Getting the right PCB manufacturer is important to the long-term success of your project. Choosing well can make your life much easier but choosing poorly can lead to a lot of grief.
Before you start out, you need to make sure you do your homework and put in the research time.
In this blog post, we talk about some of the things you should look out for when choosing a PCB manufacturer.
Questions you need to ask before choosing a PCB manufacturer:
- What are my specifications and can the manufacturer meet them?
- Is the manufacturer a specialist prototype, batch or volume producer?
- Will the PCB quality match my requirements?
- Do I have or can I build a relationship with a certain supplier?
- Does any part of their process take place offshore?
- How far will my budget stretch?
- How fast can they deliver the product?
- Is the PCB ‘manufacturer’ actually a broker in disguise?
The first question you need to ask when evaluating a PCB manufacturer is; can they meet your specifications?
This process will include quite standard questions like:
- Can they accommodate the required number of PCB layers?
- Do they have your required materials in stock?
- Can they work to the required tolerances?
If your project involves some non-standard requirements, then you may need to use a specialist manufacturer with experience handling similar specifications.
Most PCB manufacturers will list capabilities on their website. If you have any special requirements, then you may wish to check these by with the manufacturer directly.
Prototype, batch or volume
Your choice of manufacturer should be linked to what stage of the development process you find yourself at.
If you are still early on in the development of your electronic product, then you’re more likely to use a specialist prototype PCB manufacturer. Prototype PCB manufacturers are normally onshore, they can respond quickly to requests and work best on small, one-off jobs.
Local manufacturers can also be cost-effective for small batch production runs, particularly if you are in a rush.
If you are ready for volume production, then it may be cheaper to use a manufacturer in Asia or Eastern Europe – unless you need a quick turnaround time.
Whether you are prototyping or looking at a larger production run, you need to make sure that the quality is there.
Quality can be difficult to measure with PCBs. We are often talking about how well a finished PCB measures up against the specification. Is the board the right size and shape? Are the holes drilled accurately? Will the board pass compliance tests?
But this is quite a narrow measure that only looks at the quality of the fabrication.
If you want to ensure that you will get consistent quality from a manufacturer then you should check that they have relevant certifications like ISO 9001, which ensures that manufacturer processes are up to standard.
Learn more about the PCB manufacturing process and how to ensure the highest quality standards in this presentation.
Ideally, you want to be able to co-operate and build a relationship with your PCB supplier.
A strong relationship means that you can work closely with the manufacturer, explaining exactly what you want in a clear and complicated way.
It can also mean that the manufacturer knows how you operate and can feedback useful information that can be used in the design and assembly stage.
A good relationship can go a long way to getting problems fixed quickly and boosting the overall quality of your products.
Manufacturing PCBs doesn’t always go smoothly, so the relationship needs to be built on trust.
If you haven’t used a PCB manufacturer before or haven’t found one that you trust, then you can look for other hallmarks of trust.
You can ask other people that have been through the same search if they have any recommendations or you can look through online reviews or social media posts.
You can also try and strike up a relationship at trade shows or speak to a manufacturer over the phone to try and establish some rapport.
Onshore vs Offshore
There are PCB manufacturers based all over the globe.
PCB manufacturing can be quite labour intensive, so it is usually cheaper to manufacture in places with lower labour costs like Asia and Eastern Europe.
For high-volume decision making, it usually makes sense to go to offshore manufacturers because they are significantly cheaper for this kind of work. But they do tend to take longer and the quality is sometimes questionable.
At the early stages of development, many companies elect to work with domestic prototype PCB manufacturers, because they can be more flexible, faster and can perform to a higher standard.
Prototype PCB manufacturers often have offshore volume manufacturing partners that they have developed a relationship with. This means that customers can access high quality volume manufacturing at good price.
The onshore vs offshore decision can also be influenced by exchange rates. The Brexit-depressed pound means that it is less cost-effective to use foreign manufacturers.
It also means that more European and international companies are turning to British PCB manufacturers.
Cost will understandably be a major factor when you are choosing a PCB manufacturer.
Most product makers will have a budget that they need to keep under, so reducing cost is a major part of the product’s success. But there is a danger of going ‘too cheap’.
In many ways, price will correlate with quality, which means that if you go too cheap, boards could come with errors, miss out on certain minimum requirements or fail on important tests.
These mistakes can make assembly harder or damage your business reputation.
So you need to make sure that you balance cost with quality, choosing a solid manufacturer that is within your budget.
Sticking to a reasonable timescale can help stop your project from derailing.
PCB assembly companies often require boards by set deadlines and if these are missed it can cause problems.
It can also upset future deadlines, like release dates or delivery schedules. You need to ensure that you choose a manufacturer that says that they can deliver to your deadline and then sticks to that deadline.
Some manufacturers will have faster turnaround times than others.
Hi5 Electronics can deliver turnaround times as low as just one day, but faster delivery comes with a premium price.
Sometimes, when you contact a PCB manufacturer, you may just be speaking to a broker that will take your order and pass it onto another company.
Working with brokers can be risky because they can offer few guarantees on the standard of the work.
Brokers can also make communication harder and can put unnecessary roadblocks in the PCB manufacturing process.
Sometimes it can be tough to find out if a company is a broker, because they do not always make it explicit. But you can get a sense by looking at their website or speaking to somebody at the company.