A Step-by-Step Process to get the Perfect PCBs for Your Business and Electronic Device Needs

Perfect PCBs

The digital and electronics sector has seen a huge level of uncertainty linked to the supply and production of the simplest of components. The humble microchip and printable circuit board components (PCB) have been some of these electrical components that may be small and somewhat simple to create, and yet a shortage of the parts used to make PCBs and chips has led to a huge amount of uncertainty and downturn in the electrical and digital economy.

As a sign of how drastic these shortages were it has been estimated that the global automotive sector lost over $210 Billion (US) due to loss in sales assigned to the lack of chips and PCBS. This article will show you how your business can sidestep this ongoing shortage and instead, source or create the precise PCB for your business or personal needs.

What is the PCB and its Importance in Modern Times

The Printed circuit board (PCB) is the heart and basis of all electronic and digital devices. It is the component most likely to protect your system against circuit breaks and electrical communication errors. It is important to understand the need and the expected use of these PCBs as a starting point and to have a clear idea as to what your business or enterprise needs and uses the PCB for. You may very well, as was seen in the recent past, have the best looking and working automobile in the world, but without the simple yet effective PCB and semiconductors or series of microchips it simply won’t move. Similarly, the best computer hardware and software with a faulty PCB will be nothing but scrap.

Once you understand you specific PCB needs and know why this tiny component is important for your specific business you will be able to decide on a cogent way forward – and be able to make a decision as to where you intend to source the PCB and what type of PCB you will require.

We live in a digital age where most people rely on electronic and digital equipment and as such also rely on the functionality and durability of PCBs in this equipment. You thus need to get their manufacture and design just right, if you intend your products to meet the expectations of the user.

Outsource

Outsource the entire process and you can stop reading here, but you should expect increased prices and can never really be sure of the resultant and persistent quality. The downside to the recent shortage in quality PCB components has been that there has been a rush to market of lesser quality parts and components and thus outsourcing in the current climate is a risk that many businesses just can’t afford to take.

Outsourcing the production and design of your business PCBs had previously been seen as the best way to achieve production levels and was the main way most businesses went about reaching their expected production levels. The production of PCBs was left to the so-called experts and there was never a thought as to possible shortages and issues with supply of these components.

The benefits of outsourcing PCB design and production

Your business should be able to focus on the core business and leave this component part to others to make. Outsourcing the PCB design and production process was for a long time the most efficient process and means of getting the PCB into the electronic devices and products that are being made.

You will be able to access the skills and capabilities that you do not have within the business, thus having access to the best skills and expertise in the sector. The advanced design skills and manufacturing capabilities are the key to any outsourced PCB production and thus, if this is your preferred route you will need to do some serious research and investigation as to who you will trust enough to design and make the bits of tech that drive your products.

As long as the design is simple and straightforward, you will be able to achieve the volumes that you want by outsourcing. Using a factory set up to produce the PCBs that you need is likely the only way that you will be able to meet the production numbers that electrical manufacturers will need.

Disadvantages of outsourcing your PCB production and design

Quality is one of the main disadvantages of outsourcing. Over the recent past, as the shortage of chips and PCBs raged, quality of component parts and finished PCBs plummeted as many more producers attempted to benefit from the huge demand and substandard components and PCBs were put out to market.

Keep in mind that you can outsource various processes of the PCB production process, many keep design internal and then outsource the manufacture to the precise design specifications that they have provided.

Design Your Own PCB

This has become the preferred way forward for many businesses, both big and small.

Understand the electrical parameters of the device or system

You need to know what the maximum power restrictions are as well as the type and location of components and connectors. How much space will you have and thus how big or small does it need to be. These are the preliminary parameter questions that will allow you to understand the space within which you are working and what your end product needs to have as a minimum and also as a maximum.

Create a schematic

This will be a diagram or electrical design, not yet a mechanical representation. However, it is the first step in putting all the information down and starting the actual design process, generally using  PCB design software. Then you will be able to create the PCB layout and using the appropriate software design tools you will be able to see how the PCB can fit into the device itself.

How you can now get the exact PCB that you need in your business has now become a great deal simpler with the available software and technology, For example the ability to use the Gerber viewer in the design phase means that you can clearly see how the finished PCB will look, function and be shaped to exacting standards and specifications. It is the availability of this software and the various Altium design alternatives that can be used to improve and simplify the design process and provide this support you may need to design a bespoke and exact PCB for the needs of your production.

