How to Identify the Best PCB Prototype Service for Your Electronics NPI

pcb first article inspection process

The world of electronics is continually expanding as new devices and equipment are being developed every day. To get these products from the drawing board to the showroom involves the process of New Product Introduction. If you haven’t started yet, you too will soon be going through this development cycle starting with a PCB prototype. Here are the details about electronics prototyping that will make your new product introduction a success.

Prototyping is done for every major industry, and printed circuit board design is no exception. A successful prototype will pave the way for the production development of the project, and once completed your electronics will be ready to be introduced to the market. In order to build a successful prototype though, you need a PCB manufacturer that specializes in the best PCB prototype services.

There are many PCB contract manufacturers around the world that build circuit boards. These CMs range from small garage shops to mega industrial plants, and everything else between. Specializing in building PCB prototypes, however, requires specific skills, processes, and experience that not all manufacturers have. In order for you to know what to look for when evaluating PCB contract manufacturers, we will break these details down and examine their importance for you.

New product introduction process

Your PCB Prototype: The Start of Your New Product Introduction

Launching a new product is an involved process that takes the original product design to the point of being production-ready, and it starts with a successful PCB prototype.

New Product Introduction, From Concept to Developed Hardware

The process of taking an idea and refining it into a producible product is known as New Product Introduction or NPI. This process can take a lot of time and resources in order to ensure that the final production version of the product can be built at the highest levels of quality, and for the lowest manufacturing costs. To achieve these goals, considerable planning usually goes into the NPI of a new electronics product starting with the PCB prototype.

The Necessity of a PCB Prototype

A prototype is often used to describe both the initial prototype and the eventual product development, but there is an important distinction. Prototyping is the result of the initial stages of design while the engineers explore how to create their product. This portion of the design process is very experimental, and multiple versions of the design may be created in order to find the correct configuration to achieve the design specifications.

Once the design specifications have been met in the prototype, the design can then be refined for full production. This is the product development portion of the design process, and the goal is to optimize the working prototype for production. Here is where changes for manufacturability and product performance and life cycle will be made. Product development is based on the initial prototypes, however, and the development of the prototype is essential to the success of the project.

What Kind of Prototypes Will Best Serve Your NPI Needs?

There are different types of prototypes that can be built, and which one you choose to work with depends on the engineering and development needs of the project:
tombstoning pcb assembly

Mockup: This prototype is used as an example of the final product, but it is not intended to be a functional unit.

pcb silkscreen guidelines

Design Concept: This prototype will include some of the intended functionality of the final product to confirm the design concept, but it won’t necessarily work as a fully functional board.

smt vs through hole components

Working Model: This prototype will function as the final product is intended to, but the functionality of the board may change with ongoing design development.

Semi Conductor

Functional Prototype: This prototype will work as the final product is intended to work, and contain all of its expected functionality. There may be refinements made to the design for manufacturability purposes, but for the most part, it is a fully functional board.

Now that we’ve seen the purpose of a prototype and where it fits into the NPI plan, let’s look in greater detail at what it takes to successfully build this printed circuit board.

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The Best PCB Prototype Services Offered by Contract Manufacturers

To successfully build a prototype printed circuit board requires more than just standard PCB manufacturing services. There are specific skills and capabilities that are needed to guide the manufacturing of this board so that it can be produced efficiently and with the highest quality possible.

Design Engineering Expertise

Prototype PCBs often require engineering on the part of the contract manufacturer. Starting with a review of the components used on the board, the PCB CM will check the parts for performance, availability, and price. Next, the CM will conduct a design for manufacturability (DFM) review, and make any recommendations for DFM or board function and performance that are found during the review. In many cases, the CM may need to make design changes based on the results of their review, or engineer new portions of the design in order to accelerate the tight schedule of the prototype. With a high level of engineering expertise, you can expect the following from your PCB CM:

  • Leveraging their experience to successfully build your prototype with the long-term vision of effortlessly migrating it to a production board.
  • Contributing different perspectives and ideas with the goal of reducing the number iterations needed to get your prototype production-ready.
  • The ability to provide engineering resources and expertise that may not be present in your company to help further round out the design of your prototype.

Precision PCB Manufacturing Processes for Prototypes and Production

A PCB CM needs to have the latest equipment, trained personnel, and fully documented processes in place to ensure the highest level of quality in the products that they build. This includes:

  • Incoming inspection of raw boards, components, and materials.
  • Multiple assembly lines for surface mount and thru-hole boards.
  • Automated inspection systems and skilled technicians for rework.
  • Multiple test systems to verify assembly quality and board functionality.

PCB CMs are usually set up to manufacture a wide variety of circuit board types and technologies. Building prototype boards will require the same manufacturing capabilities, but the CM also needs to have specific processes in place to move the prototype build quickly through the assembly line. This is often done by assigning a prototype specialist to guide the project all the way from preparation through final test and inspection. This way any changes or corrections needed to complete the prototype build will be immediately attended to.

