Get to know your PCB manufacturer

Cambridge Circuit Company’s MD, Mark Sanford, offers buyers a guide to PCB sourcing

How have PCBs advanced over recent years and what innovations are expected in coming years? 

When the Cambridge Circuit Company started manufacturing PCBs in 1986, the PCBs produced were very basic compared to today’s modern products which have far greater capabilities. Back then, production was predominantly single sided and PTH boards. Since then, customers’ needs have changed with layer count increasing and trace thickness decreasing. 

Trace thicknesses have reduced from 0.25mm to 0.1mm. Likewise, the components assembled on PCBs have also decreased in size. With applications such as wearables, mobile telecommunications and medical devices driving change, PCBs have decreased in size, with the flex and flex-rigid PCB market expanding. 

Are you experiencing PCB material price increases? 

Over the last 18-months, raw materials have risen sharply. Copper foil, resin and glass fabric prices have increased by 69, 67 and 55 per cent respectively. This coincided with freight prices increasing on what seemed like a daily basis. This is a challenge for all PCB manufacturers and their suppliers, especially regarding heavier copper thickness PCBs.  

What is an average order quantity and what are typical applications? 

Average order is 10 to 20 boards because we specialise in rapid turnaround of prototype and small batch PCBs. Most PCBs are for industrial applications but, as we manufacture prototypes, we supply most sectors from Formula One cars and high end audio equipment, to  PCR testing machines and ventilators. 

What is a typical lead time and do you expect this to decrease or increase over coming months? 

Lead times have remained stable in the prototype and small batch PCB market. However, over the last 18-months, when ordering large volumes via trusted, long-standing offshore partners, lead times have increased by up to a week. We mainly receive PCBs via air freight from offshore partners. However, if they ship via sea when the air freight becomes too costly, this can fluctuate by an extra five to six weeks as sea freight options are volatile at present. 

What purchasing advice would you offer buyers now? 

The single best piece of advice I would offer purchasing professionals is: get to know your PCB manufacturer. Don’t just go on price. Find a manufacturer that is willing to get to know you and how you work. As the relationship grows, you will see more advantages of using them. If you can, visit them or have an online tour of their facility to gauge their technology, experience and skills. 

The cheapest price may be from a supplier who sources PCBs from various producers rather than manufacturing the products themselves so, when reordering the same PCBs, they could come from a completely new manufacturer. 

By using a trusted and respected in-house manufacturer, they will understand your requirements which helps with quality. Also, by using the same PCB manufacturer, this helps them secure a strong place in their supply chain, so when things get tough, they will have the resources to deliver PCBs on time.