Prototyping and Small-Run Services

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Prototyping and Small-Run Services

Postby johnnyc » Fri Jan 04, 2013 2:22 am

I'm wondering if there's a good company out there that can turn prototypes around for less than $300 per part?

As my prototypes get smaller and more complex, I've felt the pain of doing a lot of soldering. I've been looking for a company that can do the prototyping for me.

The last six months I've been working on a project that has growing number of parts, a lot of LQFP pins, smaller and smaller SMD parts. There have been a lot of re-designs and each time, I feel more pain of multi-day builds and tests.

The pain of soldering these projects by hand pushed me to look for a company that could prototype the project.
I couldn't find a company that would cost something reasonable: most of the quotes were in the $500 to $1,000 per board range.

I was wondering if anyone knew of a company that was offering prototype assembly on the cheap. I can wait 8 days (I can wait longer), but the price of $750 per prototype is too expensive for me.

I was also wondering if anyone else had this problem and thoughts on how to solve it? I saw Sparkfun's Pit of Despair blog post a few months back and thought I might be sinking into that.
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Re: Prototyping and Small-Run Services

Postby ian » Fri Jan 04, 2013 3:00 am

I couldn't find a company that would cost something reasonable: most of the quotes were in the $500 to $1,000 per board range.


That's pretty standard for one offs. As you've found its a time consuming process, and that's if you are familiar with the board. In SHenzhen, China you can get one BGA chip reflowed and inspected for $100 as I understand, but I believe that is per chip.
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Re: Prototyping and Small-Run Services

Postby bearmos » Fri Jan 04, 2013 3:06 am

Welcome to DP johnyc!

It'll probably be hard to do much better than that for a 1-off quick turn (in the US anyway, you might be able to find something overseas, but you'll probably pay quite a bit for expedited shipping, comm challenges, etc). Stencil tooling that most EMC's charge is generally around $300 alone, add in quick turn PCB's, setup time, etc. . .

Advanced Circuits does prototype assemblies, although I haven't ever bothered getting a quote from them. There are also a few others that come to mind, sierra circuits? screaming circuits (no experience with any of these guys).

Have you tried buying stencils and reflowing the boards? It's not that bad. If you get (or have) a decent stereo microscope and start using stencils, your prototyping life will be much more pleasant (even more so than dealing with an ECM for doing prototyping work for you).

Here's a link for another user that's going through some similar challenges - he's putting together a fixture to make using stencils dead simple:
viewtopic.php?f=19&t=4984

1. Try out using stencils and reflow for assembly
2. If you still hate assembling prototypes - give Advanced Circuits a call and get a free quote form them (they claim to be one of the cheapest turn-key prototyping services in the USA).
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Re: Prototyping and Small-Run Services

Postby johnnyc » Fri Jan 04, 2013 3:39 am

Hey bearmos,

Thanks for the quick reply! I'm going to check the price with Advanced Circuits. A few years ago when I started doing PCB's, I used them. Then I moved on to less expensive companies.

I appreciate your enthusiasm for stencils and reflow for assembly. Indeed, at one point I was doing this for small run circuit boards. At some point I got frustrated and gave up.

I am interested though in what's offered for assembly, and hearing anyone's thoughts. For some reason, there's still no "ponoko" or "oshw" of assembly as far as I can tell: a quick, easy, and reasonably priced place to get prototypes made. Maybe it's just too complicated to do assembly?
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Re: Prototyping and Small-Run Services

Postby bearmos » Fri Jan 04, 2013 7:44 am

johnnyc wrote:I appreciate your enthusiasm for stencils and reflow for assembly. Indeed, at one point I was doing this for small run circuit boards. At some point I got frustrated and gave up.


I don't actually use stencils that much because I normally just do one-off's. But I don't find it to be a huge hassle to hand assemble a prototype or two (I go down to 0.5mm QFN's and 0402 passives). The time for assembly is nothing compared to producing a decent BOM/sourcing parts. I've used a stencil once with not-so-great results, but I'm blaming most of the failure to stencil quality and a lack of a decent fixture (see link above:)). I also don't do that many boards since I also do firmware (which can take forever and a day).

johnnyc wrote:I am interested though in what's offered for assembly, and hearing anyone's thoughts. For some reason, there's still no "ponoko" or "oshw" of assembly as far as I can tell: a quick, easy, and reasonably priced place to get prototypes made. Maybe it's just too complicated to do assembly?

I think part of it is due to the type of work involved, you either need skilled labor or automated machines (which require setup time and a skilled tech to "program" them). It's funny that you mentioned ponoko - another member was noting that it doesn't take too many orders from them to buy a 3D printer yourself:)

Here's another place I've talked with, they're mainly into cable harnesses, SMD rework, and elector-mechanical assemblies, but the owner said that they'd do PCB runs as well (proto runs in house, larger runs through a partner). Based on his description of their pricing structure, they sounded viable for small runs/prototypes, but I haven't done any quotes with them yet:
Wunsch Technologies

There are a slew of other ECM's that I've dealt with, but nobody that comes close to the pricing you're looking for.

johnnyc wrote:I'm going to check the price with Advanced Circuits. A few years ago when I started doing PCB's, I used them. Then I moved on to less expensive companies.

I still use them at work for boards that will be recurring because they'll wave production tooling if you get proto's made through them (although this is only true if the copper doesn't change). I've started using less expensive options for smaller boards, but AC's pricing really isn't that bad for larger area boards. If you do quote an assembly through Advanced Circuits, please post back!
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