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4 Proven Strategies for Reducing PCB Prototype Spins

To turn prototype into manufacturing, PCB designers have two options. The first one is to design in a vacuum, and then find a manufacuring chain that can build the design. The other choice is to learn about the
manufacturing chain and optimize the design to the fabricator’s strengths with no sacrifice to desired functionality.

Here are 4 strategies that help you reduct the unneccessary cost of time and money in design cycle and plan ahead for success.
1. Verify your layout’s manufacturability with a supplier DFM tool.

A trustworthy PCB fabricator will run your design through a design-for-manufacturability tool to check for errors above and beyond any visual inspection of the design details. A top-tier fabricator will make that
report available to you when submitting your design for quotation. Using the contents of that report, which verifies if your design will fit inside the manufacturing process, is a valuable step to getting a properly
fabricated board, and is the first measure toward developing a board optimized for production.
2. Research and select suppliers earlier in the design cycle.

The design team knows that at prototype design completion, the next logical step in the design process is to get back a working example of the prototype design for testing. Though this represents one logical
step to the design team, this process consists of multiple steps—components must be procured; the PCB has to be fabricated; and the parts need to be correctly attached to the PCB. How this manufacturing flow
ultimately occurs is up to the design team to select and manage.

According to our experience in cooperating with PCB design teams, we find a correlation. Professional teams turning lots of simpler designs with wide tolerances in the process window tend toward using a one-
stop supplier for the overall convenience. Professional teams whose designs require careful tuning and attention to manufacturing details tend toward managing each relationship throughout the build process,
handpicking each supplier for their strengths, abilities, and turn times. For the teams with limited budgets, price is a much more important factor than turn times when choosing PCB manufacturer. For other teams
under the urge of deadlines, fast delivery is the top priority. Of course, in all cases, the PCB must be manufactured to the design.

Requirements varies for different projects. But that doesn’t mean it is necessary to find a different supplier for each project. It is definitely a smart choice to talk with the your PCB manufacturing supplier’s customer
service, tech support, or sales teams. From these conversations, you can find how well they can respond with quality, turn times, pricing, and delivery across the whole range of your anticipated project styles. It will
help you a lot in making good decisions.

PCB fabrication, parts procurement, and assembly should be the three key themes in the conversation :

Fabricating the PCB that serves as the connection medium for all the components and connectors that make up your circuit design. While this may seem like just another “part” on the design team’s bill of materials
(BOM), this is a critical, custom-manufactured part. It requires adherence to your design parameters and can represent the most variable cost in the BOM.

These are the chips, connectors, and other parts that operate to make your circuit perform as intended. The components come from a parts distributor or retailer. The more one-stop services your manufacturing
chain supplies, the more likely they will offer the parts procurement services for you… at a price, of course.

Many design teams prefer to take a very hands-on approach with parts for their prototypes. This is neither the time nor place for parts substitutions to save cost; that step comes later. Direct involvement by the
design team requires careful attention to detail and time, but the team also eliminates a number of potential bugs in the prototype with this approach, saving time and cost in the long run.

The process of attaching components to the printed-circuit board. Depending on the design team, you may or may not have the expertise or equipment to perform this function yourself. As parts and designs get
smaller and denser, the need for an outside service becomes more indispensable.

In the process of communicating with your manufacturing chain, you should evaluate your contacts for their ability to consult on your design concerns. he more suggestions a manufacturing supplier can give you,
or help make your design optimization more efficient, the more value they provide to the design process, and that means free consultation to you.

You should know that costs don’t simply refer to the number of components used in a design. They also tie into PCB real estate and design complexity, flying probe test times, and opportunities for design-related
manufacturing issues.
3. Develop your layout to the fabricator’s “sweet spot.”

Regardless of whom you choose, your fabricator has a sweet spot—that place where designs are well inside the middle of the manufacturing process window. From this spot, minor variations in manufacturing still
keep your design well inside manufacturing capabilities, and thus increase your yields and reliability.
4. Manage prototyping costs and hidden costs.

Prototyping creates more robust designs from the first revision with proper preparation. While it may seem like a lot of useless preparation work, consider the hidden costs of a five-person design team, spending
five person-days to complete the preparations mentioned here. Such a preparatory process might save you at least one prototype spin of—you guessed it—five calendar days. Except five calendar days for a
design team of five is a total of 25 person-days.

Wrap-up

When the PCB design is simple, or far away from the current technological edge, these strategies have less impact on your design cycles. One school of thought is that, as you move to surface mounts to QFN/QFP
packages, or as you move to tight tolerances in circuit timing, then these strategies become more and more important. Of course, the other school of thought is that, as you start out, even though the designs may
be simpler, it’s the designer’s skimpy knowledgebase that needs more support.

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A Review of Flexible Circuit Technology and its Applications

Flexible circuits are a high-growth technology in the area of electrical
interconnectivity and look set to deliver improved performance against the
demands of many twenty-first century products.

The compact nature of flexible circuits and the high electrical-connection density
that they can achieve offer considerable weight, space and cost savings over the
use of traditional rigid printed circuit boards, wire and wire harnesses. The
technology offers the potential of reducing the total costs of electrical
interconnections by up to 70% and reducing cable and wiring use by up to 75%
when married with an appropriate application. It is to be noted that flexible printed
circuits have replaced hand-built wire harnesses in many applications.

