5 Steps to Finding a PCB Prototype Manufacturer for Your Critical System Design

Wouldn’t it be great to have a crystal ball? The kind that shows you the future and warns you something bad is going to happen. With a tool like that, you’d know which pitfalls to avoid and when to take extra precautions. Alas, without a crystal ball, we must utilize Murphy’s Law to  assume that “anything that can go wrong will go wrong.” Following this perspective, engineers and PCB designers should prepare for the worst-case scenario and prioritize safety and security.

Although always important to consider in PCB design, safety and security are absolutely crucial in critical system design. Placing a high premium on safety and security is essential when designing boards that may be incorporated into systems where failure may lead to severe consequences or even fatalities. Critical system design includes PCBs for aerospace, medical, automotive, military and other industrial applications. The high standards of critical system design necessitate that your boards be built to precise PCB quality metrics and adhere to regulations and guidelines established for critical system industries. To ensure your designs meet industry requirements, you should take steps to select a PCB prototype manufacturer with the capability and expertise to perform board fabrication and assembly for critical systems.

Steps to Find a PCB Prototype Manufacturer for Critical System Design

Choosing a manufacturer for your boards is always a delicate process. But when choosing a PCB prototype manufacturer for critical system designs, it is more important than ever to verify the capabilities and processes of your contract manufacturer (CM) due to the potential results if board failure occurs. For this reason, critical systems industries like aerospace, medical, automotive, military and others have strict rules regulating the quality and reliability of the components and PCBs that comprise the electronic devices utilized. If your organization requires critical system design, you probably already have an approved vendor list with a process to add qualified CMs. If so, this list should be your first resource when seeking a PCB prototype manufacturer. If not, it is incumbent to apply a selection process for finding the right PCB prototype manufacturer for your critical system design that employs methods and technologies conducive to critical systems manufacturing and process management. The steps below can aid you in making your selection.

Step #1: Use a CM with experience in building critical systems

The first question you should ask a potential CM is whether they have previously fabricated boards and assembled PCBs with rigid requirements like those for systems destined to be used in aerospace, medical, automotive, military and other industrial systems. It is also a good idea to ascertain the CM’s commitment to data security and ensure they comply with the International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR) standards for modern communications. These CMs are likely to possess the equipment and standards knowledge that you require.

Step #2: Be aware of pertinent standards and regulations

The regulatory knowledge of your CM is not a substitute for you being aware of the standards and guidelines that should govern the manufacturing process for your critical systems PCBs.

For example, you should know which IPC 6011 class your boards fall within. The three general classifications are:

  • Class 1: General Electronics Products - These are “limited lifetime” PCBs, where functionality is the main requirement and board imperfections are acceptable.
  • Class 2: Dedicated Service Electronic Products - Boards in this category should be reliable with extended lifetimes and high reliability; however, failure will not result in catastrophic or fatal results.
  • Class 3: High-Reliability Electronic Products - Reliability is critical for PCBs in this class and service interruption or downtime is “not tolerated.” Critical systems fall within this category. High-Reliability products used in space and military avionics systems fall under class 3/A.

Additional IPC standards exist for rigid PCBs (IPC-6012), flex boards (IPC-6013), PCMCIA (IPC-6014), MCM-L (IPC-6015) and high frequency (IPC-HF-315). In addition to these manufacturing standards, you should understand the testing requirements for your boards.

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Step #3: Ensure your CM employs good quality control (QC)

All CMs should employ good QC and have a plan to manage their manufacturing process. It is a good idea to verify this with your CM and inquire which, if any, QC standards they are certified for and which standard they utilize as a model for their plan. For example, ISO 9001 is the general QC compliance standard for all industries; AS9100 is the quality management standard for the aerospace industry; and IEC 6061 defines the acceptable safety and performance of medical equipment.

Step #4: Follow component traceability procedures

Another important issue is the quality and reliability of the components used in your PCBs. All available precautions should be taken to avoid counterfeit components in your critical systems. This requires the ability to trace your components from the OEM to your CM. Utilizing the right CM for component acquisition can significantly impact the level of protection you receive against inferior substitutions or illegal distributors of components.

Step #5: Fully address all device reliability concerns

In critical system design, unreliability is not tolerated. It is imperative that your PCB perform reliably and that your board functions under normal operating conditions. To maximize your chances of achieving this, partner with your PCB prototype manufacturer early in the design process and jointly commit to ensuring device reliability.

Unfortunately, there is no magical solution or crystal ball to foretell when a contingency will occur. You can, however, embrace the possibility of failure and let your diligence be the guide when selecting a PCB prototype manufacturer for your critical system design.

Finding a CM with the expertise, equipment and QC structure to build your boards to the stringent levels required for critical systems designs can be challenging. However, Tempo Automation, the industry leader in fast, custom turnkey manufacturing is a PCB prototype manufacturer capable of producing boards that will satisfy the high-quality standards mandated for aerospace, medical, automotive and military applications.

Tempo‘s Custom PCB Manufacturing Service

  • Accurate quote in less than 1 day.
  • Performs entire turnkey process in as fast as 3 days.
  • Emphasizes DFM to eliminate time-consuming back-and-forth design corrections.
  • Sources components from the most reputable suppliers in the industry to reduce procurement time.
  • Performs multiple automated inspections during assembly to ensure PCB quality for prototyping.
  • Provides support throughout the PCB manufacturing process, beginning with design.
  • Smooth transition from prototyping to production.

We will partner with you on day one of your PCB design and help you get started on the best path, by furnishing information for your DFM and enabling you to easily view and download DRC files. If you’re an Altium user, you can simply add these files to your PCB design software.

If you are ready to have your design manufactured, try our quote tool to upload your CAD and BOM files. If you want more information on finding a PCB prototype manufacturer or selecting a CM for your critical systems design, contact us.

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