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Far East IoT PCB fabrication: Don't get your hopes too high

Buyer-beware caution comes at a time when growing numbers of entrepreneurs are trying to grab a share of the burgeoning IoT market. As we all know, IoT technology is branching out into a multitude of markets and then even branching out further within certain markets — like medical electronics, manufacturing, military/aerospace and others — well beyond the consumer market. Therefore, it’s critical for the aspiring entrepreneurs and their startups to get a good handle on IoT PCB fabrication and assembly.

It’s also important to get a good handle on terminology because some terms are synonymously used in our business. PCB fabrication and PCB manufacturing mean the same thing, and they are quite often used interchangeably. Other times, the term manufacturing is often misused when referring to PCB assembly.

Here, we’re talking about IoT PCB fabrication. And upfront, I have to say it is not for the faint of heart. The reasons being that you’re dealing with either a flex circuit or combination rigid-flex circuitry. Both come with their own unique set of nuances, tweaks and configurations. You can bet in this business that there are definitely a lot of people who claim to be experts in IoT PCB fabrication.

But the fact of the matter is not all PCB shops are the same. This is especially true when you closely investigate some of the aggregate sites located in the Far East. Obviously, they’ll quickly tell you they’re the ones who can provide you with inexpensive IoT PCB solutions in terms of flex or flex-rigid circuit fabrication. So be sure to grab hold of your pocketbook and ask a lot of questions.

Here’s what an aggregate site or shop is: It’s a shop that aggregates or bundles multiple jobs in one panel when it comes to fabricating the printed circuit boards or PCBs. They don’t treat them as individual jobs. Rather, they treat them more like bulk jobs in such a way that project specifics are completely disregarded. Or in other words, aggregating them is solely for plain vanilla type jobs when it comes to fabricating these boards.

If the job involves any level of complexity requiring special attention, these shops aren’t capable of effectively handling it because they aggregate the jobs. For example, they take a large 24″ x 18″ FR4 PCB material panel, bundle six to 10 jobs on those right next to each other, and then run one panel as one job during the fabrication process with those six to 10 jobs together.

That’s why you can get the cheapest possible pricing. In the classic sense, what you’re getting are economies of scale — the old traditional American way of producing goods. In effect, you’re getting your IoT PCBs produced on a larger scale with less production costs the shop is incurring.

However here’s where caveat emptor comes in: The price is right, but the biggest tradeoff you’re making is questionable quality or reliability.

Let’s say your IoT PCB project requires a special lamination of via fill, tinted vias, via in pad, counter bore, laser drilling and/or laser direct imaging. The probability is high you’re not going to get these or other special manufacturing steps factored into your project at these Far East shops.

Having said that, yes, it’s a safe bet to send a certain class of IoT PCB projects to aggregate shops in the U. S., Canada and overseas. In our business that’s known as Class I type projects and generally fall into the category of inexpensive consumer gadgets, like wearable devices. These products are relatively inexpensive and sold in the millions at big retailers for about $10 to $20.

On the other hand, those aggregate shops are not the ones to go to if your IoT PCB project demands special attention, process development and, most of all, high reliability. These projects fall in the category of Class III and involve military/aerospace, medical electronics devices, biomedical, industrial and any other product that must be robust and highly reliable in its application.

So, as I mentioned, if you have a Class I IoT PCB that doesn’t require special considerations or if reliability and quality are not of prime concern, by all means you can use those shops for both fabrication and assembly.

But it’s important to know even for Class I IoT PCBs, aggregate shops perform assembly quickly and hastily without considering special process requirements. These are basic assembly steps, like batch washing, Ionographic cleaning, selective wave soldering and using paste height inspection machines. These machines are used to inspect correct placement of micro devices such as micro ball-grid arrays (µBGAs) chip-scale packaging (CSP) and flip chip devices. Plus, these shops generally don’t perform x-ray and automated optical inspection (AOI) to assure these devices are properly soldered.

So, if you’re OK with these fabrication and assembly steps or lack thereof, you’ll be relatively OK for your Class I IoT PCB project. But, frankly, avoid aggregate shops for Class II and Class III IoT PCB projects.

When you are shopping around and see IoT PCBs advertised for $10, $20 or $30 a piece, make sure you don’t have high expectations. These kinds of IoT PCBs don’t last forever. You might get a proof of concept; it might make you feel like you’re getting a good deal. But remember: this Class I type of product manufacturing won’t deliver the quality and reliability required for Class II and Class III projects.

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