Developing new electronics hardware can be an exciting yet challenging process. One of the most critical steps is building prototypes to test your PCB (printed circuit board) design. However, many engineers and startups don’t have the capability to fabricate PCBs themselves. This makes using a high-quality PCB prototype service essential.
PCB prototype services allow you to upload your Gerber files and receive professionally-assembled boards in a fast and affordable way. Rather than investing in your own PCB fabrication capabilities, you can rely on a specialized service provider to build your prototypes. This saves you both time and money.
Using a PCB prototype service provides many benefits over DIY PCB fabrication:
- Get boards fabricated extremely fast, often within 24 hours. This enables rapid prototyping and iteration.
- Access capabilities hard to achieve alone, like multilayer boards, fine spaces and traces, blind/buried vias, and controlled impedance.
- Avoid the need to purchase fabrication equipment and supplies. Outsource to a company with the latest technologies and economies of scale.
- Leverage expertise of PCB specialists for advice on design, DFM, and assembly. Get high-quality boards.
- Scale flexibly from prototype to production. Use the same service provider to meet increasing volume needs.
With many PCB prototype services to choose from, selecting the right one is important to get your boards back quickly and successfully. In this blog post, we’ll explore the key factors to consider when choosing a PCB prototype service.
Benefits of using the best PCB prototype services
It is recommended that PCB manufacturers make a prototype of their PCBs before committing to full production. A quality and reliable PCB prototype service are usually fast and cost-effective. It helps customers to easily test their boards without any hassle or delay. When it comes to the benefits of the best PCB prototype services, you have the following:
- They help you to easily detect flaws and errors in the PCB design before the process of production is commenced. This means that you get to understand the nature of the printed circuit boards before you commit the full capital to the project.
- The best prototype services make it possible for you to test several PCB designs. This is a cost-effective way to ensure that the several PCB designs meet basic client requirements and complies with industry best practices.
- Another benefit of the best PCB prototype services is to give you a clear picture of what your PCB will work like. With PCB prototypes, you can accurately understand the way the board will work.
An important thing to do before your PCB prototyping
PCB prototyping is a process that is usually recommended before you commence the full production run of your printed circuit boards. Before you start the process of PCB prototyping, you want to make sure that this matches all your requirements. PCB prototyping will usually benefit many printed circuit board projects, but it is not recommended for all types. If you are looking to make a PCB prototype for your project, it is important to get all the basic information about the project before you start.
Deciding on whether you need a prototype
Prototypes are important for performing PCB quality checks or testing the designs of your PCBs. Prototypes are recommended each time you design a new PCB board for a production run. This means that if you have an old prototype that has been used to successfully make an electronic PCB, then a prototype may not be needed. However, you should request a PCB prototype service if there are changes in the board designs or if you created a new PCB design.
At this point, you will want to get the best PCB prototype service for a rapid solution. These manufacturing companies can create test boards with best industry practices. The PCBs are made using the right total number of layers while also using standard PCB materials. When it comes to the production of prototypes, you can expect the manufacturers to fulfil both small and large orders.
The process of PCB prototyping does not take a lot of time. Within a short time, they are either approved or marked for a design review. If your prototype has been approved, you can then request the full production of the printed circuit boards. During the stage of production, the full features of the designs can be produced. This means that you can now add more layers and use a greater quantity of the production materials.
Making preparation for the PCB prototype process
If you have made up your mind to create a printed circuit board prototype, there are several basic things that you will have to do. This means that you will need to get a quote for the PCB prototype services or submit the PCB prototype designs. You will have to prepare the details and data of your PCB design. To get the best PCB prototype service, you should try to make available as much data as possible. As a rule of thumb, there are several basic information and data you will have to submit. They are:
- The number of layers of the PCB
- The thickness of the PCB board
- The dimensions of the PCB board
- The weight and thickness of the copper
- The minimum spacing and tracing
- The minimum size of the hole
- The minimum annular ring
- The surface of the finish
- The colour and the solder mask
- The colour and the silkscreen legend.
- The tool list for the drill file.
PCB prototyping: What are the steps involved
As soon as you understand what the prototype test should do for your product and have prepared the right information, the process of prototyping can be commenced. The best PCB prototype services with sufficient PCB prototype experience can give you the right level of support throughout the entire process. At this point, you must choose a PCB prototyping company that is responsive and offer the right quality of customer service. The basic steps needed in the PCB prototyping process include:
- The PCB design stage
- The creation of the schematic design
- Development of the bill of materials
- The routing design
- Checks and inspection.
- Creation of the photo film
- Print/align/fuse the inner PCB layers
- Drill the holes
- Copper plating
- Imaging of the outer layer
- Plating of the tin and copper
- Final etching
- Application of the solder mask
- Application of the surface finish
- Application of the silkscreen
- Stenciling of the solder paste
- The picking and the placing stage
- The reflow soldering
- Quality control and inspection
- Carrying out the functionality test
Choosing the Right PCB Prototype Service
There are a variety of factors to consider when selecting a PCB prototype service for your needs:
Capabilities – The capabilities of the PCB manufacturer will determine what types of designs you can produce. Assess their supported materials (FR4, Rogers, flex PCBs, etc.), layer counts, minimum trace/space, and other key fabrication capabilities. Ensure they can handle any special requirements like high-speed or high-frequency.
