Tips for Time Critical PCB’s

Can you relate to this common scenario? A quotation is received for the fabrication of three different PCB part numbers and a purchase order is placed for delivery in five days, on a time-critical project.

A few hours later, the dreaded email is received. There are questions regarding the design that are putting the project on hold. It takes a day, or possibly two, to coordinate the resolution of the questions between your customer, the PCB designer and the fabricator.

Next, you are informed that the delivery date for the PCB’s is pushed out for the two day delay in answering questions. Ugh! Now the schedule has to be adjusted, the components you paid a premium for will be sitting there waiting for the boards, and your customer is NOT happy.

This scenario occurs time and time again. Approximately 90% of designs that go through CAD/CAM at a PCB fabricator have questions that must be answered before the fabricator can start the board manufacturing. Some questions are minor and can be answered quickly; others can require a partial or complete redesign of the PCB.

Elizabeth Foradori and I sat down to discuss our thoughts and ideas on how to best work with PCB fabricators to reduce the likelihood of any delays during time-critical development of a new product.   Chapters could be written on this topic, but our hope is that these ideas provide a basis to encourage discussion early in the design process.

Prior to placing a purchase order:

Research and select your printed circuit board fabricator early in the process: If the design is going to be a standard design, on common material and fit neatly into any manufacturer’s “standard capabilities”, that makes things much easier. But, if the new design is going to be pushing the limits of standard technology in any way – microvias, fine line, tight pitch or tight tolerance, selective surface finish, exotic materials, rigid-flex – selecting a supplier early in the process, whose capabilities match the technology needed, will ensure that the design can be manufactured quickly once you are ready to release the files.

Involve the fabricator early in the design process: Ask questions. Talk to your supplier frequently during the design of the PCB. They encourage questions and are happy to make recommendations. Once the fabricator understands what you are trying to accomplish, they can make recommendations that will ensure that the design is manufacturable.   As a final step, or even an intermediate step during the design process, ask your fabricator to run a design rule check based on your files. This may not catch every issue and eliminate all engineering questions at the CAD/CAM stage, but it will catch the major issues that would require lengthy redesign once a project is released.

Verify that material is available and will be in stock when the design is complete:   Fabricators do try to stock the common materials and even small quantities of the less common materials to avoid delays. Unfortunately, they cannot stock all materials. Once the stack-up is finalized, ask the fabricator if this is material that will be in stock. If not, work with your supplier to pre-order the material to have in-house when you are ready to release the design. Some fabricators will secure material based on a simple email authorization; others will require a purchase order. Either way, planning for material to be in stock when the design is complete can save anywhere from five days to six weeks.

Once a purchase order is placed:

Send complete files: Review the files being submitted with the purchase order to ensure they are complete. Is the net list included? Are the fab notes complete, confirming any quality requirements, material specifications, and surface finish requirements? Do the fab notes match the gerber data?   These are all very common reasons that files are placed on engineering hold.

When you receive questions from the CAD/CAM tooling group, ask if this includes all questions associated with the design. Sometimes two different engineers may be working on the same design to meet an expedited delivery and both may have questions in their portion of the process. Other times, when the initial issues are encountered, the job is set aside only to find additional issues when work is resumed. The process can be streamlined by taking all questions to your designer or your end customer at one time.

If questions are fairly involved, it is always best to try to schedule a conference call between your fabricator, your designer or end customer and yourself to resolve the issue as quickly as possible. Email offers a great documentation trail for any changes, but can drag the process out longer than necessary. If communicating via conference call, ensure that someone is responsible for documenting the discussion and sending that to all parties involved.

Once the questions are answered, follow up with your supplier to confirm that the questions involved in the tooling process have not impacted your delivery schedule. Delays of a few hours are usually absorbed into the initial lead-time. Longer delays can impact delivery. PCB fabricators are typically very good about notifying customers of any changes in delivery date due to engineering questions, but it is always a good practice to ask. You don’t want to be surprised on the day you are expecting your printed circuit boards.

In summary, communication with your supplier is the best way to reduce the cycle time needed for fabrication of time-critical, new printed circuit board designs. Ask for recommendations during the design phase to ensure the design is manufacturable, verify that material will be available when the design is released, and if there are engineering questions, and communicate quickly to have those resolved.   Take advantage of the fabricators expertise and ask questions!

Contact us for further information!  www.omnipcb.com

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