This review will provide a basic assessment of Flexible Printed Circuits (FPC)
technology, flex circuit construction and manufacture, flex circuit materials,
market developments, technology developments within the FPC field, along with
major applications of the technology. It is hoped these applications exemplify how
FPC has the potential to offer product developers and designers significantly
more design freedom, enabling them to meet the higher circuit-density demands
of tomorrow¡¯s electronic systems.

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Tips on Product Design and Manufacturing for Hardware Startups

It’s no secret that the hardware revolution is upon us. More developers and companies than ever before are interested in rolling up their sleeves and producing real, tangible things – and that’s good news for everyone. The past years see significant increase in the numbers of hardware startups. Some excellent resources have popped up in the last year or two. Portfolio executives at electronics hardware startups would be remiss not to consider evaluating a contract product design or contract manufacturing partner during the early stages of developing their company product.

Startup and early stage companies outsource many services to conserve the rate at which they burn cash while on the path to reaching break even or becoming cash positive. Startup product portfolio companies are often encouraged by venture capital investors to increase scope and depth of expertise but not to put much of the required investment to do so ahead of earning revenues.

Typically, by the time Series B funding occurs, many portfolio company executives (focused on the objective of bringing a manufacturing product to market) have finished most of their product prototype work and are beginning to think about product manufacturing and related production issues.
Below is a tech product startup company rolling operations plan. While not comprehensive, the plan does include many startup company product manufacturing activities and components for executives to consider when bringing a hardware-based product to market.
Startup executives can refer to this plan to help them review internal depth and scope capabilities against anticipated company capability requirements so they may then determine at what point it may make sense to consider evaluating and engaging a contract product design partner or contract manufacturing partner.

Startup company inception to first three months (critical period)

-Determine cohesiveness of startup’s product development teams
-Gain clear understanding of startup executive team and what near and long-term goals are
-Weekly status-to-plan review (followed by setting up monthly budget-to-plan review)
-Coordinate product assurance group strategy to ensure field requirements are met
-Ensure printed circuit board assemblies (PCBA) are laid-out efficiently for integrated circuit test (ICT) with clearly-defined test points (can the test software do troubleshooting?)
-Ensure startup is well-positioned to sell its operational capability to startup customer base

Manufacturing infrastructure needs (mid-term):

-Establish product manufacturing and operations strategy
-Review current outsource contract manufacturing contracts / relation structure for alpha, beta, and new product introduction (NPI) requirements
-Identify product quality control strategy
-Establish component tracking system, including determining what components need to be tracked and how they are tracked; create and learn to manage an approved vendor list (AVL)
-Identify startup support needs; align startup strategies accordingly to ensure timely implementation of manufacturing and quality control strategy
-Define and help install document control system and engineering change order (ECO) system
-Budget planning process to help establish the correct basis budget for startup operations
-Identify additional team members required against startup company needs
-Guide testing strategy for product printed circuit board and module and systems level (where applicable)
-Develop product quality focus group
-Review existing suppliers and target alternate suppliers – to establish supplier fit
-Identify list of strategic suppliers for the product (meet with each, where appropriate, to evangelize the product to establish ‘mind-share’ with strategic vendors)
-Review current contract design or contract manufacturing partners low-volume contract service agreements
-Define twelve to eighteen month timetable more clearly
Long-term manufacturing needs: (all long-term needs in parallel)

-Begin relations with contract design house or contract manufacturing providers
-Begin request for proposal and request for quote (RFP and RFQ) process; developing quote kits for contract design and contract manufacturing providers to be considered
-Begin on-going development of scope and depth for program management activity (for efficient management of eventual program migration)
-Startup to within six months
-On-going evaluation and development of company scope and depth for product program management activity
-Contract manufacturing and contract design company site visits (determine proper fit of management teams and service offerings with startup Company business model)
-Send current revision (generation) product packages to contract design and contract manufacturing companies for quoting and to better illustrate the product’s design for manufacturing needs; while simultaneously communicating the Company’s business model to contract design and contract manufacturers deemed appropriate

Mid-term manufacturing needs:

-Implementation of final and mature product manufacturing plan close to completion (review of final documentation for preparation for volume manufacturing)
-Determine the structure of bull of materials (BOM) and product cost model in conjunction with finance
-Product-test plan in place (including working with vendors to build test fixtures
-Discuss developing cost-reductions program with current contract manufacturing partners
-Depending on production build requirements, oversee transition to alternative mid-term and long-term contract manufacturing partners to enhance Company’s ability to execute internally and in anticipation of increased product demand in the marketplace
-Establish plan to enable scalable and reliable manufacturing volume ramps
-Increase production levels to limited volume production approaching general customer availability
-Complete product reliability packaging
-Establish supply chain management requirements and inventory levels and logistics strategies
-Work with product marketing on product launch and packaging needs while being aware of NPI TTM challenges

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The Whole History of Printed Circuit Boards

What is Printed Circuit Board
Before we start to talk about the history of printed circuit boards, we need to figure out firstly what a Printed Ciruit Board (usually called PCB) is. A printed circuit board (PCB) mechanically supports and electrically connects electronic components using conductive tracks, pads and other features etched from copper sheets laminated onto a non-conductive substrate. PCBs can besingle sided (one copper layer), double sided (two copper layers) or multi-layer (outer and inner layers). Multi-layer PCBs allow for much higher component density. Conductors on different layers are connected with plated-through holes called vias which were covered in previous blogs. Advanced PCBs may contain components – capacitors, resistors or active devices – embedded in the substrate.

