Engineer design to Tempo factory

How Turnkey PCB Manufacturing Reduces Turnaround Time and Optimizes PCB Prototyping

Prototyping is the proving stage of product development. During this step, it isn’t uncommon to cycle through several design modifications before finalization. The PCB manufacturing process can often be a time-consuming phase. Specifically, coordinating with separate companies for board fabrication, component acquisition and assembly can require extensive turnaround times. In addition, working with multiple companies can lower your efficiency while increasing the probability of error, which slows you down further. Excessive delays in the prototyping process  can result in missed project deadlines and late product launch—or even negatively impact your product’s success once deployed.

In response to the complexities of independently sourcing and coordinating with various providers, turnkey PCB manufacturing emerged to streamline and accelerate the prototyping process. Today, designers can iterate better—with fewer errors—and faster by leveraging innovations in turnkey PCB manufacturing. The best turnkey manufacturers can seamlessly integrate PCB design and the factory floor.

But how did turnkey PCB manufacturing come about? By reassessing how each of the three key areas of PCB manufacturing worked together: PCB fabrication; component sourcing and acquisition; and PCB assembly. Depending on your project, turnkey PCB manufacturing, which allows for small batches and quick turnaround, may be the answer for keeping your project moving forward on schedule and without errors—throughout the prototyping phase of your product development and beyond.

PCB Fabrication and Alternatives to Gerber Files

To accomplish each phase of the typical PCB manufacturing process, the engineer has to design the board and coordinate with three or more different companies, all while managing the overall process and communicating with his or her team. Creating or compiling different data files for each company further complicates this task.

Gerber files are usually generated to define the PCB layout for the PCB fabrication company. Although popular, Gerbers introduce potential errors into the process, since additional information, like separate drill hole files and fabrication notes, is required to complete the fabrication package generation. This package may consist of individual layer 2D graphics requiring assembly or alignment and separate text providing critical information. The fact that the PCB layout information is distributed across different files provides an opportunity for the following potential errors:

  • Missing solder mask layers
  • Missing or misaligned drill holes
  • Missing or double outlines
  • Incorrect PCB size or wrong dimensions
  • Plated and non-plated through holes not well-defined
  • Labels not well-defined

To prevent errors such as these from showing up in the design files, PCB designers perform design for manufacturing (DFM) during the PCB design process, most notably in the form of design rules check (DRC). However, errors can still creep in. For example, there is a difference between general DRC rules and DRC rules that are validated against specific manufacturing machines. In other words, the rules and specifications used by the design program may not synchronize with the fabrication company’s capabilities, potentially leading to error and process failure. If errors have to be addressed, which typically requires back and forth between manufacturer engineer(s) and the PCB designer, it may take anywhere from a couple of days to a week to get the boards back from the fabricator.

Unlike the typical PCB manufacturing process where engineers or designers coordinate with a variety of contacts for board fabrication, component acquisition and assembly, turnkey manufacturing enables the engineer or designer to deal with a single company that manages the entire process. Turnkey manufacturing reduces the incidence of error by integrating the steps into a cohesive procedural process with centralized oversight.

At Tempo Automation, we've built a platform that empowers designers to drive a software-enabled turnkey manufacturing process utilizing native CAD files instead of Gerbers, including the following formats:

  • Altium (.PcbDoc)
  • Eagle (.brd)
  • Kicad (.kicad_pcb)
  • DesignSpark (.pcb)
  • Cadence (.brd)
  • DipTrace (.dip)

Native CAD files contain complete and detailed information about the design in a comprehensive format. This structure reduces the possibility of error from inconsistent or misaligned PCB data. Using your CAD files and our BOM template, Tempo's patented, proprietary software verifies your design complies with our equipment capabilities before starting the fabrication process, which typically takes a day. Designers can proactively DFM during the design phase by following our capabilities guidelines and using our DRC files that can be uploaded directly into their Altium projects.

