The Essentials of PCB Prototyping

A PCB (printed circuit board) prototype is a model or sample of what the final PCB will look and function like. PCB prototyping is an essential process that comes prior to mass production and the subsequent launch of new PCBs into the market. This process ascertains whether a suggested PCB design will perform as expected thereby revealing any possible flaws and thus enabling the designers to make any necessary changes. Any other improvements or alternatives the designers may think of are also introduced at this stage. The mass production of any new product leave alone PCBs cannot just simply commence without the prototyping stage.

Prototyping will not necessarily reveal any flaws as at times the design is perfect. PCB prototyping in this case will be used confirm and re-ascertain that the PCBs performance is consistent. The manufacturer or the customers can then give their opinion about the PCB along with other suggestions/improvements they may have. The PCB designers should always be prepared for any possible outcomes and thus any reworking at this stage should further not be considered as an extra cost. Bypassing prototyping and engaging in the mass production of a PCB only for it to fail it will certainly be catastrophic in terms of wasted effort, time and money.

The following are the generalized stages in Fast Turn PCB prototyping. The first is called the breadboard test or proof of principle. This checks if the logic behind the PCB is achievable. Next is examining the size (preferable dimensions) aspects of the anticipated PCB. After this stage a visual model is generated and if approved the final stage which is function and appearance is started. Whatever is achieved at this juncture is the closest to what the actual PCB will look like. Typically, in prototyping for PCBs, the simulation of current flow in the board and the condition of the circuitry are the two most important processes. It is only until the simulated system works as required that actual components and materials are implemented for the final model or prototype.

The production of prototypes is a process limited by time – it should take the least time possible to pave way for the actual manufacture. Companies offering PCB prototyping services are also likely to be involved in manufacture. As such, these companies strive to develop good/perfect prototypes. Advancement in technology and more so computerization has expedited the processes of prototyping and manufacturing PCBs and made them as error-free as possible. Accordingly, It is wise to choose a PCB company which has the latest technology, a capability which will ensure that the error margin is almost zero, the use of harmful chemicals is avoided, and PCB sizes are kept as small as possible but just as they are as required for modern electronic devices.

Guidelines on How to Reduce the Cost of PCB Prototype Making

Getting your new electronic product design ready for mass production and PCB assembly involves many steps and risks. I will give some recommendations about how to avoid costly mistakes and how to minimize the time to market for your new product designs.

Once you have finished your product and PCB design, you want to get started building prototypes before you commit to large production volume. Many design software packages such as PCB layout design software and industrial design software have simulation capabilities built in. Doing a simulation allows minimizing the number of design mistakes before the first prototype is built.

If you are designing a complex product, you may want to consider a modular design in which all of the main functions are located in individual modules. During your testing, you can then swap modules which do not meet the design constraints. Spinning individual modules will be quicker and more cost effective than spinning a whole design.

Depending on the design complexity, you could consider manually mounting PCB components to save cost. However, for medium to large complexity this method tends to be extremely time consuming, especially if you want to build several prototypes. Therefore it makes sense considering a contract manufacturer for the assembly.

When running small-quantity production runs, the production setup cost will typically dominate the overall prototype build cost. When looking for a subcontractor, it is best to select a vendor that specializes in prototype builds to minimize the expense. Prototype PCB manufacturers typically combine the circuit boards of several customers which effectively shares the setup cost amongst several customers. The drawback is that you will typically only be able to choose amongst several standard PCB material thicknesses and sizes.

Aside from selecting a supplier with low setup costs, picking a company that will also be able to handle your full-volume production runs minimizes mistakes since switching manufacturers has the chance of mistakes due to a particular supplier interpreting production design data differently. This way your design is already translated into the specific machine data which means little or no setup cost for your final production.

Some PCB manufacturers also offer PCB design services which is a great plus in case you don’t have experience with the design. Also, these vendors will be able to assist you in case there are problems with your design files and be able to spot problems before the production.

One problem with small-quantity production runs is sourcing of Quick Turn PCBs components. Most components vendors will charge ship fees and have minimum order quantity requirements for certain components. Also, dealing with a small quantity of components is a problem in case of surface mount assembly since components will be mounted from SMT feeders. Some manufacturers will stock standard SMT components that you can purchase from the vendor. This will save you the time of having to purchase these components individually. Also, you don’t have to worry about using up leftover components.

Choosing a manufacturer that is also able to do the final product assembly minimizes time to market by avoiding ship times between different vendors. Also, circuit boards that are found to be defective during the final testing can be repaired much more quickly. Finally, ensure that you are able to easily communicate with your supplier. This will help avoid costly mistakes and shorten production preparation times throughout all stages of PCB manufacture, PCB assembly and final product assembly.