Sourcing PCBA: Can Your EMS Supplier Do More?


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You're in the market for some printed circuit board assemblies (PCBAs) for your new product and you need to find the right supplier. You've looked online, gotten recommendations from friends, and the choices are dizzying. Should you look domestically or overseas? What do you do now?

Sourcing PCBA doesn't have to be difficult, but there are two basic questions you need to answer.

1. What class of PCBA do you need?

There are three PCBA classes: Class 1,2 or 3. The requirements and definitions are set out by the IPC, the global trade association serving the printed board and electronics assembly industries, along with their customers and suppliers.

  • Class 1 - Simple, non-critical electronics. Considered disposable. They’re made inexpensively with cheaper materials and components.
  • Class 2 - More robust and expensive electronics. Materials are more expensive, component testing takes place before installing in the PCBA, and the finished product is tested before it leaves the factory.
  • Class 3 - Mission critical electronics such as medical, aerospace and defense industries. Materials are the highest quality and must pass specific UL tests. A lot of individual testing goes into the components before they are put into an assembly. 

Because Class 1 and 2 PCBAs aren’t mission critical, they are almost always made overseas where they can be made much less expensively. Class 3 printed circuit boards are typically made in the U.S. Unless you require a Class 3 PCBA, you’ll usually achieve a higher cost savings by purchasing boards from overseas.

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2. How many do you need?

If you’re in the U.S. and need a small number of PCBAs, maybe for prototyping/testing or you need orders in the hundreds and low-to-mid thousands, you can generally find a lower cost through a domestic supplier. However, if you are looking at quantities of around 5,000 or more, it’s generally accepted that you’ll find better prices overseas, typically in China or Vietnam.

Once you have those two items nailed down, we recommend another step:

3. Look for an opportunity to consolidate sourcing and production.

Are PCBAs all you need? What about the housing? Do you already have suppliers for the rest of your product?

Think about it: Why purchase the finished boards from one supplier, wiring from another and housing from another? Do you want to manage the logistics of getting all the pieces together and then building the product? Where is the cost savings in that? 

The ideal situation is to find a trusted partner that makes more than PCBs. In other words, don’t just look for an electronic manufacturing services (EMS) shop that makes PCBs, look for a contract manufacturer that does EMS.

Benefits of a Contract Manufacturer

Because contract manufacturers are making products for multiple customers they have production capacity as well as experience with multiple capabilities that other manufacturers don’t have. They aren’t engaged in sales and marketing. All they do is make the product, giving them greater flexibility to respond quickly to increases and decreases in production requirements. That means you don’t have to make investments in additional equipment or workforce. Using the right contract manufacturer overseas will protect both your intellectual property and the integrity of your product. You’re free to focus on growing your business. 

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