5 Questions to Ask Before Throwing Money at Your First PCB Manufacturer
So you just completed your first PCB design? Congrats! But while you were off high-fiving your computer in a glorious moment of celebration, there must have been a tiny part of you wondering if it’s supposed to be that easy.
What about getting your board made? Oh, yeah.
The PCB manufacturing process can be another journey of its own. And when it comes to choosing between the dozens of PCB manufacturers in the United States alone, it can be tough to know who to choose. So how exactly do you go about choosing your first PCB manufacturer without losing both your mind and your money?
First Things First, Some Guidelines
If there’s one guiding principle to live by when scouring the web for your first PCB manufacturer it’s this – not all are created equal. There’s a ton of options out there, from cheap overseas manufacturers to the more costly US-based services. The truth is, there is no best PCB manufacturer (AKA fab house), and it really just comes down to how much you’re willing to pay vs. your design specs.
Before you go running off to swipe your credit card, consider asking your potential PCB manufacturer these 5 questions to see if they’re the right fit for you and your newly completed PCB design:
Question 1 – When am I going to get my board back?
The answer to this question comes down to that one ruling principle of life – how much money do you have? While some of the lower cost fab houses might advertise a quick turnaround, reality can turn out to be quite different, often taking several weeks just to build and ship your PCB.
In this instance, you really get what you pay for. Need your board delivered in 3-5 days? Then definitely plan to budget a little more money to make this happen. Here’s some PCB manufacturers to check out that will get your board back within a decent time frame:
- OSH Park – A great option for keeping costs low, OSH takes designs from a bunch of engineers, sticks them on one panel, and saves everyone money along the way. Their delivery timeframe is 12 days for a 2 layer board.
- Advanced Circuits – One of the biggest and well-known fab houses around in the US, these guys offer a 1-5 day delivery on boards with 1-10 layers.
- Euro Circuits – For those over the pond in Europe, Euro Circuits is another highly rated fab house that delivers within 2-7 days for 1-16 layer boards.
Question 2 – Can you source all of my materials for me?
You will want to save yourself a few hours of spreadsheet madness and avoid the hassles of managing a Bill of Materials (BOM) So check to see if your chosen PCB manufacturer has an in-house purchasing department that can handle all of the BOM busywork for you.
If you go this route do expect to pay a little extra for the added luxury. But man, being able to hand off your BOM and let someone else deal with the sourcing and potentially unavailable parts is totally worth it.
Question 3 – Can you work with my board specifications?
This question is super important to ask for low-cost vendors, who will often limit the amount of data they will accept in your board specification. Instead, they will typically build your PCB to their standard set of tolerances and guidelines, which might not work.
If you need some special attention paid to your board specifications be sure to confirm that your fab house can handle all of your supplementary documentation, including:
Your Layer Stackup which will include any special copper material requirements needed for your design.
Your Drill Drawing Table which will outline the number and size of every drill hole on your board.
Also be sure to include any miscellaneous specs you might need to include like copper thickness, plating requirements, etc…
Question 4 – Where are you sourcing your materials from?
Is your potential PCB manufacturer just going to source materials from the cheapest supplier? If they purchase in bulk from any vendor then definitely expect consistency and quality to vary widely between each design you have made from them.
Your board will also likely need to meet specific regulations that govern the use of various hazardous substances that are restricted in manufactured electronics including Lead, Mercury, Cadmium, and a few other fire retardants. Make sure that your fab house can deliver a UL approved circuit board that meets one of these requirements, depending on your location:
RoHS (Restriction of Hazardous Substances) – This regulation governs the amount of the hazardous substances allowed in manufactured electronics worldwide.
REACH (Registration, Evaluation and Authorization of Chemicals) – This European program’s goal is to have each chemical used in manufactured electronics evaluated for its effect on the environment and population.
Conflict Materials – This US-based regulation wants to provide better visibility into the raw material supply chain, specifically when ores are sourced from the not so pleasant region of the Eastern Congo.
Question 5 – You guys are going to test my board, right?
Did you get your board back and now doesn’t work? A barebones PCB manufacturer likely won’t care, and you’ll end up with a box of coaster for your water glasses. If you’re planning to have a long-term relationship with your fab house, then we recommend finding one that offers dedicated engineering support. That way, you’ll be able to catch your layout mistakes before it eats your wallet with some handy connectivity tests.
So We Didn’t Talk About One Last Thing
You might have noticed that we didn’t have any questions here about costs, and for good reason – every design is different, and costs are going to be all over the place depending on your budget and manufacturing needs. At the end of the day, it really comes down to what you’re looking for. Some people find success with low-cost fab houses and are okay with waiting several weeks to get a board back. While others might need that strict 3-5 day return timeframe.
Regardless of what PCB manufacturer you choose, do your homework. Read the reviews, talk to their support team, and even take a day to visit the manufacturer if they’re local. Or maybe your eyes glazed over trying to remember all of these details? We’ve got some good news if so – Autodesk EAGLE now has a one-click manufacturing built in. Just click the MAKE button, upload your design and send to one of your trusted manufacturers.
Yeah, it really is that easy. Try EAGLE for free today to see how it works.