Box Build, Cable Assembly, and Wire Harness Capabilities

One of the challenges of building a PCB prototype is that it also has to fit into the system enclosure prototype that often is built by a different manufacturer. A PCB CM that also has box build capabilities can manufacture both projects at the same time, ensuring that they will work together. This can save an enormous amount of time and expense from having to wait for multiple vendors to synchronize with each other, only to find out that one of the pieces didn’t match the other. Add to that the ability to build cable assemblies and wire harnesses, and you can get your entire system prototype built under one roof by the same PCB contract manufacturer.

Detailed Documentation Generation and Control Processes

The building of a prototype circuit board can involve a lot of changes and alterations before the project is actually completed. Components will be exchanged for alternates, circuitry altered for performance, and test specifications developed. It is vital that the PCB CM building the prototype has the necessary processes in place to ensure that each change is precisely documented. Once the changes are finally complete, the documents will have to be re-generated for the customer to incorporate back into their original design package. This way the customer can more easily move the prototype board into the production phase without having to correct outdated documentation.

The Benefits of a Local PCB CM to Both Start-Up Companies and Large Corporations

Whether the technical innovator is a small start-up company or a large established electronics corporation, they both will need to have prototype circuit boards built. A local PCB contract manufacturer that specializes in building prototypes can help each with their own unique requirements:

Start-ups and small companies

Large electronics corporations

Engineering resources to fill in the gaps of smaller design teams. Resolve BOM and assembly issues allowing the customer to focus on design.
Documentation services for customers without these capabilities. Extend the customer’s R&D resources without increasing their fixed overhead.
Project management to maintain production consistency (copy exactly). Repair or replacement of older PCBs that are no longer supported internally.
Box build capabilities instead of working with multiple vendors and manufacturers. Engineering and support of older products that are no longer in service.
Component sourcing expertise instead of maintaining their own purchasing network. Component engineering of older products to monitor part lifecycles and availability.

The Attributes You Should Look For in a PCB Contract Manufacturer

The prototype phase of your new product introduction is critical to the ultimate success or failure of the project. Not only do the prototypes need to be built swiftly and correctly, but they must also funnel into product development and eventually regular production. To ensure the success of your prototype builds, you need to choose the best PCB contract manufacturer for the job. Here are some key points that you should be looking for in order to identify which contract manufacturer will provide the best services for building your prototype:
  • LOCATION:

    Building a PCB prototype often ends up involving a lot of your time. Changes to the prototype can be expected due to your ongoing engineering of the project, or as a result of design reviews by the CM. You can do this work remotely, but having a locally based CM makes your work a lot easier. Not only will you be working in the same time zone, but you can usually work on-site with the CM or host their personnel at your company.

  • Capabilities:

    Finding a CM that excels in building prototypes typically means that they are set up for low-volume high-mix manufacturing. This gives them the flexibility to respond more quickly to your needs and can shift their focus from one project to another more efficiently than the larger manufactures can. A good place to find out more information about their capabilities is to look for references and testimonials from their other customers.

  • Culture and Certifications:

    Does the CM that you are evaluating have a company culture that promotes a positive attitude about their work and serving their customers? You can tell a lot about a CM by how they initially responded to you. Were they eager to meet with you, give you a tour of the facilities, and outline their processes and capabilities? Are their personnel trained and certified in the latest industrial standards for the level of work that needs to be done?

  • Component Supply Chain:

    You can expect that there will be alterations to the components in your prototype PCB due to circuitry changes, DFM requirements, or part availability and pricing. You need a CM with an experienced staff of component engineers and purchasers that understand the intricacies of the supply chain. They should also have a well-developed network of component manufacturers and distributors to work with to ensure that your prototype has the parts needed for assembly on time and within budget.

  • Engineering:

    A prototype will usually go through a lot of changes while it is being built in order to enhance its performance, satisfy DFM requirements, or correct initial design errors. A good CM will have an experienced team of electrical and mechanical engineers to find problems and recommend solutions to you to keep your prototype build on track. They will even be able to help you with the design of your prototype if you should need it.

  • Assembly:

    The PCB CM that you choose should have the latest and most up-to-date equipment and processes in place in a modern facility to handle your prototype requirements. In addition, they should also have trained assembly technicians that are skilled and experienced in manual rework and changes. Their processes should also be fully documented, and they should have a build plan in place for your prototype board.

  • Documentation:

    As your prototype is being built, it will probably go through many changes to its form factor, bill of materials (BOM), and circuitry. It is essential that your CM has the ability to clean up and organize your original documentation, and re-generate it for you in a format that is easily adaptable to your in-house documentation system. This will allow you to control future changes to the board, and you will be ready to push the design into full production when it is ready.