Test and simulate power and circuitry

Once you have finalized the design, either outsourced or designed internally you will need to test, test, test. Newer software derivatives will allow you to perform such electrical and power testing without having to actually make the PCB. Testing circuity and power allowances can be done using a prototype design, but in most cases, it is now done using the design software itself, without the need to manufacture the hardware. Thus is the most cost-effective means of testing the design and can also be done by professionals.

It is at this point that all the design rules and requirements can be established and confirmed with the manufacturer. There are PCB standards and accepted industry criteria that must be followed.

Price and source the components

Have a great PCB design is but the first step and you will need to ensure that all of the components in your design are available and then price these raw materials or component parts. At this phase or stage, you may find that you have to substitute and replace those components that are not currently available or look for alternatives.

Order in Time

In order to avoid the delays in production and face the ignominy of not being able to meet your customer needs and product demand because you have no PCBs, you should order the constituent components as early as possible. Once you know the price and what is available and where – don’t delay, order the parts and ensure that you monitor and follow up on their delivery to receive them well before you actually need them. Keep in mind that the PCB is likely to be the component that gets the electrical or digital device working, and as such until you have the right PCBs, you may not be able to turn a profit or get any goods to market.

Manufacture or Have an Engineer Put Your Design Into Practice

With a cogent, tested design and a clear knowledge of the prices for parts you will now be able to manufacture the PCB. Generally, you will need a sterile/dust free environment to do this and if it is to be done in-house, then you may need to invest in the facilities to keep the production process sterile and dust free. Alternatively have a contracted electrical engineer or IT specialist manufacture and construct the PCB.

Look to Follow Small Batch Production Methods

One of the best ways to ensure that you maintain quality and get the precise design and product that you need from a PCB you’re making in house, is to follow small batch production. Make as many PCBs as you need at one time, but not enough to lose too much money if they need to be re-worked.

Communication is Key

It is vital to have an open and clear line of communication between the PCB project team and the business management and the PCB manufacturer especially if they are outsourced. The only way to ensure the precise product that you need is to have a number of revisions and changes as you go through the design phase. This will only be achieved using ongoing communication throughout the process. It is rare that a printed circuit board is developed perfectly the first time and it is only in the testing phase (whether still online or in the device itself) that you will be able to determine whether you have the PCB that you need or whether you will need to make a few changes.

The Environment the PCB Will Be In

It is vital to consider the environment within which the PCB will be functioning. A great example of this aspect gone wrong occurred in the automotive sector during the extreme shortage of microchips and semiconductors. Automotive manufacturers looked to other, less well-known supplies to produce and supply the PCBs they required. The resultant PCBs were found to a large extent to be substandard because they had not been built or spec’d to deal with the high temperatures found in the combustion engine drive vehicles that the PCBs were intended to power and start. It is thus of vital importance to include the operating conditions of the PCB at the very early phases of design.

Do Not Rush This Process

No matter how long it takes to design and then build and inset the PCB into the product at hand, you need to follow the steps as suggested and ensure that each one is taken to completion in the right way. Do not rush the PCB production/design and implementation process as it is this tiny component that will essentially be responsible for driving or slowing your products. Yes, the PCB may look and sound simple, but without it (and a quality one at that) there can be no vehicle sales, no starter motor, no computer gaming nor online entertainment and media of any sort.

Concluding Comments

Every single electrical or digital device needs to have a PCB to determine connectivity and power circuitry. The detailed step by step guide provided herein will allow you to implement a cogent and clear PCB strategy for your business. The major decision to be made is whether to outsource the entire process or whether you feel that with the great range of PCB design software packages available you can keep this process inhouse and produce the exact PCBs that your business needs at a fraction of the cost.

Anand Narayanaswamy is the editor-in-chief of Netans. He was recognized as a Microsoft Most Valuable Professional (MVP) for 9 years (2002 to 2011) and again as a Microsoft MVP in Surface under Windows and Devices in January 2024. He worked as a Chief Technical Editor with ASPAlliance and was part of ASPInsider program. Anand has published several articles and reviews related to various software and hardware products for various software and technology related websites. He is also active on social media and also participates as an Influencer for various brands. Anand can be reached at admin@netans.com

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