Printed circuit boards are applied in various industries and business. It requires the additional design effort to lay out the circuit, but manufacturing and assembly can be automated. Manufacturing circuits with PCBs is cheaper and faster than with other wiring methods as components are mounted and wired with one single part. Furthermore, operator wiring errors are eliminated.

PCBs are grouped into 3 main types, namely Single Sided Board, Double Sided Board, and Multi Layered Board.

Single Sided Board is the least complicated of the Printed Circuit Boards, since there is only a single layer of substrate. All electrical parts and components are fixed on one side and copper traces are on the other side.

Double Sided Board is the most common type of board, where parts and components are attached to both sides of the substrate. In such cases, double-sided PCBs that have connecting traces on both the sides are used. Double-sided Printed Circuit Boards usually use through-hole construction for assembly of components.

Multi layered PCB consists of several layers of substrate separated by insulation. Most common multilayer boards are: 4 layers, 6 layers, 8 layers, and 10 layers. However, the total number of layers that can be manufactured can exceed over 42 layers. These types of boards are used in extremely complex electronic circuits.

PCB History
Point to point construction was used before printed circuits became the popular component used in electronics. It meant a few extremely bulky and unreliable designs that required large sockets and regular replacement. However, most of the issues were addressed when PCBs went into regular production.

For prototypes, or small production runs, wire wrap or turret board can be more efficient. Predating the printed circuit invention, and similar in spirit, was John Sargrove’s 1936–1947 Electronic Circuit Making Equipment (ECME) which sprayed metal onto a Bakelite plastic board. The ECME could produce 3 radios per minute.

The Austrian engineer Paul Eisler invented the printed circuit as part of a radio set while working in England around 1936. Around 1943 the USA began to use the technology on a large scale to make proximity fuses for use in World War II. After the war, in 1948, the USA released the invention for commercial use. Printed circuits did not become commonplace in consumer electronics until the mid-1950s, after the Auto-assembly process was developed by the United States Army. At around the same time in Britain work along similar lines was carried out by Geoffrey Dummer, then at the RRDE.

Originally, every electronic component had wire leads, and the PCB had holes drilled for each wire of each component. The components’ leads were then passed through the holes and soldered to the PCB trace. This method of assembly is called through-hole construction. In 1949, Moe Abramson and Stanislaus F. Danko of the United States Army Signal Corps developed the Auto-assembly process in which component leads were inserted into a copper foil interconnection pattern and dip soldering. The patent they obtained in 1956 was assigned to the U.S. Army. With the development of board lamination and etching techniques, this concept evolved into the standard printed circuit board fabrication process in use today. Soldering could be done automatically by passing the board over a ripple, or wave, of molten solder in a wave-soldering machine. However, the wires and holes are wasteful since drilling holes is expensive and the protruding wires are merely cut off.

From the 1980s small surface mount parts have been used increasingly instead of through-hole components; this has led to smaller boards for a given functionality and lower production costs, but with some additional difficulty in servicing faulty boards.
PCB Future
Currently, most circuit boards use multi-step methods such as conventional vacuum deposition and photolithographic patterning. However, these methods have certain disadvantages since they require a high processing temperature, involve toxic waste, and are costly. We have seen advances in technology in previous years and it’s not hard to imagine PCBs will soon be revolutionized. With the use of 3d printing become more mainstream ‘3d printing’ a printed circuit board has become realized.

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3D PCB Design – Far from Flat

Being the young whipper-snapper that I was, I never considered the manufacturing issues that could occur during the assembly phase of any of my designs. My mentor at Rockwell International, Frank Caster, was an engineer and after my first layout placement for a Peacekeeper Missile Program design, he schooled me on the need to verify that the placement would work with the overall system design. I had no idea what he was talking about!

Frank asked me to follow him to a lab with a security guard at the door and a combination lock on the door. Upon entry to the lab, I got my first look at a portion of stage IV of the Peacekeeper missile, called the Missile Guidance Computer System (MGCS).

My PCB design was just one of the over 20 boards that made up the MGCS. Frank told me, “Vern, the world is not flat and neither is your PCB!” He explained that my board had to fit into one of the slots in the chassis I was looking at and that it could not interfere with any of the other cards within the chassis. The cards would have to be able to be maintained for years, and it would not be good if parts were knocked off the other boards when cards were replaced.

I was then shown a mockup of the MGCS and some lab technicians that were using X-ACTO blades to cut tiny 1:1 scale PCB components out of foam board. They were making a mockup of my design placement, completely to scale, that they could fit into the chassis with other scale cards in order to make interference measurements – a process that I was told took an extremely long time.

