Following these practices will yield top performance and optimum results out of your prototype service.
As a contract manufacturer we see a wide variety of PCB designs and companies across a broad range of industries. And in every one of those sectors, our clients run up against a persistent problem: the inability to find support for their prototyping needs.
Indeed, prototyping is an under-served market for our clients (we are in the low- to mid-volume, high-mix market). Of course it’s important to have prototypes made, but it’s equally important that they be made by someone who can provide great service and meaningful design for manufacturing (DFM) feedback. That is, by someone who can analyze and document the challenges that a design may face in production.
Still, it is a constant challenge to deliver on this industry’s prototype needs, for a variety of reasons, most of which boil down to a time-vs-cost factor. Innovators are looking for fast turns on their prototypes, but issues can arise that are counter to this goal, leading to slow, expensive, or poor-quality prototype production.
Make no mistake: a prototype is a product. While it may be a product-in-concept, from a manufacturing perspective it still requires time to set up, assemble, and properly review/document for manufacturability. The following steps will help to speed the turn-around and reduce the cost of your prototyping project.
Preparation is Key
How you prepare your design for prototyping will make all the difference in the end result. These best practices should guide you:
- First, talk to your contract manufacturer (CM) early on to understand the best process (manual or automated) for your proto – and what that will mean in terms of turnaround and cost. Talk to them before you begin your materials planning, purchasing, or seeking quotations.
- Plan materials supply (turnkey materials supply or consigned) with your CM. Discuss your build options (manual or automated), costs, establish responsibilities and requirements.
- Plan for device programming – either work with your manufacturer on this or provide devices pre-programmed. Programming issues can delay prototype completion.
- Plan the product labeling – this is frequently an afterthought but shouldn’t be. Labels are almost always required on products or subassemblies and the space needs to be assigned and label design established. You might not be able or need to get your prototypes labeled in the same way you would for a production product, but now is an ideal time to establish a plan for the final product.
- If you are doing turnkey prototypes, prepare a purchase order concurrently with your design so that your CM can work with you early to procure materials. Your CM will need to know when a design (in whole or part) is stable enough to begin ordering materials.
- Provide adequate assembly documentation as early as possible and indicate whether or not it is pre-release or final (and so can be acted on).
Ensure Kit Quality
If you are consigning parts to your CM, ensure high-quality kits. We often encounter consigned kits that are simply not well prepared for manufacturing. Best practices for kit preparation include:
- Provide a well labeled and complete kit for each product.
- Provide a few extra pieces of each material to accommodate attrition. More is necessary for automated assembly.
- Ensure parts have been stored appropriately and that packaging is intact – if the integrity of dry packs has been compromised, there will be a delay.
- If your prototype will be machine-assembled, ensure that the parts are machine-ready (reels and/or trays, leaders, pick pads, extra parts, etc.).
One of the problematic aspects of prototype manufacturing is related to the early design's often flexible nature. Manufacturing is "where the rubber meets the road", and if your CM quotes on a prototype, but then the design changes a few times before it gets sent to them, of course they’ll need to review and adjust. For this reason, the single most influential factor in the success of your prototype will be communication. When your CM is in the know, it can work with you to minimize the impact on schedule and cost as much as possible.
If you can manage the prototyping activity as a partnership with your manufacturer, you will be able to communicate well and work together to understand and alleviate the impacts of the early design and prototyping process. Working with your contract manufacturer on prototypes also empowers you to learn early on where opportunities for cost savings and time savings will lie once the product goes into production. The prototype stage is the easiest and best time to make design adjustments of any kind.
George Henning, President, OCM Manufacturing, can be reached at 1 (800) 268-3961. www.ocmmanufacturing.com.