Factors in Determining the Right PCB Manufacturer

Engineering electronic devices may take months before you have a blueprint or even prototype circuit board ready. After so much effort in the research side of things, you are now faced with the challenge of finding a competent PCB manufacturer to replicate your design at a large scale.

Located in China or elsewhere, you have thousands of options to choose from. It will certainly be a time-consuming process but the tips below may help you narrow down your results.

What is the budget for your entire project?

Keeping in mind how many initial units you need, the size and material of your board and the overhead of other aspects of your business, you need to set a realistic budget for PCB production. Instead of going for the lowest bulk price, it may be better to settle for fewer units from a reputable manufacturer and purchase more when you can afford it.

Is it worth outsourcing offshore?

Having your PCB boards manufactured in China or other developing countries is quite tempting since the price is significantly lower. Of course, it may not always be worth it if you consider the risks involved.

American or European manufacturers come with a premium cost, but they are more likely to have better quality control and abide by local safety regulations. Imagine the amount of money lost when receiving a batch of faulty boards, paying import taxes and not receiving a refund from the foreign manufacturer. If there is a lot on the line, it may just be safer to keep the production domestic.

What is the goal of your project?

If you are taking your design to a manufacturer, you should definitely have a goal in mind why you need to produce bulk replicas of your electronic device. Your goal may be to sell a certain amount of units, solve a problem, or what application it has for your organization. Think beyond just producing bulk boards and keep in mind how it will be distributed, who will buy it and if it is a viable product in the first place.

Reflecting on all this, you should be able to narrow down your choices of PCB producers. Before you start asking for quotes, at least have an idea of how you want your product to be manufactured.

What testing procedures does this manufacturer use?

It is quite easy to find Chinese companies to mass produce your electronic device on a shoestring budget. The most important aspect of any serious operation is quality control because you don’t want to send out faulty units to customers.

One of the first things you should ask any PCB manufacturer on your shortlist is their exact testing procedure before shipping them out. If they also have videos or photos to share, that would be even better.

Why is the PCB manufacturer in question necessary to complete your goal?

While a certain company may have an amazing website, reputation or manufacturing process, you need to reflect upon if this manufacturer fits your specific vision. Find out what they have produced in the past, or currently producing, and evaluate if they are within the same industry as your product design.

For example, if you are wanting to create a line of network routers, yet this company mostly has experience in producing boards for smart televisions, the partnership may not be compatible. Working with a company that has experience in your market may also be able to suggest PCB design changes to make it more viable for mass production.

Is the manufacturer Certified?

While experience is definitely a weighing factor, a company without certifications just leaves you with a sense of uncertainty that you will be receiving quality boards. At least check to see if they have certifications that match your project’s needs, so your end product will match industry standards.

Some notable certifications include:

  • J-STD-001 ES – If components are soldered by hand, this certification assures that employees have been properly trained.
  • ITAR – If the PCBs are being manufactured for military or defense applications in the United States, this certification is crucial.
  • ISO 9001 – A general certification assuring a company has proper management, customer support and linear improvement of the company.
  • UL 796 – This certification shows the manufacturer has met the flammability and delamination standards set by Underwriters Laboratories.
  • IPC-6012 – This certification assures the manufacturer meets the requirements for each class of PCB. This includes requirements like structural integrity, conductor surfaces, the ease of soldering and conductor spacing.

Is the manufacturer a broker?

With the ease of setting up e-commerce shops, there are many online PCB manufacturers that are only reselling services from a cheaper company. Therefore, you may very well be receiving a shoddy product at a premium price.

While you can always ask the company if they are a broker and hope they are honest, it is best to do a little research with every company you consider. You may check out how long the business has been in operation, past reviews, and past clients they worked with.

Interviewing the company with basic questions regarding electronics manufacturing may also be a test of their competency. If you are able to check out their facility in person, that would be even better.

Where do the materials come from?

While the situation of safety regulation compliance is getting better in China and other developing countries, there are still companies that disregard them. You should make sure your partner company at least complies with the following:

  • Materials from conflict zones – The United States and other developed countries forbid the importation of products using materials supplied by conflict zones. Columbite-tantalite from conflict zones in West Africa, which is commonly used in electronics, is an example of a material that’s under the radar.
  • Hazardous Materials – Most countries will have certain guidelines in regards to the importation of items made with hazardous materials. The hazardous materials you should mainly be concerned are polychlorinated biphenyls, in which you may need to obtain a permit in order to import. Also, check with your manufacturer to see if they are using any other industrial chemicals that may warrant special permission.

Final Thoughts

Since there is such a wide availability of overseas PCB manufacturers, it is currently a buyers market. It is up to you to do your due diligence to make sure you are getting the right manufacturer for your industry and the quality control is up to snuff. With a combination of finding the right manufacturer and properly handling the marketing side of things, your product may be a huge success.