  • Test:

    Whether your prototype will be bench tested, or run through full automated testing such as in-circuit test (ICT), the CM should be equipped to handle it all. They should also be able to work together with you to develop the test specifications and plan for the board.

  • Box Build Capabilities:

    Working with a PCB CM that can also build your entire system including the circuit board, box build, cable assemblies, and wire harnesses is a huge benefit. Not only will you be working with one manufacturer instead of many, but the CM can engineer and build the entire prototype system to fit and work together.

  • Quality Control:

    Does the CM that you will be working with have a quality control system set up to satisfy the requirements of industry standards such as ISO 9001 and ISO 13485? This is critical for your products to be able to demonstrate compliance with these standards, and the CM that you work with needs to be fully trained in them. The CM also needs to have both automated and manual inspection systems in place throughout the manufacturing process to ensure the highest levels of quality are maintained.

While all of these attributes can be challenging to look for, we know a PCB contract manufacturer that can check off each item on that list.

Why VSE is Your Best Choice for PCB Prototyping Services

VSE is a low-volume, high-mix PCB manufacturer that has specialized in building prototype and regular production circuit boards for over 30 years now. Our ability to work with various forms of engineering input to create a working prototype has earned us the reputation of being able to take a napkin schematic and create a fully assembled and tested product. When you compare our capabilities to the attributes listed above, you can see how prototyping with us gives our customers the services they need for on-time deliveries of the highest quality:

Corporate Attributes:

Located in California’s Silicon Valley, VSE is well-positioned to service the high-tech community locally and around the world. Our facilities are designed to complement our workflow with the latest equipment and processes, and our staff is well-trained in their work and certified in multiple industry standards. We place the highest value on servicing our customers here at VSE, which you will see from the moment we first start working with you.

Advanced Engineering:

Our engineering teams are very experienced working with components, electronic design, PCB layout, circuit board test, and mechanical design. Using VSE to build your prototype means that you have access to years and years of engineering expertise to help you with design corrections, re-designs, or full-on new designs. We will partner with you using “think ahead” strategies including BOM diagnostics, DFM reviews, and prototype feasibility evaluations to ensure success both now and in the future. In addition, our documentation capabilities will also ensure that your prototype will be able to efficiently transition to regular production when you are ready.

Precision Manufacturing:

We have fine-tuned our materials control, assembly, and inspection processes to ensure the quality of each circuit board we build. Unlike larger manufacturers, our assembly lines are configured to quickly switch from one product to another and support quick changes and manual assembly. This gives us the unique ability to adapt quickly to your prototype needs without having to reconfigure the entire assembly process. We support all manner of PCB assembly including solder reflow, wave solder, and selective solder utilizing carefully controlled processes and procedures. We also use this same level of precision in our box builds, cable assembly, and wire harness manufacturing as well.

Quality Control:

At VSE we have dedicated test personnel to ensure that your board has been assembled correctly. Along with the variety of automated test equipment that we support such as ICT and flying probe, we also will work with you to execute your test plan or develop a new plan if needed. Our commitment to quality doesn’t end there though, throughout the manufacturing process at VSE we have different inspection points built into the assembly line. These include automated optical inspection tools and visual verification steps to confirm the quality of each circuit board we build.

Our ability to work with various forms of engineering input to create a working prototype has earned us the reputation of being able to take a napkin schematic and create a fully assembled and tested product.

We are proud of the prototype work that we do

Here are some examples of work we have done and how it has helped our customers to achieve their goals.
  • Stealth camera development for catching poachers BEFORE they kill endangered animals in Africa.
  • Developing a next-generation internet-smart ‘home assistant’ concept that was then transferred offshore for high volume production.
  • Re-engineered the wiring of a complex medical system which resulted in identifying and correcting hundreds of documentation errors. This reconfiguration resulted in turning it into a production-ready unit.
  • Assisted a customer with their new silicon fabrication equipment that now radically out-performs the nearest competitor by more than 10 times. This has resulted in near-perfect yields due to the manufacturability features we incorporated.
  • Reversed engineered a complex micro-controller based semiconductor processing pump that had virtually no documentation due to its age. This included redesigns of major portions of the circuitry, which resulted in a functionally equivalent replacement with increased performance that has better manufacturability yields.
Picture of an African Elephant spraying water
Elephants like this are better protected with anti-poaching technology cameras and sensors

For over 35 years at VSE, we have been helping technology innovators like you to transition your prototype designs into production-ready products.

From component procurement to design for manufacturability, our engineering teams understand what is needed for a successful new product introduction. Our manufacturing teams have built every type of printed circuit board imaginable, and they will be applying that experience to your product to ensure that it is built well.

We have the experience, skills, and capabilities that you need. Let us show you how we can help you with your next NPI project.

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