A light came on, and a bell rang in my head. I now understood that just because my design worked for me, it did not mean that it would work for everyone else!

In essence, every PCB we design has to go somewhere else. Whether it is an intricate missile guidance chassis, or a simple box, it has to fit perfectly into the full system.

Fortunately today, we have powerful computers that allow us to create 3D models to check mechanical measurements within our designs. But, until recently these systems had to be run by highly trained mechanical engineers. The PCB guys were at the mercy of another process to let them know if their designs would work.

But NOT ANYMORE! Xpedition is now available with integrated 2D and 3D layout, and the power of 3D has been put into the hands of the PCB design engineer.

Take a look at this video, 3D Layout with Photo-realistic Visualization, and see how 3D layout helps you visualize and validate your design as if it were already manufactured.

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5 Proven Strategies for Reducing PCB Prototype Spins

For PCB designers, there are two choices. First, you can design in a vacuum, and then hunt for a manufacturing chain that can build the design. Second, learn about your manufacturing chain and optimize your design to the fabricator’s strengths while maintaining desired functionality.

Here are five strategies that help you plan ahead for success, without adding weeks or unnecessary cost to your design cycle.

1. Research and select suppliers earlier in the design cycle.

The design team knows that at prototype design completion, the next logical step in the design process is to get back a working example of the prototype design for testing. Though this represents one logical step to the design team, this process consists of multiple steps—components must be procured; the PCB has to be fabricated; and the parts need to be correctly attached to the PCB. How this manufacturing flow ultimately occurs is up to the design team to select and manage.

Understanding the manufacturing flow, including component availability and service-provider capability, ahead of time can reduce the chances of rework and redesign, says Duane Benson, marketing manager at Screaming Circuits, a Canby, Ore.-based assembler,  Knowing what you’re up against reduces risk.

In our discussions with PCB design teams, we find a correlation. Professional teams turning lots of simpler designs with wide tolerances in the process window tend toward using a one-stop supplier for the overall convenience. Professional teams whose designs require careful tuning and attention to manufacturing details tend toward managing each relationship throughout the build process, handpicking each supplier for their strengths, abilities, and turn times. For some teams with limited budgets, price can be much more important than turn times. For other teams under tight deadlines, fast becomes a priority. Of course, in all cases, the PCB must be manufactured to the design.

Requirements can change from project to project. But that doesn’t necessarily mean you need a different supplier for each project. Talk with suppliers’ customer service technical teams or sales teams, and determine just how well they can respond with quality/turn times/pricing/delivery across the whole range of your anticipated project styles. Chances are good that the conversation time will be well spent by finding the right supplier for your team’s typical project constraints.

Three key items that will come up in the discussion are PCB fabrication, parts procurement, and assembly:

? Fabricating the PCB that serves as the connection medium for all the components and connectors that make up your circuit design. While this may seem like just another part on the design team’s bill of materials (BOM), this is a critical, custom-manufactured part. It requires adherence to your design parameters and can represent the most variable cost in the BOM.

These are the chips, connectors, and other parts that operate to make your circuit perform as intended. The components come from a parts distributor or retailer. The more one-stop services your manufacturing chain supplies, the more likely they will offer the parts procurement services for you… at a price, of course.

? Many design teams prefer to take a very hands-on approach with parts for their prototypes. This is neither the time nor place for parts substitutions to save cost; that step comes later. Direct involvement by the design team requires careful attention to detail and time, but the team also eliminates a number of potential bugs in the prototype with this approach, saving time and cost in the long run.

? The process of attaching components to the printed-circuit board. Depending on the design team, you may or may not have the expertise or equipment to perform this function yourself. As parts and designs get smaller and denser, the need for an outside service becomes more indispensable.

In the process of getting to know your manufacturing chain, you should assess your contacts for their ability to consult on your design particulars. The more advice a manufacturing supplier can give you, or help make your design optimization more efficient, the more value they provide to the design process, and that’s free consulting help to you!

2. Optimize for cost and performance before layout.

Not long ago, our colleague at Screaming Circuits, Duane Benson, blogged about optimizing designs to remove unnecessary components. In a general sense, the fewer components that are needed to implement your circuit, the more reliable your end product. Screaming Circuits’ Benson says, Reuse of code and of schematic modules can be a great help in keeping schedules under control. However, if you do so, it’s important to make sure every part of what you’re reusing is necessary.

Costs don’t simply refer to the number of components used in a design. They also tie into PCB real estate and design complexity, flying probe test times, and opportunities for design-related manufacturing issues.

3. Develop your layout to the fabricator’s sweet spot.

Nancy Viter, Sunstone Circuits’ manufacturing director, has wise words about fabrication: While almost anything that you can lay out can be built, it is much more cost-effective to design to the heart of the capability range of your manufacturer, when possible.

Regardless of whom you choose, your fabricator has a sweet spot—that place where designs are well inside the middle of the manufacturing process window. From this spot, minor variations in manufacturing still keep your design well inside manufacturing capabilities, and thus increase your yields and reliability.