Component Sourcing as Part of Turnkey PCB Manufacturing

Unlike turnkey manufacturing, the typical PCB manufacturing process requires the engineer or designer to specify and procure components, resulting in a number of potential errors. For example, indistinct reference indicators or labels can lead to the acquisition of the wrong number of components for a particular MPN. Kitting errors, the mapping of component part numbers to reference designators, can lead to the acquisition of components reference mismatches that are not well matched, particularly when several vendors are involved. Finally, component inspection can significantly lengthen turnaround time. Considering shipping costs and acquisition time, acquiring necessary components or comparable substitutions can take weeks, especially when dealing with multiple vendors.

For turnkey, on the other hand, the manufacturer handles component procurement and all associated tasks. The use of an in-house procurement specialist who frequently deals with BOMs and vendors can minimize the errors associated with component verification and kitting. This also removes the PCB designer from the component procurement supply chain, which saves on shipping time and costs.

With a template that captures all necessary component specifications, the Tempo platform reviews and validates your BOM while quoting, before the manufacturing process is initiated. When you upload your BOM, our customized quote tool validates MPNs, ensures MPNs match the footprint, verifies the accuracy of component types and number of components and checks component availability from one of our three major industry vendors (Digi-key, Mouser and Octopart). Once your components have been verified, we can acquire them within a day.

Turnkey PCB Manufacturing Assembly

The final PCB manufacturing task is assembly. Like PCB fabrication and component sourcing, the typical assembly process requires generating specific files. Files in the assembly package include Gerbers, assembly notes, BOM and Pick-n-Place or XY data. Typical PCB assembly can take a few days to a week, or even longer if errors arise.

With turnkey, assembly is the final step in the process that is completely managed by the PCB manufacturer. This single source management approach reduces overall turnaround time for board manufacture while minimizing the potential for errors. Turnkey PCB manufacturing has inherent advantages over the discrete fabrication, component sourcing and assembly from separate companies, where the PCB designer or engineer is required to manage the overall process.

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A Connected Factory Approach to Turnkey PCB Manufacturing

Tempo has taken the advantages of turnkey manufacturing to the next level by building a  connected factory capable of design-to-delivery PCB manufacturing. Our factory is software-driven, beginning with the designer uploading a native design file. Tempo has not only automated the management of the manufacturing process for you, but also optimized each step within fabrication, component sourcing and assembly to be as efficient as possible. We accept industry-standard CAD files that are much more detailed and specific than Gerber files and employ a BOM template that enables our customized software to ensure your design falls within our equipment capabilities. Once your design and BOM have been verified, the fabrication of the PCB and acquisition of components can be done virtually simultaneously, instead of sequentially as is done for most turnkey PCB manufacturing processes. For assembly, we employ cutting-edge equipment and robotics, extensive automatic inspections and software analysis tools to ensure that your boards are error-free.

Our connected factory PCB manufacturing process includes component sourcing and acquisition, fabrication and assembly and is structured to leverage advanced software, cutting-edge equipment and maximize DFM integration. This allows even the most complex designs to be transformed into PCBs at a new level of speed and precision, significantly enhancing your ability to create and test prototypes rapidly.

When it comes to rapid prototype development, turnkey PCB manufacturing is superior to the typical process of working with separate companies for fabrication, component sourcing and assembly. However, with our software-driven, connected factory approach, you can optimally minimize the turnaround time required to receive your boards while virtually eliminating the possibility of error. The seamless integration of your PCB design with a connected factory optimized for speed and precision empowers you to prioritize your innovation while prototyping. If you choose to self-manage the process and coordinate with multiple companies instead, this could take weeks.

If you’re ready to speed up the prototyping iterations of your next NPI, try our quote tool to access the industry's first connected factory for turnkey PCB manufacturing.

For more information on turnkey PCB manufacturing or how your electronics development can move at the speed of software development, contact us.

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