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Prototype vs. production outsourcing: what to look for may vary by geography. Tips on what, and who, to audit.

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When it comes to outsourcing PCBs, OEM procurement staff must fully understand the differences and nuances associated with prototype and production manufacturing, regardless of where those services are situated. Procurement from overseas sources has additional criteria to those standard for domestic procurement. However, requirements for high quality, tight delivery schedules, local EMS representation, up-to-date technology, modern equipment and well-trained personnel are common threads to procurement personnel across all regions and EMS tiers.

Prototype and production procurement should be kept separate because they are different (Table 1). A prototype engineer focuses on quick delivery to achieve time-to-market. Designers want proof-of-concept upfront to determine how a product performs. It is okay if the product operates at, say, 50 to 75%, and designers are not overly concerned if some of the product's features fail to work the first time.

Prototype shops differ in several respects from production shops. One area is turnaround time. Standard turn, also known as extended turnaround time, refers to the period between order entry and finished prototype, and differs among suppliers. "Standard" turn could run from one to three weeks. This should be contemplated thoroughly, as an OEM could incur extra costs and miss market opportunities if an expected three-week delivery stretches to six to eight weeks.

Prototype line traits. A prototype line must be flexible in terms of accepting boards of different sizes and complexity levels. Prototyping for both PCB fabrication and assembly is, in effect, R & D since the product is not yet mature. Prototyping is characterized by a number of design changes involving specifications, features and countless product aspects. For instance, a reprogrammable FPGA's power and ground pin-outs may change to comply with different power and voltage requirements on a PCB. Or strip planes between analog and digital sections may need to be changed, depending on the impedance control requirements on the board.

By nature a prototype incurs constant change, up to and including the day it gets shipped.

Zulki Khan is founder and president of Nexlogic Technologies Inc. (;
Table 1. Characteristics of Prototype and Production Lines

Prototype Line Traits Production Line Traits

Flexibility Emphasis on testing
Easy-to-use GUI Necessary fixtures and tooling
Quick changeover Quality control steps embedded in process
High technology level, Longer changeover and programming time
 including fine-pitch
 component capability
Trained staff Separate SMT line with few maintenance
Necessary equipment Proper capacity levels for low volume, but high
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Title Annotation:Supplier Sourcing
Author:Khan, Zulki
Publication:Circuits Assembly
Date:Oct 1, 2006
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