When it comes to choosing a PCB manufacturing vendor you may have more options than you think. Overseas manufacturers with long lead times, high minimum orders, and complex requirements for hardware designers are no longer the only choice for small businesses, engineers, makers, Kickstarter creators, or other entrepreneurs.
Today you can find a partner that can work with you through every stage of the product lifecycle, from your initial idea right until it reaches the hands of your customer. It was inevitable, perhaps, that PCB manufacturing would make its way to the cloud, offering inventors a hassle-free way to bring products to market.
To understand why seamless PCB manufacturing represents a significant breakthrough, it is helpful to take a look back at how we got to where we are.
You might think of mass production facilities like auto factories when you think of manufacturing, but the word actually means “handicraft.” Anything created for trade or sale can rightly be called manufactured. Early on in the human experience, this may have been one artisan or tradesman crafting a cloth or an urn. As products became more complex, it was no longer efficient for one person to do every step in the process, and what we might recognize as the modern assembly line was born. The idea of interchangeable parts is often credited to the American inventor, Eli Whitney. This concept enabled the move to mass production.
The factories and plants that most of us think of today have two key objectives, low production cost, and consistent results. Reducing costs was a major cause for the rise of offshore manufacturing in the 1970’s and 1980’s. Companies in the United States looked to China and other parts of the world where labor costs were low.
Production of products outside of the US is an efficient and cost effective model for certain types of products and companies. If you’re General Electric, it makes sense. But today, it isn’t only large corporations that produce products for market. Small businesses, entrepreneurs, Kickstarter creators, and Makers all want the ability to create new products, especially electronic devices.
The cost and challenges of working with a large overseas manufacturer were once significant barriers for modern inventors. PCB prototyping and PCB assembly was too slow and prohibitively expensive if it was even possible at all. Minimum quantity requirements created too much risk for startups and growing companies. To fill this delta between what was available and what was needed, a new type of manufacturing company has emerged.
These days, there are self-service oriented, cloud-based, agile PCB manufacturing organizations that effectively serve the need for cost effective, rapid PCB prototyping and small batch runs. The best also offer inventory management and shipping services.
In addition, seamless communication between people and computing systems makes rapid innovation possible in today’s world. Obstacles that made it difficult for new startups to get their product made, let alone at competitive prices, are being overcome with modern technology. System integration may not be the sexiest thing in the world, but it helps get your products into your customer’s hands quickly and hassle-free. Creative products are manufactured with creative processes, and that’s good for everyone.
In most cases, the first step, once the design documents and Bill of Materials are complete, is prototyping. The old fashioned approach to PCB manufacturing was not very friendly to small quantity orders, making prototyping and iteration challenging and expensive.
Fortunately, the next generation of PCB assembly service providers is happy to work on prototyping orders. What’s more, they leverage online software tools to take the pain out of getting a quote for your prototype. Instead of waiting days or weeks, you’ll just upload your documents and get a quote in minutes.
Choosing a vendor that does PCB prototyping in the United States will speed the process and reduce risks associated with overseas shipping and vendor management.
Once the prototyping and iteration process is complete, the PCB manufacturing stage can begin. Look for a partner that welcomes your order in any quantity, from one to 10,000, so that you can be supported by one vendor as you grow your business. This flexibility is possible because the vendor leverages sophisticated software that facilitates the combination of many small orders into a more economical large one.
Modern PCB service providers take care of all of the sourcing and ordering for you, so the process is frictionless. The same online software you used to generate the quote and upload your documents can be used to track the progress of your order, manage changes, and report on your project.
When evaluating vendors, it is a good idea to ask them if they offer “House Parts.” House Parts are a collection of commonly used PCB components that the vendor can buy in bulk, to reduce prices for customers across the board.
Your PCB is likely destined to be incorporated into one or more electronic devices, so why not choose a PCB manufacturing partner that can also handle this stage of the product lifecycle? You can find a vendor that will either help your source parts, or hold the parts you have in inventory until your device is ready for assembly. Because the PCB assembly and device manufacturing happen at the same warehouse, shipping delays and risks are eliminated. This integrated approach to manufacturing takes all of the friction out of the process so you can focus on your designs and your business.
Once your product is complete, a full service PCB manufacturer offers inventory management and warehousing services, freeing you from the expensive and time consuming task of storing and administering your inventory.
Since the manufacturer is maintaining your inventory, it only makes sense to extend their service to the final stage in the product lifecycle; order fulfillment. You can find a PCB manufacturing partner that will package and ship your order directly to customers. You can even find a vendor that gets volume discounts from shipping carriers, saving you money every time a product goes out.
The Internet has changed the game in terms of communication. Email, instant messaging, social media networks, and even regular telephone calls, are all made possible because the Internet connects us all. Of course the cloud connects not just people, but systems as well. In the early days of computing, corporate data was kept in heavily protected silos. But now organizations have found that sharing data can create better experiences for customers.
The big shipping carriers are an example that you are probably familiar with. When you buy a product from Amazon, or almost any major retailer, you can often get the UPS, USPS, or FedEx shipping details right on the retailer’s website. This handy feature is possible because the shipper’s system and the retailer’s system connect using a software technology called an API (application programming interface). Amazon doesn’t have access to all of UPS’s corporate data, obviously, just the relevant information that it wants to make available to customers.
In PCB manufacturing, these APIs make it possible for manufacturers to provide a more seamless experience to their clients. What once was a difficult, time-consuming and high risk process, can now be handled entirely online, with the product lifecycle moving quickly due to integrated systems and automation. When a customer places an order, it is shipped automatically.
These days it isn’t only huge corporations with massive budgets and long go-to-market timelines that are driving innovation in the field of electronics. Today people from all walks of life can develop the skills to turn their creative ideas into useful and entertaining products. Leading-edge manufacturing companies are accommodating this new need with an approach that keeps costs down, speeds up time to market, and makes managing the entire process easy and enjoyable.
PCB manufacturing has been retooled to better meet the needs of:
Growing businesses and startups generally don’t require large enough orders to get reasonable pricing from big, traditional manufacturers. They also usually want just-in-time delivery and try to avoid large inventories. On-demand manufacturing caters to the needs of small and startup businesses by cutting the costs for small quantity runs. Some PCB manufacturing partners also offer inventory and fulfillment services and even provide software that integrates the business website with the manufacturing platform, known as an API. This integrated approach keeps prices low and lets employees spend time focused on core business needs. On-demand PCB manufacturing is an effective way that small businesses and startups can accelerate growth.
Kickstarter is one of many online portals that have significantly changed the game in terms of fundraising and market moving product sales. Venture capitalists still fund some startups, of course, but it is no longer the only option for getting new innovations to market. Certainly, a great idea is not enough. To be successful entrepreneurs must be able to get high quality products ready to ship before the market moves on. Waiting around for quotes from a PCB manufacturer is not an option. Fortunately, modern PCB manufacturing service providers offer both final product delivery and prototyping.
Many companies these days have learned that letting employees work on ideas they care about, even if they will never become products for market, is an effective way to retain talent and keep employees happy. Today’s manufacturers support this by helping engineers create prototypes and iterate quickly and for reasonable fees.
The Makers movement has brought together amateur innovators, creators, and designers from many generations all over the world. New advances, like 3D printing have made it easier than ever to make new ideas a reality.
Whether you are a seasoned pro, or a hobbyist who just wants to find out if your PCB design will work, you can find a manufacturing partner that will help you bring your vision to life.