In today’s fast-moving electronics industry, the range of industry participants and their needs and expectations has absolutely exploded. The open-source software movement is giving all sorts of regular people access to free software that can drive hardware to serve almost any conceivable use. Whether it’s home automation, sensors and motors, drones and accessories – the list of cheap or free projects for all sorts of electronics hobbyists just gets longer and longer. The combination of open-source software and the ready availability of advice and project notes over the Internet is causing an ever-wider range of enthusiasts to take on more and more complicated projects. The “next frontier” for a lot of these enthusiasts is to take their customization all the way down to the level of circuit board fabrication.
Not only is the hobbyist electronics industry changing fast, but the expectations of professionals in product development and even in academia are also evolving. Investors, analysts, and research project advisers increasingly want to see a working model of a project, not just read about it in a Powerpoint presentation. Fast, cheap and reasonably high-quality circuit board fabrication is bringing all of this within reach of practically everyone. But, of course, getting custom circuit boards for absolutely bottom dollar does require tradeoffs. For most people, these tradeoffs are well worth it.
In most areas of manufacturing, the old joke applies: “fast, cheap, good--pick two.” As with most technologies, circuit board fabrication development has begun with surmounting technical challenges at a very high per-unit cost and then improving the process in order to impose brutal cost controls--in other words, to maintain speed and quality but bring pricing steadily down. And in this regard, the circuit board fabrication industry has followed Moore’s Law for decades--the number of components that can be fit on the board has exploded, the throughput of boards during fabrication is faster than ever, and the fail rate for boards keeps dropping. But at the very bottom cost end of the industry, “something has to give.” There are now cheap PCB manufacturers that offer prices that would have been unthinkable even 5 years ago, like circuit boards in small production runs for as low as a dollar a board.
Project Planning Is Cost Estimating
When considering how much money to invest in the circuit board fabrication for a specific project, it is vital first to think through the project demands all the way through the useful life of the device. How long does the device really need to remain functional? Will the device be exposed to thermal, humidity, or physical shock hazards? What kind of tolerances are required for the device to give the expected service? All of these questions and more are vital considerations when planning for PCB fabrication. After all, it is not really a cost savings to secure exceptionally cheap PCB fabrication and then find that the PCBs are not at all suitable for the intended use. For many people, the tradeoffs required to get inexpensive PCB fabrication are well worth it.
But there are definitely pitfalls, including thermal stress during the fabrication process caused by less well-controlled temperatures during component soldering, mis-registration of the circuit board during silk screening, and quality of the components used.
Today’s inexpensive PCB fabrication is making all sorts of projects feasible now that would have been possible only for large and well-funded product developers in years past. With good planning, the use of less-expensive PCB fabricators can be of tremendous value.