replacements and purchasing agents with experience working within the PCB component supply chain
- Design engineering for project reviews and circuitry changes
- Layout engineers for design for manufacturability (DFM) reviews and changes
- Test engineering for developing test strategies and fixtures
- Documentation control for board changes and drawing updates
5. How are their communication and documentation skills?
Familiarity with their process controls and how they handle design deviations or problems will give designers an idea of what to expect when changes occur. Examine how they communicate ECOs, inspections, and progress reports.
6. Are they a good fit as partners?
Do they have the same business values? What are their facilities like, and do they have the latest production equipment to handle circuit board assembly needs?
How VSE Answers These Six Questions
It’s necessary to develop a list of questions to ask a contract manufacturer so designers can determine the best fit for their project. At VSE, we have experience with several different circuit board technologies, and our assembly processes support high-mix, low-volume manufacturing. This refinement allows us to respond quickly to the needs of our customers, developing prototype NPI circuit boards. We are a certified ISO 9001 electronics assembler with additional medical and industrial equipment certifications.
Our component engineers will work with you to ensure the highest quality parts are available for your design and at the best price. Our design engineers will also collaborate with you on your board’s circuitry and DFM while our test department ensures the completed project is thoroughly tested and validated. For customers developing prototypes, part of our services includes design recommendations to prepare your board for full production, including documenting all changes and enhancements. Additionally, we can support full turnkey production needs, box builds, and cable assembly.