How to choose a PCB manufacturer
As the competition in the PCB manufacturing industry intensifies, engineers and purchasing officers are spoilt for choice, but selecting the right supplier is not easy. Below are some points to consider when choosing a PCB manufacturer.
Standards and accreditations
It is important to choose a manufacturer that has a UL-certified facility. UL is a global independent company that certifies, validates, tests, inspects, audits, advises and educates. The company helps businesses navigate growing complexities across the supply chain from compliance and regulatory issues to trade challenges and market access. The key UL standard for rigid and flexible PCBs (printed wiring boards) is UL796. For Flexible Materials Interconnect Constructions (FMICs), the correct UL standard is UL796F.
UL796 requires the use of UL94, the standard for flammability of all plastic material. The most common flammability ratings for PCBs are UL94 V-0 and UL94 V-1. UL94 V-0 indicates a sample stops burning within 10 seconds (30 seconds for UL94 V-1) after the source of ignition was removed. While burning, dripping of particles is allowed as long as they are not inflamed.
To provide a proof to your end customer that PCBs have been manufactured in UL-approved facilities, you may ask your PCB supplier to either provide a certificate or print a UL logo/number on PCBs.
Founded in 1957, the IPC is known as the “Association Connecting Electronics Industries". The IPC's aim is to standardise the assembly and production requirements of electronic equipment.
IPC is an ANSI-accredited standards developing organisation. The following IPC standards apply to rigid and flexible PCBs:
- IPC-A-600 — Acceptability of Printed Circuit Boards
- IPC-6010 — Family of Board Performance Documents ie, series of standards
- IPC-6011 — Generic performance specification for PCBs
- IPC-6012C — Qualification and Performance Specification for Rigid PCBs
- IPC-6013C — Qualification and Performance Specification for Flexible PCBs
- IPC-6015 to IPC-6018 — Qualification and Performance Specification for specialised PCBs (ie, HDI, high frequency etc)
If you want to manufacture rigid and flexible PCBs, please ensure that your manufacturer follows IPC-6012 and IPC-6013 standards respectively. Following IPC-A-600 is not enough as it offers only visual interpretation of various inspection requirements.
Under IPC-6012, PCBs (both rigid and flexible) are manufactured in three different classes according to the usage:
- Class 1 PCB — General Electronic Products
- Class 2 PCB — Dedicated Service Electronic Products
- Class 3 PCB — High Reliability Electronic Products (Class 3/A for space and military avionics)
The major difference in these classes is in the degree of inspection and the level of acceptance — from class 1 being strict to class 3 the strictest level of acceptance.
It is advisable to choose a PCB manufacturer with ISO 9001 certification and preferably ISO 14001 certification. ISO certification ensures that the holder follows a quality management system and standard documentation, which helps to track and control process variations and maintain consistent quality.
The electronics industry in Australia and New Zealand is focused more on research and development as against high-volume production. This is primarily because these markets have highly skilled engineers but labour is expensive. Due to the high volume of research and development activities, local electronics engineers always work on new designs and technologies. Therefore, it is also important for local PCB manufacturers to keep up to date with the latest technologies and processes. If your PCB manufacturer is not technically sound, your design requirements may be misinterpreted and you may end up wasting more time explaining the designs or correcting errors.
Poor communication can cost your business time and money. It's important to choose a manufacturer that: replies to your emails and return phone calls fairly quickly; studies your data and technical specifications in detail; clarifies technical issues before the design gets released to the production department; prepares their own technical document and lists your design requirements either in writing or using pictures to avoid misinterpretation; shares bad news as quickly as they share good news.
As they say, you get what you pay for. It is unlikely that your manufacturer offers best quality products, technical expertise and flawless communication and is also the cheapest. As long as the pricing is reasonably competitive and the transaction offers good value for money, you've got a good deal.
The real test of reliability is not when products are delivered on time, every time. What's more important is your manufacturer's approach and attitude when something goes wrong. It is unlikely that everything will run smoothly every time in the real world. If your manufacturer has the willingness and dedication to correct things at any cost without wasting time, then look no further.
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