4. Verify your layout’s manufacturability with a supplier DFM tool.

A reputable PCB fabricator will run your design through a design-for-manufacturability (DFM) tool to check for errors above and beyond any visual inspection of the design details. A top-tier fabricator will make that report available to you when submitting your design for quotation. Using the contents of that report, which verifies if your design will fit inside the manufacturing process, is a valuable step to getting a properly fabricated board, and is the first measure toward developing a board optimized for production.

5. Manage prototyping costs and hidden costs.

Prototyping creates more robust designs from the first revision with proper preparation. While it may seem like a lot of useless preparation work, consider the hidden costs of a five-person design team, spending five person-days to complete the preparations mentioned here. Such a preparatory process might save you at least one prototype spin of—you guessed it—five calendar days. Except five calendar days for a design team of five is a total of 25 person-days.

Conclusion

When the PCB design is simple, or far away from the current technological edge, these strategies have less impact on your design cycles. One school of thought is that, as you move to surface mounts to QFN/QFP packages, or as you move to tight tolerances in circuit timing, then these strategies become more and more important.  Of course, the other school of thought is that, as you start out, even though the designs may be simpler, it’s the designer’s skimpy knowledgebase that needs more support.

We consider ourselves partners with our customers and as an important resource for them, says Sunstone’s Al Secchi, We are only successful when we can help our customers be successful in avoiding design issues that can affect either the manufacturability or functionality of their PCB. We know how important it is for them to receive functioning boards on time, and we pride ourselves with an on-time rate that consistently exceeds 99.5%.

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7 Steps to a Prototype for Hardware Startups

So you have a hot new hardware device that you’d like to develop and sell?  Well, your first step is to create a working prototype.  But where should you begin?  There is no doubt that developing hardware is hard, and you can’t expect immediate results.  But if you break it down into manageable steps it is possible to succeed with hardware.

Most hardware product prototyping can be split into two sections: the electronics and the plastic case.  Let’s look at each separately.

The Electronics
Creating a prototype of the electronics section can be separated into 4 steps.

You’ll need to hire a design engineer to develop the electronics.  If you are a maker or DIY’er you may be able to perform step 2, then outsource the other steps to an engineer.

Step 1 – Create the electronics blueprint (schematic)

The first step in electronics development is the creation of a blueprint-like drawing called a schematic.  The schematic provides all of the necessary details to build the electronics including how all of the components are connected together.

This is also when all of the electronic components will be specified.  A Bill of Materials (BOM) will be created detailing every electronic component.

Step 2 – Create an intermediate prototype (optional)

Depending on the project and your budget you may or may not want to create an intermediate prototype of the electronics.

Some techniques for intermediate prototypes are to use breadboarding (a method for quickly and crudely connecting electronic components) and/or existing development modules like the Arduino and Raspberry Pi.

Step 3 – Create the printed circuit board (PCB) layout

Eventually, you must make your way to creating a production quality prototype.  To do that requires creating a printed circuit board (PCB).

A PCB is a custom designed board that holds and connects all of the electronic components.  Using special software your electronics engineer will turn the abstract schematic (blueprint) into a real world physical PCB layout.  This is a complex step because the PCB layout can have a great impact on the performance of the end product.

Step 4 – Electronics fabrication

The PCB layout design files are now sent to a special electronics prototyping company for production.  The first step is to fabricate the empty printed circuit boards.

Once the PCB is fabricated the next step is to assemble it by soldering on all the various components.  Most modern microchips have very close pin spacing making them very difficult to solder manually so usually very precise automated machines are used.

The Plastic
Just about any electronic product is enclosed in a plastic case of some sort.  In order to create a prototype of a custom shaped case you will need to use 3D printing.

Step 1 – Create the 3D model

The first step is to create a 3D computer model of your product’s plastic parts.  Unless you’ve done computer modeling or drafting in the past you’ll need a 3D modeling expert for this step.

Even if you can do the modeling yourself, the 3D software required is expensive and may cost more than hiring an expert.

Step 2 – 3D printing

Once you have the 3D model completed you can send the design files to a 3D printer for prototyping.  There are countless prototype shops that offer 3D printing.

The other option is to purchase your own 3D printer.  In the past couple of years they have gotten cheap enough for home use.

Be warned however that a completely different technology is used for large scale production of custom plastic pieces.  This technology is called high pressure injection molding.  Transitioning a custom plastic design from prototype to full production is a very complex and costly process.

Once you have a functional prototype in hand then you can proceed with getting initial customers, market feedback, a manufacturing partner, and investors.  It’s a long path to success with a hardware product, but it all begins with the prototype.

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8 PCB Design Tips to Help Lower PCB Assembly Costs

Before sending your PCB design to have printed into prototypes, production and then assembled, there are a few ways to help keep your PCB assembly costs down. At OnBoard Circuits, our goal is to produce high quality printed circuit boards at the lowest cost to you. Below are 8 PCB design tips on how to design your PCBs to help keep your PCB assembly costs down.

Tip #1 – View your Gerber and Excellon files with a separate viewer other than just the one provided by your design package.

Tip #2 – Consult with us to make sure the finish you chose will work best with our PCB assembly processes.

Tip #3 – Utilize a good drawing package that will locate the components you are using on the board.

Tip #4 – Begin the design by placing the components that require a specific location first.

