When Designing PCBs, Tap Vendor Expertise for Manufacturability

Engage with suppliers early in the design process for project success.

(Image courtesy of Epec, LLC.)

(Image courtesy of Epec, LLC.)

Printed circuit boards (PCBs) present a classic design challenge: fit as many components as possible into the smallest, most efficient package.

Add in the demands of surface mount technology, automatic component insertion, cooling requirements, vibration and contaminant resistance and a dozen other factors and is clear that PCB design is more than just resist ink and a photo etch acid bath.

Ever smaller components and conductor spacing adds even more complexity. Modern design software helps, but true design optimization works best when experienced board manufacturers weigh in.

The right manufacturing partner offers high level design assistance, but some PCB designers may look offshore, turning to the cheapest and quickest solutions for their needs.

Low-cost volume production is everyone’s goal, but if the PCB design is suboptimal, the results can vary from costly but inefficient designs to products that simply don’t work. Time and money are wasted and designers are forced to repeat their search for a more competent manufacturer.

PCB designers can avoid the headaches of wasted time and money by following a handful of tips:

Approach potential partners as early as reasonably possible.

Researching potential manufacturing partners can be the key difference between finding a partner who gets the job done quickly and a partner who gets the job done correctly the first time. If designers research and approach a partner early in the design process, both teams will have an easier time producing a PCB designed correctly and on time.

Have a thorough understanding of what is needed for a design in relation to its application.

Products as complex as PCBs either work well, or they don’t. A circuit board’s quality translates to product reliability, on-spec MTBF and even to human lives in military and medical applications. Design engineers will only benefit from providing manufacturers detailed design and application information.

Be prepared to make some design changes.

Even the greatest engineers can’t anticipate or isolate every possible error. Designers shouldn’t become overly invested in their designs and should prepare for scenarios where they may need to make changes or even start from scratch.

Al Wright, PCB applications engineer at Epec Engineered Technologies, has dealt with more than one design team that didn’t consider some or all of the above suggestions.

“We filled some prototypes for one customer and they had specified 130° material in their design,” Wright explained. “After our suggestions, they decided to run their production elsewhere. They hadn’t done anything to update the fabrication drawing even though we had disclosed to them a higher temp material was needed, so there were the predictable bad thermal outcomes. Their PCB came out looking like a potato chip.”

Designers can avoid situations like this by planning their projects carefully. Designers who trust in their manufacturing partners and work to ensure a mutual understanding of what will make the PCB design most efficient is key.

Wright suggests that designers present as much information as possible at the quoting stage and that they call ahead to discuss any design features that are potentially non-standard. Doing so will help to ensure an accurate quote followed by successful manufacturing.

Engineers looking to take a second swing at a design with a new company can also share what went wrong with the first iteration to prevent a repeat of past mistakes and speed up the redesign process.

Wright and his team at Epec have worked on PCBs for applications in aerospace, automotive, military, medical and other industries.

Extreme Copper PCB. (Image courtesy of Epec, LLC.)

Extreme Copper PCB. (Image courtesy of Epec, LLC.)

 “We had one design that uses our extreme copper technology, which is basically 100-ounce thick copper on one layer. That board looks simple, but it’s extremely difficult to build,” Wright explained. “The application is for sensing improvised explosive devices, to be mounted on military vehicle engines or the engine compartment. That part was in development for quite a while and about everything that could go haywire did. We optimized the design and made a successful board.”

Having to rely on a number of untried techniques, Wright and his team learned many lessons that they utilize to this day. “To know that it worked, that’s the project that makes me the happiest because it was for a good purpose, keeping our soldiers safe.”

For additional tips on getting PCB designs right the first time, Epec is sharing an EBook download titled Top 10 Printed Circuit Board Design Checks.

For more information on Epec, visit their website at www.epectec.com.

Epec Engineered Technologies has sponsored this post. It has no editorial input to this post. All opinions are mine. – Kagan Pittman