We’ve written extensively on topics related to ensuring that the PCB manufacturing process goes smoothly; such as, common problems with Gerber files and how to avoid them, and, fabrication drawing and notes to include with the design data. But today, we’re going to take a higher-level view of the process, from idea to ready for manufacturing, and offer up our recommendations on steps to follow to ensure the desired outcome is achieved.
- Develop your idea. You’ve got an idea to change the world, or, your boss has given you an assignment and needs it completed yesterday, but in either case you need to design a PCB. Many engineers begin by building a proof of concept, or prototype, using off-the-shelf components from awesome places like Adafruit. This is a great place to start but once you’ve nailed the functionality, it’s time to progress to something purpose-built with the exact form & function desired.
- Consider the costs. To ensure your idea becomes reality, make sure the factors that drive PCB costs are carefully considered. Understanding these factors upfront, will enable you to design with this information in mind, keep costs to a minimum, and ultimately improve the chance your product will see the light of day.
- Create your schematic & design. Start with a schematic and then convert the schematic to an actual PCB design. Fine-tune the layout, circuits and functionality. (We realize we’re dedicating few words to a relatively large effort, but for this post, we’re going to assume you have some PCB design capability. If not, don’t fear, there are many great, free resources available to help including our own PCB design software, PCB Creator, which comes along with an extensive tutorial.)
- Run a design rule check. All PCB design applications have some sort of built-in design rule check (DRC) capability. This is meant to check a design against a defined set of rules to flag any areas which may be in violation. This does not mean that the PCB design cannot be manufactured – it simply means that the design falls outside of the parameters set inside the tool. However, a good best practice is to configure the DRC parameters to match the design rules of the PCB manufacturer you intend to work with. This will ensure the design is compatible with your manufacturer’s capabilities.
- Work out the bugs. After running a design rule check, you may uncover a few problems.
If that happensWhen that happens, repeat the steps above until you have a bug-free design and are ready to move forward.
If you’ve made it this far, your design is complete and you’re ready to progress with manufacturing (pat yourself on the back!). But, before you send off your files to the PCB manufacturer, there are a few more steps to prepare the necessary information.
- Export the needed files. Don’t send your PCB manufacturer the source file you generated with the PCB design software. Instead, “export” your files into a universal format that can be interpreted by all manufacturers, such as Gerber or ODB++. Make sure the files are properly labeled and packaged. Not sure what all to include? Check out our recent post: “Are You Providing Your PCB Manufacturer With the Correct Files?“.
- Ensure your files can be read. Now that you’ve exported your PCB design files to a manufacturing format (e.g. Gerber), how can you be sure that the design has exported accurately and completely? Send the exported data to your PCB manufacturer and request a Design for Manufacturability (DFM) report. The manufacturer will evaluate your data using their own manufacturing software tools to ensure the data is complete and within their capabilities. At Bay Area Circuits, we’ve made this step even easier by offering our online DFM tool, InstantDFM, for free to all users. Simply upload your PCB design files and within 1-2 minutes, receive a DFM report. Any design rule violations or missing files will be identified, giving you the opportunity to resolve these issues before proceeding. Piece of cake, huh?
- Provide additional project details. The manufacturing data you’ve prepared contains most of the important characteristics of your design but it’s not always enough. For example, if you require a special surface finish or material type, this will need to be specified elsewhere. Often, “elsewhere” means fabrication drawings and notes. This may sound intimidating to new designers, but don’t be deterred; this information doesn’t need to be sophisticated – it just needs to be communicated.
- Submit files for quote. You’ve come a long way and are finally ready to gather pricing for your project. Send your manufacturer the exported design data, any fab drawings/notes along with any other special instructions such as preferred quantities and lead times. Additionally, although we didn’t discuss in this post, the manufacturer will also require a Bill of Materials (BOM) if you’re going to request a quote for the PCB assembly (in addition to PCB bare board fabrication).
- Place your order. Review the price quote options provided by the manufacturer and it’s time to make a selection and place an order! If the quote wasn’t what you expected, be sure to discuss options with your manufacturer. For example, manufacturers will be able to provide options to allow you to achieve a more desirable price point, such as lengthening the lead time, or modifying the board characteristics where flexibility exists.
We hope this checklist makes it a bit easier to navigate the design to manufacturing process. Now the real work begins. Best of luck on that first “smoke” test!
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