PCB Prototyping: In-house or Outsource?
This article aims to identify common pain points faced during conventional PCB prototyping and factors to consider in selecting a PCB supplier, and define the benefits of in-house 3D printing PCB prototypes versus outsourcing.
Additionally, this article describes the advantages of bringing prototyping in-house in terms of gaining strategic advantages over competitors, and maximising cost and time savings.
Printed circuit board (PCB) prototyping is a key component of the product development process in professional electronics manufacturing. However, because of the traditionally complex steps involved in producing prototype boards, many manufacturers outsource production of their prototype boards to external prototyping specialists. Such outsourcing generally incurs high costs and/or relatively long turnaround times depending on board design complexity and the logistics involved in shipping the board to its destination.
With Nano Dimension’s DragonFly 2020 3D Printer for rapid-prototyping, PCBs are produced in-house, within hours, ready for the next round of testing and design refinement. Without the need to send designs to third parties, Intellectual Property (IP) security risks are also eliminated. The rapid prototyping capabilities offered by the DragonFly 2020 3D Printer ultimately translate to shorter go-to-market times, greater freedom to innovate for board designers, and improved overall productivity and return on investment (ROI).
In the extremely competitive landscape of electronics manufacturing, innovation is key to survival. Existing technologies might be easy enough to replicate, but it is the constant and deliberate effort invested in developing ever more effective technologies that determines who thrives and who doesn’t. Prototyping and testing are thus critical steps in ensuring that a company’s next generation of finished products satisfies all functional requirements before being sent out to market.
A “prototype” in the general sense refers to an early sample of a product that is built to test the feasibility of a design idea. While most product prototypes are simple structural mock-ups used to identify ergonomic deficiencies and improve user experience, PCB prototypes have an additional requirement to fulfil – they need to have close to full working functionality. The designs might make theoretical sense on paper, but designers and engineers must test physical boards under environmental or situational load in order to determine their robustness and conductivity in actual working conditions. Coupled with the fact that professional board designs tend to have multiple complex layers, this means that making prototype boards by conventional subtractive manufacturing methods can get very complicated and are environmentally wasteful.
While rapid prototyping equipment does exist, they have not proliferated the market. As evinced by the continued reliance on external prototype fabricators that are concentrated in the Far East (Taiwan and Southern China), electronics companies in the West have determined that the costs of owning and maintaining currently- available rapid prototyping machines outweigh that of having to endure the logistical issues that inevitably arise from having to ship PCB prototypes across continents.
One reason for this is that there is currently no easy way of etching the traces for each layer of a PCB. Conventional industrial etching methods all have their own set of complications: high levels of wastage, high power consumption, risks of storing large amounts of chemicals, replacing dulled milling components etc.
Overall, this explains why electronics companies and designers prefer not to get involved in the technicalities of PCB prototype manufacturing, opting instead to work with overseas prototype vendors and non-disclosure agreements to protect their intellectual property.
This may work, but a crucial part in the selection process is to choose vendors who have the professional-level capabilities needed for electronics rapid prototyping applications and can keep the risk of failed prototype PCBs to a minimum. Remember, a failed PCB includes the costs of project delays and port/customs hold-ups which could result in long turnaround time, and significant delays, in time to market.
Problems with Outsourcing PCB Prototyping
Sending a circuit board design (most commonly in Gerber format) to an external fabricator for production is a simple enough process. With many fabricators offering online services like instant price quotes and portals for submissions of board designs, one is spoilt for choice. Once a fabricator has been chosen, designs sent out, and agreements made, it becomes a matter of waiting for the board to be ready. Of note, however, are the geographical and production capability limitations of different manufacturers.
Most of the world’s PCB manufacturing occurs in East Asia, with about 40% of the market cornered by China alone (Prismark Partners LLC, 2012). Although the fabricators in East Asia generally offer lower prices than those in Europe and the Americas, their location presents certain logistical difficulties (turnaround times) for designers in the Western Hemisphere. For simple board designs of at most two layers, the fastest companies in China can usually manufacture and ship to doorstep in Europe within three days, but orders with such fast turnaround times naturally cost a lot more than standard orders with a two-week turnaround time.
One common demand of external PCB fabricators is to have a minimum order quantity (MOQ), which helps these fabricators offset the relatively high setup costs involved in preparing a custom design for prototyping. This MOQ often exceeds the practical amount of boards that designers and engineers need for testing purposes. This essentially means that most companies which order prototypes satisfying fabricator MOQ end up “wasting” money on boards they will never use.
So while engaging external prototype fabricators takes designers and engineers out of the “messy” PCB manufacturing process, companies have to balance time and geographical constraints, and inconvenient fabricator requirements when considering options for outsourcing their prototyping.
As shown in Figure 1, considering that the design process involves incremental improvements, and hence successive generations of prototype PCBs, a company can spend substantial amounts of time simply waiting for boards to reach them. Outsourcing prototype production might make economic sense to companies since additional equipment setup/maintenance and training costs are avoided, but each day spent idle equates to a longer time before finished products reach the market.
Even for organisations that have few qualms spending time and money on prototype PCBs, there is often an interest in maximising IP security. This need is most apparent in the defense and aerospace industries, where it is definitely not ideal for third parties to come into contact with sensitive design and product information. For companies with such concerns, there is an added layer of inconvenience involved in finding a fabricator with the required level of security clearance, not to mention that such services likely cost more as well.