Tip #5 – Try to space out components evenly horizontally or vertically, and orient the components the same direction whenever possible. Ensure that the orientation of polarized parts is the same and avoid placing components at angles other than 0 or 90 degrees.

Tip #6 – At a minimum, leave 100 mils between the components and the printed circuit board edge.

Tip #7 – Try to minimize trace lengths when deciding where to place PCB assembly components.

Tip #8 – When is it necessary to have components on both sides, keep sensitive, heavy, or through-hole components on the primary side. Any components that need special attention should be kept on the primary side of the PCB as well.

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Common PCB design mistakes

Let’s face it. We all make mistakes, and PCB designers are no exception. And contrary to popular belief, making mistakes is ok, as long as we learn from them. Here is a quick summary of some common PCB mistakes.

Lack of planning
Confucius said, A man who does not plan long ahead will find trouble at his door. This applies to PCB design too. One of the first steps to successful PCB design is to choose the right tools. There are many powerful and easy-to-use electronic design automation (EDA) software packages available for PCB designers today. Each one has its own unique capabilities, advantages and limitations. You should also be mindful that no software is infallible, so issues such as component footprint mismatch can and do occur. Although there may not be a single tool that meets all of your needs, you should do your homework to find the best fit for your requirements. I did a quick review of some of the most popular EDA software packages that might help you get started.

Poor communication
Even though out-sourcing of PCB design is becoming more common, and is often more cost-effective, it might not be the ideal solution for highly complex PCB designs where performance and reliability are key. As the complexity of designs increase, the face-to-face time between the engineer and PCB designer to ensure precise component placement and routing in real-time becomes very important and can help to eliminate costly rework later.

It is equally important to engage the PCB board manufacturer early on in the design process. They can provide initial feedback on your design to maximize efficiencies based upon their processes and procedures that will save you time and money in the long run. By making them aware of your design objectives and involving them in the early stages of PCB layout, you can avoid any potential problems long before going into production and shorten time-to-market.

Failure to thoroughly test early prototypes
Prototype boards allow you to prove that your design works according to your original specifications. Prototype testing allows you to validate the functionality and quality of the PCB and its performance before it is mass-produced. Successful prototype testing requires a good deal of time and experience, but by starting with a robust test plan and a clear set of objectives evaluation time can be decreased, and the likelihood of production-related mistakes reduced. If any issues are found during prototype testing, a second iteration of tests on a reconfigured board will need to be performed. By including high-risk elements early in the design process, you will be able to benefit from multiple iterations of testing and identify any potential issues early on, reducing risks and ensuring project deadlines are met.
Using inefficient layout techniques or incorrect components
The demand for smaller and faster devices requires PCB designers to layout complex designs in significantly reduced footprints using smaller components that must be placed closer together. Making use of technologies such as embedded discrete devices on inner PCB layers or smaller pin pitch ball grid array (BGA) packages will help to reduce the board size, improve performance and leave room for rework when issues are encountered. When working with components that have higher pin count and smaller pitch, it is important to select the right board layout technique in the design stage to avoid problems later on and minimize fabrication costs.

Also be sure to carefully study the range value and performance characteristics of any substitute components that you plan to use, even those that are labeled as drop-in replacements. A slight variation in the characteristics of the substitute component may be enough to throw off the performance of your entire design.

Forgetting to back up your work
Back up your important data. Need I say more? At a minimum, you should backup your most important work and other files that would be difficult to replace. Even though most companies perform daily backups of all corporate data, this might not be the case in some smaller companies or if you do work from home. With backing up to The Cloud so easily accessible and cheap these days, there is no excuse not to backup your data where it is safe from theft, fire, and other local disasters.

Becoming a one man island
In my early days as a programmer, I remember thinking that we spent way too much time in code design reviews. But I have to admit that looking back now they really were a very important part of the process, just as they are with PCB designs. While you may think your design is flawless, and that making mistakes is simply not your style, often times your peers will find something in your design that you overlooked. Sometimes, even though you know the intricate details of the design, someone less intimate with it can be more impartial and provide valuable insight. Holding regular design reviews with your peers can help detect unforeseen issues and keep your project on track and within budget.
How about you? Have you made some PCB design mistakes in the past that have made you a better designer today? Feel free to comment and provide a few more mistakes of your own so that others can learn from them too.

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Domestic Versus Offshore PCB Manufacturing

It had long been accepted that as products move through their life cycle towards standardization, manufacturing migrates offshore. Eventually, even leading edge products are also produced overseas with the help of new technology and an in- creasingly symbiotic global economy. But circumstances have changed. The compo- nent costs of offshoring have increased along with the risks that go along with it, specifically threats to domestic intellectual  property.

For this reason, PCB manufacturing is returning home. Recent events indicate companies are re-examining decades old paradigms and even reversing established manufacturing trends. In 2012, Sony UK Technologies enabled process automation by adding just two holes to one of their PCB designs. They then resumed manufac- turing the board domestically after offshoring it for years in  China.

If you are sending your PCB manufacturing off shore, what factors weighed heaviest in your decision making? How do you know if offshore manufacturing still makes sense for you? This article considers both simple and complex ideas for cost-benefit analysis to help guide your decision process.

