Considerations When Choosing Your PCB Fabrication and Assembly Services

Where I grew up, the fair would come to town once a year and everyone for miles around would attend. I loved playing the different games, and one game in particular that I could never resist was the ring toss—I’d have to deftly toss a ring and land it on any of the identical stubs protruding from the back wall of the booth. The stubs were physically the same, but each one came with a different reward. A few would win you a sweet prize, some prizes would be mediocre, and most sent you walking back with no prize at all.

Searching for a contract manufacturer (CM) to make your printed circuit boards is a lot like this old game. There are many CM options out there that can look similar, but provide completely different PCB fabrication and assembly services once you land on them.

Choosing the wrong CM for your PCB prototypes can lead to frustration, extended turnaround times and unnecessary costs. Nothing is more frustrating than discovering that the CM that you have selected doesn’t provide the high-quality services you expected or can’t meet your schedule demands. Luckily (unlike the stubs at the fair), you can take a peek at your CM’s services ahead of time. To do so requires first knowing your service level needs, and then selecting a CM based on their ability to meet or exceed the PCB fabrication and assembly considerations that matter most to you.

Understand What Type of Manufacturers Are Available

Before we explore the considerations for choosing a CM, let’s first take a minute to define the levels of manufacturing available to you. Like targeting different prizes in the ring toss game, knowing what’s available helps you better narrow your aim while making a selection.

PCB fabrication only: This option is useful when you need your PCB to be fabricated without being assembled with your components.

  • You might want this service if:
    • You need the bare board for testing.
    • You want to assemble the PCB yourself.
    • You do not mind the overhead of procuring parts and assembling the board.

PCB fabrication and assembly: This option will provide a fully assembled PCB back to you, but will require you to provide the components to the manufacturer.

  • You might want this service if:
    • Your company has a defined component procurement system.
    • Your company has an established stock of components.
    • You do not mind the overhead of procuring parts.

PCB turnkey manufacturing: A turnkey manufacturer not only fabricates and assembles your PCBs, but will also manage and procure the components. You will specify the design, and the turnkey manufacturer will return fully-built and ready-to-go PCBs back to you.

  • You might want this service if:
    • You need quick turnaround times for prototypes.
    • You need quick turnarounds for board revisions.
    • You need PCB assembly done with current technologies and experienced staff.
    • You need procurement help for sourcing components.

There is an option of a box build, for companies looking for a complete systems build including all PCBs with their mechanical parts and enclosures. But since we are focused on printed circuit boards only, this option won’t be discussed as we continue by reviewing specific considerations for each level of board fabrication and assembly.

What to Consider When Searching for a CM for Your PCB Fabrication and Assembly Services

With the types of manufacturing services defined, you can begin to narrow down which type will be the best choice for you. To make this decision, you need to determine what matters most to you when getting your PCB manufactured. Here are some questions that you should ask yourself to help make this determination:

How quickly do I need my boards?

Although a fabrication-only CM may provide the quickest turnaround time, that may still not be the best solution for you. You need to account for the time it will take for the entire process of building a board including parts procurement, assembly, test and delivery in addition to raw board fabrication. With some CMs that provide assembly, turnaround time, including assembly, could still rival you assembling the board yourself.

Questions to ask a manufacturer if speed matters to you:

  • How long will it take for you to return a quote to me?
  • What are your standard turnaround times?
  • Does that time include design validation?
  • How long does your design validation take, or do you refer to that as “Day 0”?
  • Does that time include delivery?
  • What is your on-time delivery percentage?
  • What sort of QA does my board undergo in that time?
  • How long will it take you to validate the BOM?
  • Does the time include any back-and-forth, if design changes are needed?

Tracking the build progress of your PCBA order, Tempo’s vision for transparency.

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How much am I willing to pay for my boards?

Once again, fabrication-only is often the least expensive CM option, but it leaves much of the manufacturing process unfinished. You also need to consider the cost of managing your own components. Additionally, you will still have to complete the assembly yourself, accounting for associated costs, before you have a (hopefully) functioning board. Fabrication-only might be initially cheaper, but can you be certain that any board performance problems are design-specific and do not originate from your assembly? When you look at the entire process, the turnkey manufacturing solution may be the most cost-effective approach here, as it will free you from having to manage the parts as well as assemble the finished board.

Questions to ask a manufacturer if cost matters to you:

  • Does the quoted price include design prep?
  • Does the price include a DFM report?
  • Does the price include concierge services for hard-to-find components (turnkey CMs only)?
  • Does the price include QA and testing?
  • What is the NRE (Non-recurring engineering) cost?

What level of quality am I looking for?

All manufacturers do their best to give you a quality product, but their quality can be limited by the services they provide. A fabrication-only manufacturer will give you a well-made board without any component quality checks. A fabrication and assembly only manufacturer can test your board, but won’t have control over the components because they will be supplied by you. A turnkey manufacturer, on the other hand, will oversee the entire manufacturing process and is therefore responsible for the quality of the finished product; although, either fabrication or assembly will typically be outsourced depending on the in-house service that the CM provides. Depending upon the environment that your board will be deployed in, it may be very important to ensure that the CM makes products that adhere to industry standards. For example, military, medical and automotive systems require PCBs to meet IPC Class 3 standards for reliability.

Questions to ask a manufacturer if quality matters to you:

  • What methods are used to assure quality?
  • What testing systems do you use?
  • Are there different levels of QC and testing?
  • If so, does that affect time and cost?
  • Is your quality management system (QMS) in compliance with ISO 9001?
  • Do you fabricate boards that meet IPC Class 1, 2 and 3 standards?

QA is an important step in PCB assembly. QA options on Tempo’s website.

What kind of support will my CM offer me?

Support level may be a vital part of your decision but is not something that can easily be quantified. It doesn’t fit too well on a spreadsheet like time or cost do, and often gets overlooked by the accounting department for that reason. However, you need to ask about support upfront to understand which manufacturer will stay with you throughout the entire process of having your PCB built.

Questions to ask a manufacturer if CM support matters to you:

  • What is the availability of your support team to answer my questions?
  • What level of expertise does your support staff have for my technical questions?
  • How much assistance can I expect if DFM errors are detected in my design?
  • What is the turnaround time if I have a question?
  • Who would be my point of contact?

What Your Contract Manufacturer Can Do for You

Tempo‘s Custom PCB Manufacturing Service

  • Performs entire turnkey process in as fast as 3 days.
  • Emphasizes DFM to eliminate time-consuming back-and-forth design corrections.
  • Performs BOM verifications to reduce possibility of component obsolescence issues.
  • 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.

If you’ve decided that getting your PCBs built reliably and on time for a cost-effective price matters, then you’re likely narrowing down your CM search to a turnkey PCB manufacturer. The turnkey contract manufacturer will be able to produce your entire board. You won’t have to supply PCB components, assemble the board or test the final product. The turnkey manufacturer will handle all of this for you—leaving you to focus on the design.

The next step is to select your specific turnkey CM—but these manufacturers are not necessarily equal in terms of their quality of services. You need to find the highest quality turnkey manufacturer that will work with you to provide you with a built board within your time, quality and budget constraints.

Tempo Automation is a CM that will do just that. Tempo seamlessly merges the design and manufacturing processes to deliver a turnkey PCB manufacturing experience with unprecedented speed and precision. This includes optimizing the use of DFM and deploying advanced automated optical inspection techniques at strategic points in the manufacturing process.

If you’re ready to have your design manufactured, try Tempo’s quote tool to upload your CAD and BOM files. If you want more information on choosing the best CM for your PCB fabrication and assembly needs, contact Tempo Automation today.

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