Introduction to 3D Printing (Additive Manufacturing)
The entire manufacturing industry is in the midst of a revolution led by additive manufacturing, a process better known as 3D printing. As the term implies, additive manufacturing involves the gradual deposition of a material, layer by layer, to build a physical object. Even though the build quality of most 3D prints cannot match those of mass-produced objects made by industrial grade machinery, they have emerged as a cost, and time, effective way of making prototypes for validating ideas and theories. In particular, designers in the medical, aerospace, automotive, and architectural industries have benefited the most from 3D printing, as it has given them more creative freedom to explore ground-breaking ideas in design as well as fast ergonomic verification, more form and fit tests, and additional opportunities for customer feedback and better quality products.
In contrast, the only printed parts of conventional printed circuit boards are the silkscreened labels that identify components and connections on the board surface. All the currently established manufacturing processes in PCB manufacturing are subtractive – they involve the use of chemicals, lasers or mechanical mills and drills to remove copper from an entire copper sheet to produce the traces on each layer of a PCB. This can turn out to be extremely wasteful and risks operator exposure to hazardous chemicals, gases and microscopic particles.
Nano Dimension is the first company to truly bring additive manufacturing into the realm of professional 3D printed multi-layer PCBs. Through the use of advanced print technology which allow for precise deposition of proprietary pico-litre silver and dielectric nano inks, Nano Dimension’s DragonFly 2020 3D Printer prints high- definition traces on multi-layered boards, that measure up to industry standards of conductivity, strength, thermal stability and dielectric behaviour.
Easing the Path from Design to Prototype
As mentioned earlier, a large part of the PCB prototyping process involves waiting for the overseas vendor to produce the boards and ship them over. The DragonFly 2020 3D printer’s primary advantage lies in its rapid prototyping capabilities, promising to dramatically reduce the amount of time it takes to get prototype PCBs in the hands of designers and engineers, ready for the next round of testing. For a complex, 10-layer board that would typically require several weeks to produce at an external fabricator, the DragonFly 2020 3D Printer could shorten turnaround time to a day in-house.
While an in-house system is an expense that needs to be justified, high resolution systems such as the DragonFly 2020 3D Printer can guarantee that complex, multi-layer PCB prototypes can be produced at a much lower cost and in reduced time than it would take to outsource. To managers, this equates to almost- immediate savings and faster time to market.
For PCB designers, the printer represents a breakthrough in the traditional workflow of PCB designing, affording an entirely new dimension of creative freedom and innovation. The unique combination of short turnaround times and lower costs means that designers are not “penalised” for daring to try out designs that might have previously been deemed too risky and cost-ineffective. Essentially, the relatively lower cumulative penalties for trying out alternative board designs can inspire design departments to iterate better designs at a much faster rate, yet at lower costs.
The DragonFly 2020 3D printer combines precise 3D mechanics, advanced inkjet technology, proprietary nano inks and software in order to make in-house 3D printed multi-layer PCB prototypes a reality. It deposits two materials, one conductive and one dielectric, in order to build a complete PCB. The printer uses advanced inkjet print heads that contain hundreds of small nozzles that allow for very exact pico-liter deposition of nanotech inks. Each pass of the print heads deposits a two micron-thick layer of material (dielectric or conductive) at the exact locations specified by the design file. An additional process cures the material to ensure a durable end product.
Starting with the underside conductive traces, the materials build up to finish with the topside conductors. The gradual and precise deposition of the two different inks at exact coordinates means that vias and through holes are able to be built up, drop-by-drop, either as blind, open or complete vias. Through-holes are also created by repeatedly leaving a space at a particular XY coordinate, thereby building surrounding materials up around a void. The dielectric material ends up as a solid piece within which the conductive traces are positioned at the precise XYZ coordinate specified.
Nano Dimension’s proprietary software allows you to effortlessly convert standard PCB Gerber design files, along with drills and routes, into a 3D printable file. The software also accepts STEP, JPG and Tiff file formats.
PCBs are in almost every kind of electronics product, but even though the technology they empower continues to advance and surprise, the design and testing of PCBs has remained dependent on sending prototype board designs to external fabricators and enduring the wait for finished boards to be shipped back. The DragonFly 2020 3D printer is perfectly positioned as the answer to the electronics industry’s demand for a simpler, quicker and more cost-effective method of producing the prototype boards that are so crucial in ensuring electronics products reach customers only after their circuit designs have been thoroughly tested and validated.
By keeping PCB prototyping in-house, companies stand to reap the rewards of having more creative board designs, less restraining cost and time constraints, and zero IP security risk. Investing in 3D printers such as the DragonFly 2020 3D Printer is a step in the right direction for companies looking to establish an optimised PCB prototyping process and reap the benefits of having a very strategic advantage over competitors.
Nano Dimension (NASDAQ/TASE: NNDM) was founded in 2012 and focuses on the research and development of advanced 3D electronics printing, including a 3D Printer for printing PCBs (printed circuit boards), and the development of nanotechnology- based ink products, which are complementary products for 3D printers. Prototype printers are currently operating as test-beds for the nano-ink formulations developed in the company’s own laboratories. Nano Dimension was the winner of the 3D Printing Europe 2015 Award for Best Development in 3D Printing Equipment. The company was recognized for being at the forefront of 3D printed electronics, as well as being positioned to become a world leader in this growing market. Nano Dimension is traded as an ADR on the NASDAQ in the U.S and on the Tel Aviv Stock Exchange.