Developing a new electronics product requires producing prototype printed circuit boards (PCBs) to test the design before full production. Choosing the right PCB manufacturer for prototyping is crucial for delivering boards with the required quality, tolerances, and turnaround times to keep your project on track. This article provides guidance on selecting PCB suppliers for prototyping needs.

Prototype vs Production PCB Requirements

Prototype PCBs have slightly different requirements compared to full production runs:

  • Shorter lead times – Prototyping requires fast turnaround of small batches to validate designs quickly. Production focuses on high volume at lower costs.
  • Higher tolerances – Prototype tolerances can be looser since the goal is design validation. Production needs tight tolerances for performance.
  • Smaller quantities – Prototyping usually involves orders of 10-100 boards. Production volumes are much higher.
  • Design revisions – Prototyping expects multiple board spins and revisions. Production aims to freeze the design.
  • Personalized service – Prototyping benefits from close communication and support during the design process.

Keeping these prototyping-specific requirements in mind will help select the right PCB supplier.

Capabilities to Look For in a Prototype PCB Supplier

Here are key capabilities and services to evaluate when selecting a PCB vendor for prototypes:

  • Quick turnaround – Look for turn times of 5-10 days from order to delivery for fastest results.
  • Small order quantities – Vendors who will produce 10-20 board quantities for early testing.
  • Design for manufacturability (DFM) – Willingness to review design files and provide feedback to avoid manufacturing issues.
  • Design rule checks – Rigorous validation of designs against fabrication capabilities to prevent errors.
  • Flexible iterating – Support for quick design tweaks and multiple board spins without high fees.
  • Proactive communication – Clear documentation and status updates without prompting.
  • Quality management – Consistent quality control and testing procedures to catch defects early.
  • ** responsive Support** – Quickly respond to any prototyping issues and provide rapid solutions.
  • Advanced technologies – Capability with specialized materials like ceramics and flexible PCBs.
  • ** Prototype-specific offerings** – Prototyping focused services like assembly of samples and stencils.

Onshore vs Offshore Manufacturing

An important choice is using a domestic or overseas PCB manufacturer. Here’s an overview:

Onshore/Domestic PCB Prototyping

  • Faster lead times – Avoid international shipping and customs delays
  • Better communication – Easier interactions due to shared language and time zone
  • IP protection – Reduced risk of IP theft compared to some foreign locales
  • Shipping simplicity – No customs clearance or regulatory hurdles
  • Higher costs – Onshore labor and infrastructure increases prices

Offshore/Overseas PCB Prototyping

  • Lower costs – Labor, materials and infrastructure are cheaper overseas
  • High volume capabilities – Can scale to very high quantities for production
  • Process expertise – Dominate high tech manufacturing including for latest PCB tech
  • Communication challenges – Language barriers and large time zone differences
  • Longer lead times – International shipping logistics add delays

Weigh your priorities in terms of lead time, quality, cost, and communication to choose between domestic or overseas suppliers.

Comparing PCB Prototype Supplier Options

Here is a comparison of some leading PCB prototype vendors to consider:

SupplierLocationTurn TimeStarts atQualityDFM
Advanced CircuitsColorado, USA24-48 hours10 boardsHighFree reviews
JLPCBChina24 hours5 boardsHighFree
Sierra CircuitsCalifornia, USA10 days20 boardsMedium-HighFree reviews
PCBWayChina24 hours5 boardsMedium-HighFree
ElecrowChina24 hours5 boardsMediumFree
SeeedStudioShenzhen, China72 hours10 boardsHighFree

Many factors like capabilities, service quality and location should be weighed when selecting among PCB prototype suppliers.

Best Practices for Working With a Prototype PCB Supplier

Follow these best practices when engaging a supplier for prototype PCB production:

  • Do design reviews – Have the supplier review design files and board layouts and provide feedback before ordering boards.
  • Get quotes for multiple options – Ask for quotes with different lead times, quantities, and materials to assess options.
  • Use their design tools – Take advantage of proprietary design rule checks and modeling tools offered by vendors.
  • Communicate updates – Keep supplier informed of any changes in design or expected order dates as early as possible.
  • Share testing protocols – Provide testing criteria so supplier can match their checks and quality processes.
  • Document everything – Keep detailed records of quotes, purchase orders, design files, changes, tests, issues, and resolutions.
  • Build relationship – Develop rapport with vendor reps for better support through the prototyping process.

Assessing Prototype Boards and Next Steps

Upon receiving prototype boards, thoroughly check for quality and verify performance to your requirements. If issues are identified, work with the supplier to determine the cause, implement corrections, and produce the next board spin.

Before moving to production, qualify that the supplier can scale their process and quality systems, perform technology transfer, verify automated testing, and satisfy all other production readiness criteria. Partnering with the right prototype supplier sets the stage for smooth ramp up to full scale production.


Choosing the right PCB manufacturer is a key step in transforming a product from design concept to mass production. For prototyping needs, identify vendors that offer quick turnaround, small order quantities, close customer support and robust quality controls. Weigh factors like cost, lead time, capabilities and communication when selecting among onshore or offshore suppliers. Applying best practices when engaging vendors helps ensure prototypes meet requirements for successfully progressing a design to full manufacture.

Frequently Asked Questions

What are the main disadvantages of using offshore suppliers for PCB prototyping?

The long lead times, communication challenges, and lack of IP protection with some offshore vendors are the biggest disadvantages. This can outweigh the cost savings.

What are some key questions to ask PCB prototype suppliers?

Ask about their minimum order quantity, expected lead time, design review process, quality checks, revision fees, communications policies, data protection, and production scalability.

How many prototype board revisions should be planned?

2-4 board spins should be planned for more complex designs. Budgeting for extra revisions avoids costly delays if issues emerge.

Should every prototype board include all planned features?

No, starting with a bare minimum feature set allows quicker validation of core functions first. Additional features can be added in subsequent board revisions.

What are signs that a prototype PCB is ready for production?

The design meets all functional requirements. All technical issues from prototyping are resolved. Performance is validated over extended testing. Automated testing is implemented. Long-term reliability is verified.

Categories: PCBA


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