Everything You Should Know About Dirt-Cheap PCBs

dirt-cheap pcbs

Today, you can find numerous companies manufacturing printed circuit boards (PCBs). But finding the one that’s perfect for you and your needs can be expensive. All companies are looking to lower their costs and increase production rates.

But, the answer is yes — there are several ways you can lower the costs of production and find printed circuit boards for a fraction of the price. Of course, some might believe that a lower price means lower quality as well — and they would be right. 

However, this is not exactly a problem for you and your company if a low-quality product is your goal. Here, we will take a look at price differences for printed circuit boards, what affects them, and how you can lower the expenses while using and ordering PCBs. 

What Affects the Price of PCBs?

There are so many factors that may affect the price of your printed circuit board. Firstly, you have materials used during the manufacturing process. Naturally, the better the materials, the higher the price will be. 

For example, standard PCBs have FR-4 material as the core of the board. It might work for some devices, but others will require something a lot more reliable. The printed board in your microwave is not exposed to such a harsh environment as boards in spacecraft. They also don’t require the same high reliability as the ones in medical equipment. As a result, the latter ones will undoubtedly cost significantly more. 

Furthermore, the size of the PCB is another thing you need to consider. Even if you use standard materials (like FR-4), you will still need more of it for larger boards. That will only increase the cost. 

The next thing on the list is the number of layers. The simplest PCBs have one or two layers. But, it is not rare to see one with many more inner layers (sixteen and up). The customer can also choose the type of finish, including HASL, OSP, ENIG, IMM Ag, and so on. 

Finally, any other custom request will increase the cost even further, like side-plating, contoured edges, solder mask clearance, thickness, hole size, etc. 

The complexity and materials used during the design will all play a small part in the final price of the printed circuit board. Sometimes, it can be quite expensive. While it is not a problem on some occasions, it is an expense you can’t afford in others. 

Quality of the PCB

Printed circuit boards fall into three classes based on their quality. According to IPC-6012, these classes determine the use and requirements for the printed boards. 

Class 1 are boards for general electronic products. They have a “limited life,” and they are often used for devices with short life cycles. These boards have the lowest quality, and they are not planned for continuous use. 

A perfect example of Class 1 boards are remote controls you can find in your TV remote or garage doors. They are designed to do a simple task and then stay inactive until you need them again. 

The second on the list are Class 2 PCBs. They are dedicated electronic products. The quality is significantly increased compared to the first category, and they are designed for “extended life.” When it comes to life cycles, Class 2 PCBs are created for uninterrupted service. 

The performance is important, but it is not critical. You can find an example of Class 2 boards in household equipment, like air conditioning, TVs, tablets, etc. If something happened to the Class 2 printed board, you would probably be angry, but you wouldn’t put your life at risk. 

That leads us to Class 3 PCBs that have the highest quality and reliability. Here, the rules are a lot stricter, and the quality is unprecedented. Class 3 boards have longer life cycles, and they are an essential part of the product. You can often find these boards in medical equipment, military devices, spacecraft, etc.

Prototypes

Many companies manufacturing PCBs announced dirt-cheap dirty boards, but what are these cheap prototypes anyway? The prototype board is a test board designed with the sole purpose of checking if everything works according to plan. 

The idea behind it is to see if your plan actually works without having to invest a lot of money in the process. Regardless of the type of device you are working on, the idea first is to see if your plan is even possible.

Even if your electronics require a high-end PCB, you can still use a cheap one during the testing phase. Your goal is to check some of the basic functions on your device, and the quality doesn’t matter at all at that stage. 

That means you won’t really put anyone at risk with the cheap board since you won’t be using the device but testing it instead. So, for all situations and times where quality doesn’t play an important role, PCB prototypes are a perfect choice. 

To put it simply, the last thing you need is to order an expensive Class 3 board only to see that it doesn’t fit your device or that you designed something incorrectly, causing it to not work according to your wishes. 

Why Are Prototypes Good and Why Should You Invest in Them?

There are so many reasons why prototypes are so good and why they are becoming more and more popular. The most obvious reason is the price — they can be quite cheap. Since they are used for tests only, you can have open hardware or save money on solder mask colors, a number of solder mask layers, or anything else since this won’t be the final product. 

But one of the most important reasons for using prototypes is avoiding mistakes. Regardless of how careful you are, mistakes are bound to happen. It is so much cheaper for them to happen on a cheap test board than during the final production. 

It is not rare for a company to order a series of simpler boards to test some of the functions or see which way they want to improve their design. When the testing is complete, they can proceed to more complex designs and order the “real deal.”

Finally, the order status can be completed a lot quicker if you order a prototype. Since manufacturing the prototype is a lot simpler, the delivery process will be faster as well. You won’t need to wait for months to receive your order, and you can start testing them even sooner. 

Price vs. Quality

So, the main question is whether you should focus on the price or quality. These two relations are connected, and it is nearly impossible for you to get something that is high-quality for a low price. 

The question you need to ask yourself is what type of board you need. If you are looking for a prototype, the quality shouldn’t be your primary concern. It is always smarter to focus on the price since there are so many things that could go wrong during the process. Why invest in something that might get destroyed or simply won’t work once you start testing it? 

Furthermore, you might realize that you want to add some changes to the design, and that wouldn’t be good to do on an expensive printed circuit board. 

On the other hand, once the testing phase is complete, your goal is for your device to function as properly as possible, especially if you are in need of Class 3 PCBs. If this is the case, then you should focus on the quality instead. 

While many people believe that they should avoid cheap options and low-quality products, the reality is quite the opposite. Both cheap and expensive printed circuit boards have their purpose, and you should carefully consider the way you plan on using them before you go shopping. 

Conclusion

Manufacturing printed circuit boards can be quite expensive. But there are a couple of ways you can lower the production costs. If you plan on using the PCB during the testing phase, it might be a good idea to order a prototype. 

PCB prototypes offer significantly lower quality for a fraction of the price. That way, you can safely test some of the basic functions of your electronic device and see if there are any problems before you order a printed circuit board of higher quality. 

If you have any questions about the prices, manufacturing processes, or anything else regarding PCBs, MKTPCB has over a decade of experience working in the field. We will be more than happy to help you with any problem you might have. All you need to do is contact us, and we will do our best to help you with your issues or questions.

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