It can take months to design a new product, followed by more months of testing and modifying prototypes. After spending so much time and effort, you want to make sure that your contract PCBA manufacturer can deliver the product you designed.
So when it comes time to vet the manufacturer who’s going to bring your product to life, how do you ensure that you get the quality and reliability your design deserves? And at a price point that makes sense?
Deep Expertise and Broad Experience
There are some basic capabilities that any contract manufacturer should have. At a minimum, the vendor you choose should have deep expertise in both surface-mount technology and through-hole manufacturing. And whether your product calls for using automated or manual tooling, your contractor should have experienced assemblers on staff who can expertly manufacture your cable or harness assembly to the highest technical standards.
The manufacturer should also have experience with a variety of design tools, including CAD and schematic capture software, so they can ensure the most accurate and efficient PCB design and layout, and even catch any issues that might affect product performance.
And of course, experience assembling boards for your particular type of product is a plus, whether your product is a medical device, a consumer gadget, or an ITAR-compliant aerospace component.
PCBA-Specific DFM Expertise
Any PCBA manufacturer you work with should offer a basic DFM (design for manufacturability) review at no cost. This type of review allows your contract manufacturer to design the most efficient assembly process, which can lower your materials and labor costs. For example, a DFM review may enable your contractor to recommend easily accessible standard pieces to replace expensive custom ones, or design an assembly process in which pieces are soldered by machine instead of by hand.
A competent manufacturer can also analyze your board design with the entire product lifecycle in mind. There may be minor modifications that can make your product more sustainable, or easier to recycle at the end of its life—so that you can recover and resell components for a secondary revenue stream.
Certifications, Registrations, and Compliance Experience
An easy way to get a sense of a manufacturer’s capabilities is to look at the certifications they hold. At a minimum, their facilities should be ISO 9001 certified. For added confidence—especially if your device is complex—make sure your provider has SMTA-certified SMT Process Engineers on staff. Depending on your industry, you’ll also want to check for specialty certifications and registrations, like ISO 13485 certification for medical devices, and ITAR registration for defense products. And if you are making a device for the aerospace and defense industry, then your contractor should be accustomed to working on sensitive and restricted products.
Finally, keep in mind that while certifications are important, they’re not enough by themselves to ensure that the manufacturer you’re vetting can deliver what you need. Experience is just as important.
DFT and Quality Control
To ensure a high percentage of viable product, your contract manufacturer should have a quality control program in place. QC starts with rigorous testing of prototypes before production, to make sure there are no performance or regulatory compliance issues. At this early stage, your contractor should also perform a DFT (design for testability) review and recommend small adjustments to ensure easy testing, like adding test points to the bottom of a PCB.
Once products are coming off the assembly line, testing should be conducted regularly to ensure quality standards are maintained and so reduce customer returns. Your manufacturer should use the latest in automated optical inspection (AOI) technology, along with 2D and 3D X-rays, to check for quality, durability, and reliability.
In addition to visual inspections, the manufacturer should also conduct component-level checks and in-circuit verification. This high level of scrutiny is required to detect minute defects, which is especially important for products that must meet stringent performance requirements, such as medical devices and goods destined for the aerospace and defense market.
While no manufacturer can guarantee that every product coming off the assembly line will be perfect, careful testing and stringent quality control measures should achieve first-pass yield rates well above expectations.
Data-Driven, Flexible, and Scalable Capacity
If you’re lucky, demand for your product will exceed your projections. But that kind of popularity won’t translate into sales if your contract manufacturer isn’t able to ramp up production in time to meet increased demand. To respond quickly to changes in demand, your manufacturer should have data analytics tools that can precisely forecast material needs, even for products with cyclical demand.
It’s crucial that the manufacturer you choose be nimble enough to handle small batches. But they should also have the capacity to increase production when needed. This means having ample facilities, a scalable workforce, and the engineering expertise on staff to modify or expand the assembly line quickly and efficiently.
Extensive Supply Network
One of the most important questions to ask when vetting potential manufacturers is: Can they source quality materials and components?
A contract PCBA manufacturer that has been in business for several years should have an extensive network of parts and material suppliers. This means that they can not only source the parts you need, but most likely buy them at a bulk discount that you may not be able to get on your own.
Having a contractor with multiple supplier contacts means production won’t shut down when one parts supplier runs out of a component you need. And if you need to modify your product, your manufacturer should be able to quickly source any new components.
Shipping and Warehousing Services
The ideal manufacturer can also offer forecasting and capacity planning, along with procurement and materials management services. Having all of these services available through one supplier lets you streamline warehousing and distribution, so you can control your inventory more accurately, ramp production up or down as needed, and manage inputs more efficiently.
A manufacturer that offers logistics services can also review your product design with packaging and shipping in mind, so that you end up with a finished product that’s robust enough to not require expensive packaging solutions. And real-time tracking is a must if you want to avoid costly product shortages or overstocks.
Customer Support and Communication
Communication is key to a good working relationship with your contract PCBA manufacturer. No matter how competent your contractor’s team is, if they don’t have clear communication protocols in place, you’ll have a hard time working with them.
For example, contract manufacturers that offer fully automated electronic data interchange (EDI) or web-based interfaces make it easy to implement urgent changes in product configurations or shipping parameters.
But beyond technological considerations lies the simple question: If you reach out to your manufacturing partner, how easy is it to get a hold of someone? The technology is only as responsive as the people using it, which is why it’s important to know what customer service protocols a manufacturer has in place before you contract with them.
What is their policy for responding to queries, for example? Within 24 hours? Within two hours? Will you have a dedicated customer service representative, someone whose name you know and can call whenever you need? Or will you be given a general number that will connect you to whoever happens to be available that day?
If your product is not very complex, customer service may be less of a consideration. But if you’re producing a sophisticated product, you can’t wait for answers to technical questions. And you shouldn’t have to.