Seamless PCB Manufacturing from Concept to Customer
When it comes to choosing an electronics contract manufacturer you may have more options than you think. Overseas manufacturers with long lead times, high minimum orders, and complex requirements are no longer the only choice for designers, engineers and supply chain professionals.
Today you can find a CM 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. Many CMs can give you an easier experience with more reliable data and competitive prices, so you can bring products to market faster.
A Brief History of Manufacturing
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.
We’ve been making stuff since the beginning
You might think of mass production like auto factories, 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.
In Comes Agile Manufacturing
Production of products outside of the US is often considered 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 the market. Businesses of all sizes want the ability to create new products, especially electronic devices quickly and affordably.
On-demand manufacturing empowers innovation
The cost and challenges of working with a large overseas manufacturer were once significant barriers for modern inventors. PCB assembly was too slow and prototyping was 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 needed to emerge.
These days, there are self-service oriented, cloud-based, agile PCB manufacturing organizations that effectively serve the need for cost-effective, rapid PCB prototyping while also building in high volumes for their customers. This allows a customer to onboard one CM for all of their PCB assembly production, reducing risks associated with using multiple CMs.
In addition, seamless communication between people and computing systems makes rapid innovation possible. Obstacles that made it difficult for businesses 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 easily. Creative products are manufactured with creative processes, and that’s good for everyone.
The Six Stages of PCB Manufacturing
Trouble-free PCB Prototyping
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 CM that does PCB prototyping in North America will speed the process and reduce risks associated with overseas shipping and vendor management.
Turn-key PCB Manufacturing
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, mid to high volumes, so that you can be supported by one vendor as you grow your business. This flexibility is possible because the vendor leverages a network of factories and sophisticated software that matches your project’s requirements to a factory’s capabilities. This means your job is sent to the factory best-suited for your build, every time.
Modern electronics contract manufacturers manage all of the supply chain sourcing and ordering for you, so the process is frictionless. The same free digital manufacturing platform 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.
Integrated Electronic Device Assembly
Your PCB is likely destined to be incorporated into one or more electronic devices, so why not choose a CM 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 secondary 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.
On-site Inventory Management
Once your product is complete, a full-service CM offers inventory management and warehousing services, freeing you from the expensive and time-consuming task of storing and administering your inventory.
Automated Order Fulfillment
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.
PCB Assembly, Redefined
Leading-edge CMs understand the pains of the traditional model of electronics manufacturing. They are building systems to overcome those frustrations, including guaranteed quality, outstanding customer support and a network of factories so your production timeline no longer gets delayed. Beating your competition and delivery to your customers on time is paramount. Furthermore, all of these systems are powered by their online platform, providing a single source of truth and accountability for your operations.
Engineers, use a self-service platform to upload your design files and BOM. From there, you can quickly see your price in real-time. Adjust quantities as needed to view price changes, verify your parts placement and place your order with a few clicks. This model allows you to iterate on your prototypes faster and with a digital manufacturing platform, you can manage version control easier. Once prototypes are finalized, your buyer can work with the CM’s Sales team and use the same platform to request quotes for high volume production. Your files are in one place for easy access, all the time.
Supply Chain Professionals
Once your Engineers have finalized your prototype and it’s saved in a secure digital manufacturing platform, use the same CM for mid to high volume production. A CM with a network of factories means they have hundreds of manufacturing lines at your disposal. Itemized quotes are delivered faster with reliable data so you can make decisions and forecasting easier. What’s more, a CM that is based in the U.S. with factories in North America means your designs are further protected from loss of intellectual property, which keeps you competitive. Guaranteed quality, excellent customer service, and competitive pricing are some of the elements that go into delivering better electronics manufacturing at every turn.