There is a lot of buzz floating around these days about “personal manufacturing.” I will do my best to describe it and what it can do for you. The short answer is personal manufacturing is building your PCBs on your terms, not on the terms of some nameless, faceless factory. The longer answer is probably more useful.
Traditional manufacturing is all about statistics and fractions of a penny. Those factors are important, especially if you are manufacturing millions. But when you just need a few (or a few hundred) boards, those factors can make your job nearly impossible.
With personal manufacturing, you can decide when you want or need assembled boards on your workbench. You won't need to beg for time on a busy volume manufacturing line. At Screaming Circuits, we use cloud-based manufacturing so you can order online from your desktop when you are ready rather than waiting for someone to pick up a telephone.
With personal manufacturing, you design the board, get some prototypes, make modifications, lather, rinse, and repeat. Then, you will get a few dozen, hundred, or thousand boards, and then you start selling. You will get what your budget allows and do not need to commit to minimum volumes or long-term business. You can polish your design faster with less hassle, and you can get to market faster with less hassle. Faster to market and less hassle both mean more time and money for you.
New product introduction (NPI) has never been easier than it is with personal manufacturing. Years ago, I was a product manager at a startup. The entire NPI process was a nightmare. Our engineers could not get anything built without half a dozen support staff. Someone had to make the documentation usable, hunt down sample quantities of parts, and ensure the board would fit on the volume manufacturers' assembly line. It went on and on like that, taking up months of the design cycle. We were at the mercy of people who only cared about making their part of the process easier.
As a maker or entrepreneur, you need a decent price with good quality and service. Contrary to what many people think, you do not need to look outside of North America for this; you can keep your gaze west of the Atlantic and east of the Pacific.
Like everything else in the modern world, design decisions can have a pretty big impact on your cost. So, let’s take a look at seven design decisions that can make your manufacturing more affordable.
- Accept longer lead times: Lead times are one of the biggest factors in electronics manufacturing. Businesses can turn a kitted assembly job overnight, but it costs a lot of money to do that. When you can, a 20-day turnaround is much more affordable. Accepting longer lead times on PCB fabrication will drop your cost as well.
- Avoid leadless packages like QFNs and BGAs: Screaming Circuits builds tons of QFN and BGA boards even down to 0.3-mm pitch micro BGAs. That is great if you need those packages. However, since all of the leads are underneath, we have to X-ray every part, which adds a bit of cost to the process. Stick with TSSOPs and other parts with visible leads if you can.
- Use reels and continuous strips: To save costs, use full or partial reels or continuous strips of at least 12" long.
- Stick with surface mount: These days, through-hole components tend to be hand soldered. That costs more than machine assembly, so use surface mount wherever possible. Surface-mount components tend to be less expensive than through-hole too. If you do need a few through-hole parts, this is an opportunity to put in a little sweat equity by soldering the through-hole yourself and save a bit of money.
- Keep your surface-mount parts on one side: Putting surface-mount parts on both sides of the PCB is a great way to utilize space better. However, if cost is more of a concern and you only have a few parts to put on the back side, it may be more cost effective to move them to the top side. If you have a lot of parts, the additional cost for assembling both sides may be less than the cost for the extra PCB size; however, with a small number of parts, that is probably not the case. Quote it both ways and see which is less expensive.
- Panelize small boards: Sticking with a larger size makes the job easier, and again, creates extra savings. If your PCB is smaller than 16 square inches, panelize it.
- Save on startup costs: Just the act of starting can pretty much break the bank. Software like PCB123 offers full-featured PCB CAD systems you can get free of cost.
By following these guidelines, you can get a decent price and quality service. With personal manufacturing, you can get a few prototypes built right away. If needed, you can modify and get a few more built at your convenience. When the mode wires are gone, you can build up a hundred and get them out to customers without delay. It is not about what works best for the manufacturer, but what works best for you.
Duane Benson is chief technology champion at Screaming Circuits. To read past columns or contact Benson, click here.