Larger manufacturing industry trends are beginning to take hold in the PCB world. With high volume manufacturers like General Electric profitably ‘reshoring’ large scale production, PCB manufacturers are taking note  and  challenging  old  para- digms. PCB design complexity is increasing and production volumes are dropping,  and many manufacturers are finding that the realized savings from offshoring may not  offset the  risks  associated  with it.

A growing list of factors is tipping the scales back in favor of domestic PCB manu- facturing. Three basic elements from this list underpin a simple cost-benefit analy-  sis.  They are:

?    Rising wages abroad
?    Persistent high overseas transportation costs
?    Limited improvement of speed to market

In the case of low volume, single-run PCB manufacturing, a simple measure of the    cost  delta  between  domestic  and  offshore  production  illustrates  dwindling  sav- ings. The average manufacturing wage abroad is increasing 18-20% per year while domestic worker productivity continues to improve, adding to the appeal of home grown manufacturing. Overseas  shipping  remains  expensive  just  as  cheaper  do- mestic energy is lowering the cost of production here in the US. Delays have always  cost money, so the additional time still required for an offshore vendor to manufac- ture and deliver a PCB becomes a bigger issue. As the cost differentiators narrow        or even reverse with changing conditions both here and abroad, the trend toward reshoring  is  gaining momentum.

Rejecting the “Take What You Get”   Philosophy
Problems with Quality Assurance (QA) are helping to accelerate this reshoring trend. Quality issues occur frequently and are usually preceded by  an  absence  of  trans- parency. Collaboration with offshore manufacturers is inherently limited, and the loosely-coupled relationships foster a ‘take what you get’ transactional paradigm.
This leaves the product manager to hope and assume his PCB is properly manufac- tured to design while  offshore.

Offshore quality control issues are expected to fuel the return of at least $2.5 bil-       lion in electronics manufacturing to the US over the next three years. PCBs repre-     sent a significant portion of that amount, meaning projects requiring small to mid-  level PCB volumes can no longer settle for offshored product that almost meets – or fails to meet – design   requirements.

Your Intellectual Property Won’t Protect Itself
The  same  PCB  designs  not  being  manufactured to  spec  are increasingly at  risk of piracy. GE reshored its Geospring water heater in 2012, even though they had
already initiated production abroad. The move was motivated by the need to protect the company’s intellectual property. If the intellectual property of one of the world’s largest corporations is fair game, what is the risk to a PCB design from a company     with  fewer  legal resources?

Online PCB chatter about reverse engineering in Chinese facilities illustrates the frustration felt by product managers who send production abroad to save money. The money saved offshore is promptly lost if you suddenly find yourself competing with a cheaper version of your own   design.

At Sunstone, we have found that asking the right questions leads to the best    outcomes when considering offshore versus domestic PCB  manufacturing.  Lower volume PCBs face greater relative risk to the bottom line, so risks of offshoring can help make domestic manufacture more appealing for this type of product.

Reshoring may even be the preferable — though not obvious — choice for higher volume PCB manufactures. With larger production volumes, even modest per-unit savings can appear attractive on the surface, suggesting that offshoring is the right choice. However, those savings paint only half the picture. Our experience tells us    that less easily quantifiable factors pose greater obstacles to offshoring than rising Chinese  wages  or  high  crude oil prices.

When weighing the pros and cons of offshore manufacture, we  advise  two  critical actions:

?    Carefully consider the less apparent problems associated with offshoring.
?    Ask questions aimed at challenging both   options.

Offshoring Production Can Onboard Problems
As easily identifiable costs associated with overseas PCB manufacturing rise and gain attention, you should also consider less apparent complications. If you plan to off- shore PCB manufacturing, carefully examine the impact to your domestic    operations.
Offshore Manufacturing Does Not Automatically Equal Savings
We encourage our customers to avoid evaluating the potential costs of offshore PCB  manufacturing along only two dimensions. Rising transportation  fees  and  overseas wages tell an incomplete story. There are real, indirect costs that may be minimizing     or  even  eliminating  savings  from offshore manufacturing.

If you carry more inventory than necessary to optimize your transportation buy, the real expense of  overseas  shipping  also  includes  the  costs  to  store,  handle,  and insure excess supply. An offshore supplier unable to support your Just In Time (JIT) inventory requirements translates into unfulfilled orders and lost business. When offshore PCBs come close — but fail to meet — design specifications, the resourc-
es required to re-tool the boards or adapt the product to accommodate them masks the real cost of low  yield.

Once these potential hidden costs are considered, the net savings from offshoring may not justify the risk to your overall   operation.

Risk Can Unleash Additional Costs
Offshore PCB manufacturing does incur risk, and mitigation of that risk places bur- den on your domestic team. This creates additional hidden costs that can  quickly  add up  to  offshore manufacture actually being more expensive than   domestic.
How much time and effort do you spend coordinating and policing offshore PCB manufacturing?

An overseas manufacturer in a time zone ten to fourteen hours different from yours literally builds your board while you sleep. Unfortunately, if you need to collaborate about the project with someone on the offshore team, one of you will be getting
up in the middle of the night to do so. Disruptions to routine like this come with a  cost. Cultural differences can lead to miscommunications, misunderstandings, and expensive   mistakes.

