Here we are in the 21st century, technology abounds across all sectors, and it continues to grow. Advances in wearable technology, vehicles with driver assistance features, and integrated smart home electronic devices continue to drive demand and innovation in the PCB industry.
The product development teams tasked with taking these technologies from design into reality are often stuck using procedures from the last century. Case in point: PCB quoting. To access quotes and purchase PCBs, designers often have to call or email the PCB manufacturer to request a quote. After that, the product development team must wait, usually hours (but sometimes days) for the quote to be completed and returned.
With today’s rate of technological advancement, the waiting game for a quote can become the most difficult part of PCB design. If the manufacturer can’t produce the design to specifications or the price is too high for the project’s budget, the designer is back at square one. This creates distinct advantages for large companies who may have established relationships with reliable manufacturers or enough budget to absorb unexpected costs. Others can dedicate a resource who sends the design to multiple suppliers and greatly increases the chances of receiving a quote that satisfies the team’s requirements. Even with those advantages, this antiquated process for PCB quoting can create serious delay. For a small shop or an inexperienced designer, the difficulties can mean missing important deadlines or losing a contract.
This difficulty is magnified by today’s challenges associated with finding a quality PCB manufacturer. Most shops ask designers to request quotes via phone or email. This often does not offer the opportunity for collaboration about the design or useful guidance about how to best meet product requirements. To compound matters, it is not always obvious who you are actually working with.
According to PCBdirectory.com, there are roughly 550 listings for U.S.-based PCB manufacturers. A deeper dive into that list reveals that plenty of companies offering PCB manufacturing services are not actually PCB manufacturers. Some listings are brokers or assembly houses, and many companies have multiple listings on the directory. This makes the number of listings for actual PCB manufacturers based in the U.S. probably closer to 300.
Designers can often find themselves dealing with a middle person and not directly with the manufacturer. Working through a broker or assembler can cause several issues, any of which can create havoc for a product development cycle. Common issues associated with working through a broker include:
- There will be slower delivery in general because of the logistical realities of a go-between. Even longer delays can happen if the broker orders the PCB from overseas.
- Brokers and assemblers don’t work for free and will mark up the cost of the PCB and often pass unexpected cost overruns on to the buyer.
- Indirect communication with the manufacturer limits the ability to perform collaborative cost/benefit analysis on the design and reduces visibility into the manufacturer’s quality assurance program.
If a designer does select one of the 300 or so PCB manufacturers based in the U.S., most of them have reached the late 20th century in terms e-commerce and do have a website. Unfortunately, in many cases, manufacturer websites’ calls to action for requesting a quote still involve the phone or an email. This process ranges in length from a few hours to a few days, requires back and forth between the manufacturer and designer regarding cost and production requirements, and consumes valuable time.
A handful of manufacturers do have RFQ forms on their websites that allow for inputting some of the information about design requirements. These forms may speed up the turn time for a quote and potentially increase the accuracy, but not by large amounts.
A few PCB manufacturers now offer online quoting for a faster, more streamlined process. A design engineer can input the needs and design parameters of a project and get near-real-time pricing with the click of a button. The turnaround time for quotes shortens from hours or days to just minutes. Today, a surprisingly small number of manufacturers have implemented online quoting, and some are deploying systems more effectively than others. That said, this advancement is definitely a step forward for designers in the grand scheme of things.
The next evolution of the quoting process will involve real-time dynamic pricing. Designers will see how each selection they make impacts the quote price, immediately demonstrating where the design’s cost drivers are and empowering them to make design decisions that will keep the project on budget.
The transparency of dynamic pricing will allow even inexperienced PCB designers to learn and assess cost and benefit with confidence. The nimbleness and transparency of this new approach has the potential to change the game for product development. As teams are empowered to provide precise requirements to manufacturers, the manufacturers, in turn, will be better equipped to provide consultation that results in a better product. This future offering will make getting a quick, cost-effective quote accessible to PCB designers and small product development teams, leveling the playing field for those making the technology of tomorrow.
This column originally appeared in the June 2022 issue of Design007 Magazine.