Save Money and Keep PCB Pricing Down with Consistent Documentation Tools

Zachariah Peterson
|  Created: December 16, 2020
Save Money and Keep PCB Costs Down with Consistent Documentation Tools

Calculating PCB costs requires professional PCB drawing tools with mechanical and electrical standards incorporated intelligently for aggressive pricing. But how to reduce PCB cost?


PCB design tools are capable of tracking costs and keeping production expenditures within the budget.

Altium drill file

Produce low-cost instructions with elegant drill files

Calculating printed circuit board fabrication and assembly costs requires knowledge of the design. The design is communicated in the fabrication and assembly documents. The design incorporates material selection including copper, plating, and laminates for the fabrication. It incorporates stackup management to include impedance control, drill holes, and plating. Once fabricated, assembly houses take the blank board and solder components onto them to make the final board. Each fabrication and assembly house has guidelines for achieving design intent and these requirements drive PCB fabrication and assembly costs.

Knowledge of the design is communicated in the design documents. The design documents include the Gerber files, drill files, Bill of Materials, and assembly instructions. The fabricator consults the Gerbers which must include notes specifying the stack-up and other specifications such as drill hole size and associated pads. Materials selected to achieve the stack-up together with tooling drive pricing. Next comes assembly, and the assembler consults the Bill of Materials, and any notes to determine special handling that will drive costs.

Getting clear instructions from your fabrication and assembly vendors is critical for accurate pricing. Accurate pricing comes from instructions included on, or with, PCB documents that clearly reflect the same information. Stackup notes must match each Gerber layer. Drill hole sizes and pads must match Gerber files. Bills of Material must contain at least one part for every reference designator on the silkscreen files. Components listed on the BoM must contain accurate vendor parts numbers and, in best cases, alternate parts to enable competitive pricing. A good document package clearly communicates design needs to your fabricators and your assemblers resulting in pricing availability well before building dates.

Fabrication Guidelines and StackUp Drive PCB Assembly Cost

Knowledge of vendor design guidelines is the first step to getting a PCB assembly successfully priced. Designing a PCB includes the ability to source materials and apply design constraints defined in the PCB documentation. Communication with fabricators and with assemblers enables engineers to specify materials, drilling, and components that the fabricators and the assemblers can achieve. Eliminate the need to make special requests in the middle of your build by working with your vendors to understand their needs for a successful build.

Altium’s Output job file coordinates build files

Use elegant tools to remove cost when supplying build files

Work with Fabricators and Assemblers to Follow Design Guidelines

A cost-effective build results when designers communicate and follow vendor design guidelines. Knowing design guidelines at your vendor house allows for careful selection of materials and thoughtful preparation of documents. With thoughtful preparation of stack-up guidelines and assembly instructions, your documents contain realizable PCB assemblies at the best cost.

Once you’ve reviewed build guidelines and considered build practices to minimize costs, it is time to prepare your design and supporting documents.

PCB Fabrication and Assembly Document Guidelines

Useful software is available to document the design and to prepare fabrication and assembly document containers. PCB software continues to evolve alongside historical growth in the PCB industry. Early software provided document formats to communicate information necessary to build printed circuit board assemblies. These documents continue to include Gerber files to communicate the graphical location of layers, nets, through-holes, and components to make completed PCB assembly. Assembly instructions, the centroid for X-Y locations of components, layer stack-ups, silkscreen, drill files, and other fabrication drawings may all be prepared in PCB software.

Cost Manufacturing Using Fab and Assembly Design Guidelines

Follow design constraints from your manufacturing vendor design guidelines that support aggressive pricing. Use PCB software to document the details necessary to realize the final PCB assembly price. PCB software is designed to produce Gerber files so fabricators can set the vectors in tooling to realize the design represented in the layout files. Stackup information contains material specifications that develop costing to realize the final designed board. Assembly documents contain vital notes that detail drill hole diameters on pad sizes. All the details contained in the assembly notes inform the cost of producing the boards. By reviewing the details with the fabricators and the assemblers before handing off the document containers for build results in a review of documents before build. Technical queries are identified and resolved, keeping costs low.

Keeping track of design guidelines while ensuring design intent to support aggressive costing demands state-of-the-art PCB software. Let’s take a look at Altium’s progressive tools.

Altium’s Draftsman tool

Altium’s Draftsman collects information for costing in one place

Altium Draftsman Pulls It Together and Keeps Costs Low

Providing documents that clearly communicate design intent while keeping costs low is ideal. Historically, PCB software has failed to provide clean document containers able to maintain low costing. Altium resolves document mismatches by maintaining documents in a unified environment. There is no need to import or export formats locked with design details that could change without notice. Instead, any changes made within any editor within Altium’s unified environment propagate to design containers keeping version control in check.

Bring PCB Container Files Into the Future With Altium’s Unified Editors

Altium not only keeps version control in its unified environment, but it also provides advanced formats such as ODB++ or IPC-2581. Both ODB++ and IPC-2581 are unified in their own right and provide all details of PCB builds in one place. Remove the need for Read Me files or intricate notes placed on assembly documents.

Remove the need to reinvent the wheel every time you add detail or make a change in your PCBA design. No longer will you need to know how to calculate PCB cost per square inch while using design software that keeps you informed every step of the way. Your PCB manufacturer will be grateful, your production process will be smooth, and you can worry more about things a designer should worry about like signal integrity.

Don’t let your PCB manufacturing fall by the wayside. Make sure notions such as panel usage, copper thickness, solder mask, and other facets in the manufacturing process can be articulated clearly. Use Altium’s environment to document your manufacturer’s design guidelines for building best-in-class at the lowest cost.

About Author

About Author

Zachariah Peterson has an extensive technical background in academia and industry. He currently provides research, design, and marketing services to companies in the electronics industry. Prior to working in the PCB industry, he taught at Portland State University and conducted research on random laser theory, materials, and stability. His background in scientific research spans topics in nanoparticle lasers, electronic and optoelectronic semiconductor devices, environmental sensors, and stochastics. His work has been published in over a dozen peer-reviewed journals and conference proceedings, and he has written 2000+ technical articles on PCB design for a number of companies. He is a member of IEEE Photonics Society, IEEE Electronics Packaging Society, American Physical Society, and the Printed Circuit Engineering Association (PCEA). He previously served as a voting member on the INCITS Quantum Computing Technical Advisory Committee working on technical standards for quantum electronics, and he currently serves on the IEEE P3186 Working Group focused on Port Interface Representing Photonic Signals Using SPICE-class Circuit Simulators.

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