In order to ensure an offshore PCB build is properly executed, some measure of do- mestic resource must be diverted to focus on it. The critical question is, “how   much?”.

Ask the Right Questions
To be fair, offshoring can also save significant amounts of money if it is a good fit for your needs. From our experience, once you measure the true cost drivers of offshore production and identify its impact on domestic operations, the answers to a few      more key questions will illuminate what choice will create the best results for you.

Does Your Volume Justify the Journey?
Volume is one critical factor in determining whether to use a domestic or offshore manufacturer. Offshoring favors established PCB designs requiring high-volume runs with long lead times. The larger potential  aggregate  savings  better  insulates  your bottom  line  against  less  apparent  offshore  manufacturing costs.
The return on offshore manufacturing investment diminishes quickly when dealing with lower volume or prototyping production. Offshore production manufacturers are optimized for large runs and will not deviate from process to devote additional attention to non-conforming projects. This QA risk alone should give lower volume producers  pause.

A domestic resource offers more transparency to the manufacturing process, and collaboration happens faster and with less effort. Issues resolve quickly, which minimizes risk to yield and PCB    quality.

Depending on your annual volume, even a single trip to Shanghai or Chennai to address quality issues could reduce or eliminate potential savings from offshoring. Overseas site visits really guarantee nothing. If your product requires a more agile process that includes design conception or prototyping, you make yourself vulner- able to a wide range of new variables and pain points.

Excellence is Relative
During prototype design, you need effective communication and coordinated effort to succeed. Transition plans, phase-ins, phase-outs, and revision control demand immediate attention that  is  sometimes  unavailable  because  of  time  zone  differ- ences or language barriers. Respected PCB  fabricators  in  the  US  build  their  busi- nesses by excelling in these areas, while offshore vendors simply aren’t structured     to  provide the  responsive  support often  required in  such situations.
Even if  you  have  an  established  PCB  design  to  manufacture, unless  you  are pre- pared to overstock to accommodate your offshore vendor, larger production runs    will  take  precedent  over  yours.  This  widely  accepted  practice  impacts  scheduling and can ripple through your supply chain, adding up to significant delays in getting     the finished product out the door. Domestic manufacturers are structured for bet-     ter flexibility, able to provide real time support, and more likely to better meet the needs of low volume production. If you operate on a JIT basis, fabricators located in your  hemisphere  also  pose  less  of  a  scheduling risk.

In  cases  where  offshoring fits  volume  and  scheduling  needs,  be  prepared to  deal with cultural differences in business paradigms. What you may consider a problem    with scheduling or quality may be your offshore vendor’s idea of premium service     and products. Does your offshore supplier share your vision of good customer ser-  vice? If your foreign PCB supplier does not buy into or understand your expectations,   no amount of intercontinental oversight will bridge that   chasm.

Are You Getting What You Paid For?
Once your boards arrive from the offshore fabricator, yields become your next con- cern. We again encourage multi-dimensional analysis of the production. Instead of targeting a percentage yield and checking a box, also consider consistency of yields over time along with the board’s functional reliability in the end product.

Long term reliability is a key measure. Counterfeit components routinely find their   way into PCBs manufactured offshore. Some substandard parts are  easy  to  spot, others not so much. A Rolex knock-off purchased from a Hong Kong street vendor requires some time before the cheap internal parts fail and the faux precious metal tarnishes. Likewise, counterfeit components in your offshore PCB may stand up  to initial testing, then fail after your product is in use. Counterfeit components impact product performance, end customer satisfaction and eventually your reputation in    the marketplace. This makes for a high price to pay, but a difficult cost to measure

Are potential savings worth the risk to intellectual property?
Your  intellectual property is at greater risk once it moves offshore. The threats to   your IP are complex, vary from country to country, and require substantial financial commitment to combat. Domestic patent, trade secret, and mask work laws are an- tiquated and provide minimal protection. Little or no motivation exists in places like China to protect US corporate intellectual property. Their laws aimed at protecting foreign IP are mostly toothless and carry limited enforcement effort with them.

As we pointed out, even GE chose to reshore its product rather than spend financial resources battling  the  threat to  their  IP  in  China.  Smaller  companies  realistically have few options for securing their IP. Thoroughly vetting partners to determine reliability can help, but most companies are making a leap of faith when they send  their IP offshore.

Offshoring no longer guarantees a lower cost of production. Threats to intellectual property in countries like China have heightened interest in reshoring. As a result,  trends indicate  PCB  manufacturing  is  returning home.

Making the right decision  about  domestic  versus  offshore PCB  manufacturing depends on a thorough cost benefit analysis. Your  results  will  vary depending  on volume and design requirements. We encourage our customers to look for hidden costs of offshoring and seriously consider its less quantifiable pain points, like the impact on inventory management and burden on the domestic    operation.

When you remove hidden assumptions and question offshoring paradigms, the an- swers you find will guide you toward better outcomes. You might find that a domes- tic manufacturer that specializes in low volume, high-mix manufacturing provides a viable alternative to offshoring your project.

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