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It’s time to prepare for prototype manufacturing
In the first two parts of this series, we went over some of the important planning and design steps required to create your new product. By this point, you should have a design that you are ready to validate as a real prototype. Now it comes time to find a manufacturer and plan for production.
On your first prototyping run, you will likely be ordering a small number of boards, and you will need to test all of them to ensure they work as designed. This is the moment of truth, where you find out if your design choices will produce the functionality your market desires and whether your PCB will actually function as a real device. At this point, your concern should be electrical performance of the device, so you won’t need to order an enclosure unless its mechanical aspects are a core requirement for your new product.
Finding and Consulting a Manufacturer
In the old days, you would find some investors, set up your manufacturing capacity, and start turning out widgets. These days, it makes more sense to contract out your production to a specialized manufacturer. When you’re ready to produce your new design, you’ll need to contact a manufacturer and consult with them regarding their manufacturing capabilities, lead times, minimum order quantity, prices, and design documents required to begin production. Not all manufacturers will produce low volume runs, and this is an important requirement when planning to produce a prototype.
Regarding producing the volume you want, your manufacturer will generally produce a group of boards as a panel, so you’ll need to panelize your board in your design software. The standard panel size is 18 by 24 inches, but you should check with your manufacturer as they may be able to work with other panel sizes. Try to arrange your board so that you can fit as many copies as possible into a single panel.
In addition to creating panels, there are a number of other deliverables that you will need to generate for your manufacturer. This includes a bill of materials, Gerber files for your board, assembly drawings, design files, board fabrication specs, and any other information your manufacturer requires to properly tool their process to produce your board. Your bill of materials is more than just a list of parts; it should include sourcing information, reference designators for each component, and at least one possible replacement for each component in the board.
Sourcing Your Components
Another factor in manufacturing planning is component sourcing. Your components need to come from somewhere, and you should take some time to look into the supply chain to determine component availability when preparing for production. For many common components, such as simple passive components, you’ll generally find that these components are readily available, although there have been passive component shortages lately. However, very large manufacturers tend to keep some commonly-used passive components in stock, giving you some insulation against changes in the supply chain.
In the event your desired components can’t be sourced, you will need to swap them out for suitable replacements. If you checked availability of your desired components early in the design process, then you’ve got a good chance of avoiding a long lead time. Be careful as the supply chain landscape can change quickly. There’s no reason to sit around waiting to take delivery of your boards for longer than is necessary, and you can prevent long lead times by paying close attention to the supply chain.
Your manufacturer can only do so much to properly source your components
Once you’ve found a manufacturer that is willing to produce the volume you want, and you’ve created your panels and other deliverables, you’ll need to have your design reviewed by the manufacturer. Your manufacturer will perform DFM and DFA checks in order to guarantee that your board is manufacturable. They may suggest changes that will help prevent low yield, and they may be able to quickly modify your design to meet their process requirements. In some cases, they may send your design back for modifications before beginning production.
With any luck, you won’t have to make major changes to your design, or your manufacturer can make these minor changes for you. Once your board moves into the production and assembly phase, it’s time to sit back and wait for your prototypes to arrive in the mail. In the meantime, you should plan out the tests you will need to perform with your prototypes.
Once you receive your prototypes, it’s time to test them out
Testing Your Prototypes
When you test your prototypes, you’ll need to check all electrical functionality to ensure power integrity and signal integrity. You’ll want to check for problems like ringing, signal reflections, board temperature, and any other performance aspects you can think of. It is a good idea to take your prototype and test it in its deployment environment to ensure that it can withstand operating demands. The results from these tests will determine any necessary redesigns.
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