To succeed in the electronics and hardware space, a company and it’s engineers must satisfy a consumer or business need with fresh, exciting products. Engineering expertise and strategic timing are exceptionally important factors as well. There is a lot that goes into that process, with one of the key elements being the ability to put together quality prototypes for the developing products with a quick turn around time frame.
In the electronics realm, the key is to formulate an optimally functional circuit board product, an integral part of most electronic devices. Failure to develop quality products is both wasteful in terms of time and investment, and more critically, risks souring the ability of consumer trust and reliance on a product type or a particular brand associated with this it. Therefore, electronics manufacturers should always include a functional Printed Circuit Board (PCB) prototype, as an essential part of the development process.
Because PCB prototyping is an attempt to maximize the quality and efficacy of the product that will eventually go into long-term production, it is essential to leverage it to its maximum capability. While the PCB prototype’s role in the production process cannot be understated, there is a lot to consider regarding it.
Why PCB Prototyping Is Crucial
No one’s idea, no matter how revolutionary or market-disrupting, is infallible. Those who work on developing hardware and software know all too well the mantra of “design, build, test.” During each phase of the production process, rigorous testing is used to ensure all design and functional requirements are satisfied, and the product is performing to its maximum capability. A PCB prototype is a testing trial run of sorts. Testing at every production stage helps to formulate such a prototype, which will ultimately lead to a more robust, bug-free design.
Any errors along the way of the design process ultimately end up being detrimental to the final product if they are not worked out. PCB prototyping helps detect issues early on in the process, avoiding the need for complex and costly redesigns later. Any aspects that call for corrective actions in the early stages are the same elements that will not hold up later production, especially when the product has initiated mass production.
Different Types Of PCB Prototypes
Different parts of the process, as well as different design specifications, call for different PCB prototypes. Even various stages of the process require different prototyping types. Some examples include:
- Visual Modeling: This is an essential blueprint or schema of the PCB design that serves to illustrate the shape and structure of the board. At this point, nothing has been physically manifested, so this is a test of an idea rather than functionality.
- Proof-Of-Concept: Every PCB design is looking to achieve at least one primary function or objective. The proof-of-concept prototype hones in on the intent of the solution that the final product will supply to anyone in need of it. It is, in other words, a test of viability to solve the problem the product is designed to solve. These PCB boards do not contain all of the ultimate capabilities of the product, they simply prove that they will address the thing it’s designed to address.
- Working Prototype: A working prototype is a fully functional, all-inclusive board that is intended to reflect all of the product’s features. This is meant to be the next line of assessment in discovering design shortcomings and the identification of problems. The working prototype will seldom resemble the final product, as it will highlight many issues that need to be addressed.
- Functional Prototype: This PCB prototype is meant to be indicative of how the product’s final design will look and function. This must be the most comprehensive and accurate representation of the final product before it hits the mass production lines.
What Designers Get Out Of PCB Prototyping
Every new addition or alteration to the design could yield unexpected effects. This is especially important when those effects are not of a positive nature. Therefore, designers need to evaluate and test prototypes with each change in order to assure maximum quality. While on initial thought it would seem that drafting a PCB prototype for every change to the design of a product seems excessive and costly, it is important to consider the flip side of that thought.
Prototypes are essential to the design process as they permit designers to test the product at various stages of its development life and make the necessary changes and improvements before initiating a full production run. Doing so offers multiple critical advantages.
- Shorter Development Time: One may question how PCB prototyping, which involves additional testing every step of the way makes the process shorter. However, here are a few important considerations to keep in mind.
- By producing contemporary prototypes, designers can illustrate the design to a client. By having a visual aid, as an illustration, the explanations can be demonstrations rather than often hard to comprehend theoretical ideas, reducing the confusion, questions, and requests for a redesign.
- By having an up-to-date PCB prototype, guesswork is eliminated from the testing process, allowing designers to more readily and accurately identify problems with the current design.
- If PCB prototyping is foregone, with the boards heading right for mass production, if there are problems, the entire process could be a wash. Redesigns will be called for after a lot of time and money has been spent on the production process itself.
- Solving Problems During, Instead Of At The End: By having a PCB prototype, issues with the board can be addressed during the development process, eliminating them along the way, resulting in an optimally efficient final product.
- Inefficiency And Defect Reduction: A designer gets very invested in his or her project, so some errors are hard to see objectively. By testing PCB prototypes, third-party personnel can detect those areas that designers may have missed or neglected to consider.
- Individual Component Testing: Prototypes allow individual components from a board to get tested separately. This enables a more focused testing method to find underlying issues with the product’s specific parts.
- Efficient Results: If prototypes endure rigorous testing, by the time the design arrives at its final product the great majority of the faults and problems have likely been worked out, leaving a more optimal design.
- Cost Efficiency: It would seem that paying for prototype development is expensive, but in truth, having to scrap a massive batch of manifested products, or worse, realize some major faults that could have been caught with PCB testing got through to the final design and needing to start at square one with an updated process, is far more costly and wasteful. With prototypes, the expenses involved serve as an optimization budget of sorts to forego worse costs down the line.
Identifying A Quality Rapid PCB Prototyping Vendor
Building circuit boards is pretty standard practice, but the prototyping of each product will need to require a level of specialization. Production vendors offer such solutions in some cases. But as with anything else, not all are created equal. Here are a few key characteristics to consider when looking for a vendor to serve as a prototyping partner:
- Engineers On Staff: Inevitably, the vendor will run across some type of electrical or mechanical problem with one or more components. A quality vendor will have engineering staff on standby to quickly address any component-related issues straightaway.
- Quality Reputation: Non-prototype vendors are not an ideal choice as they are largely a waste of budget funds. Manufacturing a product without offering to prototype allows for more mistakes to slip through affecting the final design, as well as your brand’s reputation.
- Transition To Production Capacity: Since the point of rapid prototyping is to build a board that is ready and optimized for mass production, it makes sense that the vendor who will get the product ready through prototyping should be equipped to send it into full production. This includes not only the infrastructure for such an action but also avoiding long-term production hindering component life-cycle issues that can slow or halt effective production.
If the COVID pandemic taught us anything in terms of production, it is best to work with local PCB manufacturers than large foreign facilities. While the latter may end up being cheaper in bulk, there is far less reliability. COVID forced many of the offshore vendors to shut down, even if temporarily, while many smaller domestic vendors stayed open and were able to continue prototyping and producing products that consumers everywhere required.
Vinatronic has specialized pick and place lines set up specifically for prototyping and small run builds. Our 25yrs of experience helping engineers prototype PCB assemblies has allowed us to catch issues early in the design process leading to more successful production runs. If you have a new design you need manufactured, please reach out to our staff, we are eager to help.