What is Turnkey PCB Manufacturing and Assembly?By ZM Peterson • Sep 13, 2021
I’ve worked with small hardware startups and large defense companies, and one thing they tend to need is help navigating the electronics supply chain and manufacturing landscape. If you’re not involved in the industry, PCB manufacturing services can seem opaque and difficult to navigate, just like many other specialized services.
Therefore, it’s often the case that clients will look to a manufacturer that can help guide them through the production process. Turnkey PCB manufacturing services, turnkey PCB assembly services, and contract manufacturing services can help guide you through the process by taking on many of the important management tasks needed to complete a manufacturing run. Sometimes, it makes much more sense to contract these services through your design firm, rather than through a manufacturer. We’ll look at the services you can expect to receive from PCB design companies and PCB manufacturers in this article.
Service Levels at Turnkey PCB Manufacturers
PCB manufacturers that offer turnkey manufacturing or turnkey assembly services can offer a mix of different services and levels of service. These include PCB fabrication, PCB assembly, component sourcing, some type of front-end engineering or design services, testing, and much more.
Turnkey PCB Manufacturing vs. Turnkey PCB Assembly
The idea behind turnkey services is that a single provider handles everything in-house. Some companies will have a sister assembly facility, so fabrication and assembly are handled by two different companies. In either case, there is someone coordinating those two tasks. As the client, your job is simply to ensure the manufacturer has all the documentation required to put your design through a thorough DFM review and place the board into production.
Turnkey PCB assembly follows the same logic, but only focusing on assembly and procurement. The assumption is that an external facility will supply the bare boards, or the client supplies the bare boards, while the assembler handles procurement and scheduling for PCB assembly. Again, the goal is to minimize the number of tasks required by the client or designer. Just as is the call with full turnkey PCB manufacturing services, turnkey PCB assembly requires thorough documentation to ensure the correct components are sourced and assembled in the design.
Turnkey vs. Contract PCB Manufacturing
Sometimes, there is a distinction to be made between contract PCB manufacturers (CMs) vs. turnkey PCB manufacturers, but that distinction is blurry. Some companies that call themselves manufacturers will offer turnkey services. Turnkey PCB manufacturers provide services that overlap with PCB CMs, including sourcing and outsourced fabrication if desired. CMs may not have all capabilities in-house; their job is to coordinate services and materials from multiple sources as part of a manufacturing run.
CMs will manage an entire manufacturing run by coordinating fabrication, assembly, procurement, and delivery of your PCBA, just like companies that offer turnkey PCB manufacturing services. Some CMs will offer additional services like functional testing for PCBAs, box builds, on-the-line-flashing, and more specialized testing as needed. Working with a CM lets you take a hands-off approach to managing your production run.
CMs might help you coordinate more specialized services for your PCBA, such as application of conformal coatings, as shown here.
Managed Turnkey PCB Manufacturing Services
In some cases, the best path forward for your new product is to work with your design firm to get a new design into manufacturing. This can be hit or miss: some design companies or individual designers will masquerade as manufacturers, when really they are just outsourcing your design to China for PCB fabrication and assembly. This puts you at risk of IP theft and low quality. Some designers will try to convince you to outsource fabrication overseas and allow them to do the assembly, something which is highly un-advisable if you want to ensure your product is scalable.
In addition to the outsourcing problem and risks, most firms create a cost structure that encourages you to create the largest order possible. They will markup the cost of managing PCB manufacturing and component sourcing by a huge amount, sometimes by 100% or more. This creates an incentive to encourage premature scaling when it isn’t appropriate, and to add on service levels that aren’t needed, because these firms know they can markup those costs and pass them on to you.
An experienced PCB design company that maintains ongoing relationships with PCB manufacturers, both as a client and as a vendor, is the best choice to provide managed PCB manufacturing services. This is exactly what we do at NWES: we have partnerships with multiple manufacturers, and we know how to match our partners’ capabilities and certification levels to your needs. We’re not a manufacturer’s rep, instead we offer this service as an add-on to our regular design services at a fixed hourly rate; this saves you costs as your manufacturing runs increase in size and scope.
When clients need help placing prototypes into manufacturing, managing supply chains, or scaling production, we offer the following services:
- Consulting with PCB manufacturing partners to match design requirements with capabilities
- BOM cleaning early in the design process to ensure your board can be produced at the intended scale
- Sourcing components, including early sourcing to help you avoid supply chain volatility that can derail a project
- Coordinating testing and delivery of your PCBAs, either direct with the manufacturer or through an external testing service
- Access to companies with specialized certifications, including AS-9100, ISO-13485, and ITAR-compliant PCB manufacturing
We replicate the service level you’ll find at a turnkey PCB manufacturer, but without the same markups. Furthermore, because we handle the design directly, we can help you solve many engineering problems that might derail your design. PCB manufacturers won’t help you solve engineering problems like layout changes, component swaps, material swaps, or other problems that will derail projects without exorbitant design time fees.
At NWES, we work with our manufacturing partners to provide turnkey PCB manufacturing serivces for the products we design. We specialize in advanced electronics like customized IoT platforms, mmWave power supply designs, data center products, and much more. NWES helps aerospace OEMs, defense primes, and private companies in multiple industries design modern PCBs and create cutting-edge embedded technology. We've also partnered directly with EDA companies and advanced ITAR-compliant PCB manufacturers, and we'll make sure your next high speed digital system is fully manufacturable at scale. Contact NWES for a consultation.