“It can be done fast, it can be done cheaply, or it can be done well. Pick any two.” A lot of engineers use this maxim to explain why their project is behind schedule or over budget. And there is some degree of truth to it. If you want a high quality design, it’s either going to take a lot of money, or a lot of time figuring out how to do it for less. However, if you know a few money saving techniques ahead of time, they can help you keep your costs down without reducing quality.
Here are 5 techniques that you can use in your PCB design.
1. Use Premade Specifications. Engineers can sometimes design in a vacuum. They come up with a solution that’s beautiful on paper, but may end up costing an arm and a leg to get it implemented. Therefore, one of the best money saving techniques you can use is to think through from the beginning how much time, effort, and money your design will take to manufacture. For instance, when trying to solve a problem in your PCB design, ask yourself if anyone else has come across it before. Then, look to see how they solved it. It’s a lot easier and less time-consuming than starting from scratch every time. However, there’s also another practical reason to use premade design specifications. Familiar specifications can be automated in assembly, rather than placed and soldered by hand. That way, it’s easier, faster, and cheaper for everyone.
2. Panelize. Panelization places multiple PCBs on the same panel, in order to process them more quickly and allow for bulk manufacturing, as all of them are being processed at once, instead of one at a time. In this way, the boards can also be secured during manufacturing, as well as during shipping and assembly. Not only that, but panelization can help keep costs down. PCBs are generally priced per panel, so the more of them you can fabricate on a single panel, the less you’ll end up paying.
3. Get Outside Opinions. Time is money. One of the quickest ways to over-inflate your budget is to discover a mistake too late and have to go back to the drawing board to fix it. It requires more time and labor to solve the problem, while increasing your time to market. So to avoid that, it helps to have an extra set of eyes: someone who isn’t as close to the project as your team is, and can provide a fresh perspective. Having someone you trust from another team take a look at your design can help you catch errors and resolve problems sooner, allowing the PCB to be finished more quickly, saving money and reducing time to market.
4. Use the Same Assembly House for Prototyping and Production. Once your design is complete, it’s time for prototyping. Some designers do their prototyping in-house, or use a separate assembly house for prototyping than they do for bulk design. However, assuming you’re confident that the design is locked in place, and there won’t be many changes between prototyping and production, it would behoove you to use one assembly house for both—and to get started on mass production as soon as possible. In general, material costs for your PCB are going to be fairly low—and even lower if you buy in bulk. The major cost comes from the time it takes the assembly house to put together a brand new PCB. It takes time to review the design and clarify any points of confusion. It takes even more time to load the parts into the pick and place machine correctly. And it takes workers time to get used to the assembly and get into the groove of production. If you start them off with prototyping, then by the time they get to mass production, the assembly process will go much faster, saving you time and money.
5. Bring the Manufacturer into the Process. This comes back again to not designing in a vacuum. Provide the manufacturer with helpful information that will aid them in producing your PCB design: any issues, special requirements, or causes for concern. They might be able to offer suggestions to mitigate these issues—as well as point out other issues or problems that you hadn’t anticipated. For instance, one of your materials might be in short supply, raising the cost of manufacture considerably or delaying your project. The manufacturer would be in a better position to know about this than the designers, and can help you find another material that will do the same job for a lower cost.
These are just a few of the money saving techniques you can use to get a quality PCB design for a lower cost. What are some of the ways you cut costs on PCB design? What are some sources of extra time and expense that you’d like to cut down on? Let us know in the comments below.
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About the Author
David currently serves as a Sr. Technical Marketing Engineer at Altium and is responsible for managing the development of technical marketing materials for all Altium products. He also works closely with our marketing, sales, and customer support teams to define product strategies including branding, positioning, and messaging. David brings over 15 years of experience in the EDA industry to our team, and he holds an MBA from Colorado State University and a B.S. in Electronics Engineering from Devry Technical Institute.
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