Long gone are the days in which a prototype board was made by the designer himself. For many years, the hallmark of an ideal design engineer (or a big shot electronic hacker) was the ability to make their own PCB’s. The art of crafting a home made PCB has evolved over time, from the use of ferric chloride solutions to laser toner printers and even 3D printers in recent times. Well, as the “home made technology” evolved over time so is the commercial PCB manufacturing process. The PCB manufacturing process (and the companies involved in this business) has grown by leaps and bounds over the past couple of decades. The technology improved, use of materials changed and the cost of manufacturing went down like never before; hence began the era of affordable PCB prototype service by full scale pcb manufacturers.
In the early days, designers rarely approached a full service PCB manufacturer to print a prototype. Designers either crafted a proto their own or as in most cases they approached a small scale board manufacturer to get their protos done. The cost of printing a proto was really high in those days. Now as technology and processes evolved, all designers turn themselves to full service PCB manufacturers for their prototyping needs. The advent of technology and modern processes equipped full scale PCB manufacturers to print prototypes and small volumes at a much reduced rate compared to the olden days. This created a win-win situation for pcb manufacturers and electronic designers alike. Designers can now get high quality prototypes (without defects and errors) at a very affordable cost. The quick turn around time offered by many manufacturers (For example – ALLPCB – one of the Fastest PCB Prototype manufacturer – completes & delivers a prototype printing order within 2 days of gerber file approval) makes designers not even think about crafting a prototype own their own (which in itself is a tedious and time consuming process). Most of the full scale PCB manufacturers now give very importance to prototype printing business. They offer very good support, attractive prices and quick turnaround for prototypes irrespective of the low volume count.
Lets dig a little to see the 10 important things a designer should keep in mind while choosing a PCB prototype service.
How to Choose the Right PCB Prototype Service ?
The first criteria in choosing your PCB partner should be quality. The prototype you print should be free of any errors (like a missing print or a small drill hole than actual design). There should not be any defects in the materials chosen by the pcb printing company. All these things zero down to quality. The quality offered by the PCB manufacturer is very important to get your prototype right and functional. To assess quality, you may check the services offered by a PCB manufacturer. When it comes PCB prototype service, assess how seriously they take a prototype client. How important is this PCB prototype service business to a particular manufacturing company. In addition, you can talk with the customer support staff and see how well informed are they about prototype service. Chances are that a good company/manufacturer who is serious about prototype service will have dedicated section catering to prototype service alone. Their website will be having information on the same. The customer support will be very informative and helpful. Finally, do a research on the web about a particular manufacturer especially in the forums and communities before making up your mind. Based on my experience (and other reviews), some of the PCB manufacturers that offer high quality prototype services include ALLPCB, Sunstone, EuroCircuits, 4PCB and EpecTec. Out of these 5 companies, 4PCB doesn’t have a dedicated section catering to prototype printing. Sunstone and AllPCB has very dedicated sections catering to prototyping services. AllPCB has services starting from as low as 5 USD.
MOQ (Minimum Order Quantity)
I believe the second criteria in choosing a PCB prototype service should be the minimum order quantity required by the manufacturer. A prototype is an early stage design which is susceptible to changes. If a PCB manufacturer requires you to order a very high minimum quantity (this is usually measured and quoted in square inches) than what you can afford (or way out of your budget), it doesn’t make sense to go with that manufacturer. Most of the manufacturers are open to negotiations on this part. As a designer, you can negotiate with the manufacturer offering more orders in future. The key point here is, an MOQ that seems cheap or affordable to one designer (or a design/production company) could be huge and out of budget to some other one.
The third factor in play is the cost/price quoted by the pcb manufacturer. As a matter of fact, the PCB printing business is a highly competitive one. With the advent of internet at the fingertips (4G’s and smartphones), anyone can check and compare quotes from different PCB manufacturing companies in just a matter of hours. The highly competitive environment makes it very unlikely that there will be a huge difference in prices quotes by different manufacturers. Now keep in mind that quality and cost don’t travel together! Manufacturers who command better technology, high quality materials and offer overall quality will definitely quote higher price compared to the peers. My advice will always be to choose quality over price factor. Consider a scenario, where you had to reprint the prototype owing to low quality or a problem from the manufacturer side. Weighing the extra cost (for reprinting) and time loss, I would definitely go for a proven manufacturer with high quality even if it costs me a little high.
Quick delivery of your prototype from the order date is a very important criteria in shortlisting your PCB prototype service partner. There is no use if a manufacturer takes 2 weeks from the order date to ship your proto. Most of the prototype projects are run on tight deadlines. Usually a manufacturer quotes 5 days or higher to ship the prototype from the order accepted date (gerber files accepted). There are providers who offer a faster service as well; for example – ALLPCB offers delivery within 1 to 2 days for prototypes from date of approval of gerber files. EuroCircuits – which is a prominent PCB manufacturer takes anywhere between 2 to 7 days for their prototype service. Another major player Sunstone offers ontime gurantee in which they ensure a refund if they fail to ship on the agreed time. But they are not as fast as ALLPCB guys as they usually take more than 5 days (the max lead time of Sunstone is about 3 weeks) for completing an order.
Prototypes are susceptible to change before taking a final shape. They can change in size, change of components, in some cases the whole shape might change. It’s hard for every manufacturer to offer customizations on the go. If customizations are a priority for you, choose a manufacturer with the right tools and facility to offer what you envision.
Double check if the manufacturer you shortlist offer delivery to your country especially if you are using an overseas printing company. Most of the full service manufacturers offer international shipping to almost all business countries. A majority of designers now use pcb manufacturers in China who offer high quality PCB’s at a very affordable cost. Most of these established companies in China offer worldwide shipping.
Instant Quote Facility
Most of the well established manufacturers provide instant quote via their websites. Always go with manufacturers which offer this online quote facility. Instant quotes gives us an idea about the costs involved.
Prior experience in a particular industry comes into play in special and sophisticated projects. For example, If you are running a communication technology based projects, it’s advised to go with a manufacturer who has successful track record in the same industry. Similarly when the layers in your board increases, go with established players who know multilayer printing very well.
Multi Disciplinary Services
If you have plans to outsource services like PCB assembly, you may consider a manufacturer which offers multiple services.
Safe Packing & Shipping
Finally make sure the manufacturer you choose follow safe packaging and shipping practises. No one wants their products get damaged while shipping. If you need faster shipping, check if the manufacturer offers express shipping option (often at a higher price).