Turnaround Time – Short turnaround times are critical to iterate quickly for prototyping. Many services offer “24-hour”, “24-hour express”, and “super swift” options. Compare the turnaround commitments. Beware of variability and delays during busy periods.
Quality – Ensure the PCB service has quality testing practices, such as 100% electrical testing. Reviews from other customers also provide insight into general quality and reliability. High-quality boards will function properly and save you time.
Price – PCB prototyping costs vary significantly between basic hobbyist and advanced quick-turn services. Compare price models – some charge per sq. inch, others have fixed costs—factor in shipping. Overall, value matters more than the bottom price.
Customer Service – The customer experience is key when issues arise. Assess responsiveness via chat email support channels. Look for design-for-manufacturing feedback. See if they offer engineering consulting. Good customer service provides peace of mind.
By evaluating the above criteria, you can determine which PCB prototype service best matches your specific project needs regarding capabilities, speed, reliability, and support. Do your research to find the right partner for success.
Top PCB Prototype Services to Consider
With an overview of the key selection criteria, here are some of the top PCB prototype services to consider:
- JLCPCB – One of the most popular choices for fast, affordable PCB prototyping, especially among hobbyists. Offers 24-hour turnaround for just $2 per square inch, with free shipping. Excellent value but limitations on advanced PCB technologies.
- PCBWay – Provides fast 5-day turnaround and a wide range of PCB capabilities. Supports HDI, rigid-flex, and 4 to 16-layer designs. Higher quality with full testing. DFM support and engineering review available.
- SEEED Studio – Specialized in producing boards for open hardware projects. Manufacturing-as-a-service for prototyping and production needs. Provides minimum order quantities as low as 1 board.
- WellPCB – Quick-turn service that can deliver in just 48 hours. Strong engineering support with DFM analysis. Handles complex PCBs like multilayer, flex-rigid, and metal core boards.
- JHYPCB – As a leading PCB manufacturer based in China, JHYPCB understands the needs of Chinese engineers and companies. We provide fast 24-hour express turnaround for prototype boards with 2-4 layers. For more complex multimedia and RF designs, we offer reliable 5-day quick-turn services.
Our in-house engineering team performs DFM analysis on all designs to optimize them for manufacturability. We have expertise in producing high-density PCBs with 6 mil line/space, microvias, blind/buried vias, and tight tolerances. JHYPCB utilizes the latest fabrication equipment and processes to produce high-quality boards with electrical testing on all boards.
Customers receive dedicated account management and technical support throughout the prototyping process. Our flexible order quantities allow customers to purchase anything from a small batch of prototype boards to higher volumes for engineering verification builds. JHYPCB is easily scalable for a seamless transition to medium and high-volume production.
With over 10 years of experience delivering PCB prototypes and servicing Chinese startups and enterprises, JHYPCB offers unparalleled capabilities within China. Our localized capabilities and engineering support enable faster turnarounds, greater flexibility, and better communication to meet Chinese customers’ product development needs.
Some other services worth looking into are PCBGOGO, All PCB, EuroCircuits, and Advanced Circuits. Do research to find one that fits your budget, speed, quality, and support requirements.
Tips for Optimizing Your PCB Prototype Order
To ensure your PCB prototype order goes smoothly, here are some useful tips:
- Review the manufacturer design rules and capabilities early. Verify your board meets their requirements. Make any necessary design tweaks before finalizing the Gerber files to avoid delays.
- Ask for a design for manufacturability review. The PCB company can check your design and suggest improvements to avoid fabrication issues.
- Communicate your testing and quality requirements upfront. Specify any needed functional or environmental testing.
- Place orders early to get your preferred delivery date, especially if you are seeking the fastest turnaround options. Build in buffer room on the schedule where possible.
- Confirm lead times and provide all documentation as early as possible. Last-minute changes can jeopardize on-time delivery.
- Establish clear communication channels with your PCB company and provide contacts that will respond quickly to any questions.
- Plan for extra boards for potential defects, reworks, or future design revisions and experimentation.
- Review the Gerber files thoroughly before uploading them to check for errors. Use CAM tools to visualize before ordering.
Developing a new electronics hardware product requires prototyping your PCB designs to test their functionality. Partnering with the right PCB prototype service enables fast fabrication of quality boards so you can iterate quickly.
When selecting a PCB prototype service, the key factors to evaluate are capabilities, turnaround time, quality, pricing, and customer service. Compare services to find one that fits your budget and requirements. Low-cost rapid options may suffice for simple boards, while more complex designs require specialized quick-turn services.
Leading PCB prototype services like JLCPCB, PCBWay, and JHYPCB cater to the needs of startups and makers by providing a fast turnaround of 24 hours to 5 days. They offer online quotes, DFM analysis, and engineering support. Use their expertise to get high-quality boards back fast.
With diligent design and planning ahead, you can optimize the prototype process to achieve your project timeline. Building prototypes is a critical milestone in turning a concept into reality. Partnering with the right PCB service provider accelerates your path to successfully testing your electronic designs.