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Three Paths to PCB Manufacturing: CM, Turnkey, and Self-Managed


Taking a new product into production at any appreciable volume is no small feat. The electronics industry has developed several pathways to get the job done when buying at low to moderate volumes. At these purchasing levels, the production volume is typically too low to be taken to an EMS, so companies producing new products will have to work with a smaller firm to produce their PCBAs. Typical volumes handled by smaller PCB manufacturing companies can reach thousands of units, with the end result being fully assembled PCBAs ready for placement in an enclosure and product packaging.

Obviously, there is a lot to handle in this endeavor, ranging from inventory management to order tracking throughout the process. Everything operating at these moderate volumes will usually take three possible approaches:

  • Production with a contract manufacturer (CM)
  • Production with a turnkey PCB manufacturer
  • Self-management with fabrication, assembly, and packaging vendors

How Low Volume PCB Manufacturing Works

Contract Manufacturers

A contract manufacturer provides process engineering services and typically handles some portion of the manufacturing run in-house. For contract manufacturers in North America and Europe, the typical business model is to source bare board fabrication from a low-cost vendor, which will normally be located overseas. The contract manufacturer will then receive the fabricated boards and put them through an assembly process in-house. The specific location for fabrication can vary based on the complexity of the board being produced, materials required, lead time required, and cost targets.


ruggedized connector


Contract manufacturers can produce one-time runs or produce in monthly batches, depending on the needs of the customer. During this process, they will typically return to the design team to request fixes to fabrication data, approval of alternate components, evaluation of defects, and so on. Their value add is complete management of the PCB manufacturing process and quality control for PCBAs. They may also perform an inventory management function, such as accepting parts kits on consignment and holding inventory for future production runs.

Turnkey PCB Manufacturing

Turnkey manufacturing services are designed such that the customer can be completely hands-off if needed. Customers can provide all data to the turnkey manufacturer and allow the manufacturer to work through the entire process, starting from review and including modifications to the production data if approved by the customer. Turnkey PCB manufacturing services require minimal customer input, and many contract manufacturers offer a turnkey service level for their customers.


ruggedized connector


This is essentially a fully outsourced option, thus the cost of this service is the highest. This includes component costs; turnkey manufacturing services will include component ordering services by the manufacturer, meaning they will provide a stiff markup to components used in the design. We have seen markups exceed 100% for some turnkey services.

Turnkey PCB manufacturing services might also lack transparency in terms of where their PCBs are produced. For example, these could be produced overseas, essentially being the same model as a typical contract manufacturer. For US customers, this could be problematic for dual-use products or ITAR/EAR-covered products, which require handling only by US persons. However, for a product team that is not experienced in PCB production or supply chain management, this is an attractive option as it removes risk and management headaches from a production order.

Self-Managed PCB Manufacturing

Companies that decide to manage their own manufacturing and production runs will pick from available pre-qualified fabrication and assembly vendors. They may also be ordering other components for the product, such as the enclosure, wire harnesses, cable assemblies, fasteners, and some custom electrical components.


ruggedized connector


Self-managed really means that the customer has to manage everything, ranging from delivery times to payments to component consignments. Companies with little experience managing PCB manufacturing runs, particularly when multiple boards are involved, are discouraged from taking this approach as there can be a learning curve. The learning curve isn't necessarily conceptually difficult, but getting it wrong can lead to significant surprise costs, and it's easy to blow through a budget when some issues are not anticipated. Even perfect planning prior to the beginning of a production run can fall apart due to the speed of changes in the electronics supply chain.

Can Your PCB Design Firm Manage It?

In our opinion, it is generally a requirement that PCB designers understand the PCB manufacturing process. Of course, this is an important part of DFM and defect elimination in a new design. The other part of this is the ability to provide a prototyping or production service as a value add for the customer. This is the approach NWES takes when serving clients who require prototypes or low volume production for a new design.

Unfortunately, not all PCB design firms that manage manufacturing are completely scrupulous. If you're going to produce ITAR/EAR-covered products with a PCB design firm, make sure your firm understands where they can produce, how to get data to the manufacturing vendor, and what their data custody and protection responsibilities are. PCB design firms who serve defense and aerospace, military aerospace, and rugged embedded systems customers deal with these issues regularly and are best positioned to help manage low to moderate volume PCB manufacturing runs.


Whether you're designing high-speed PCBs for mil-aero embedded systems or a complex RF product, you should work with a design and development firm that can ensure your product will be reliable and manufacturable at scale. NWES helps aerospace OEMs, defense primes, and private companies in multiple industries design modern PCBs and create cutting-edge embedded technology, including power systems for high reliability applications and precision control systems. We've also partnered directly with EDA companies and advanced ITAR-compliant PCB manufacturers, and we'll make sure your design is fully manufacturable at scale. Contact NWES for a consultation.


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