Factors Driving PCB Costs and How to Estimate Them

Interest in prices is universal; for businesses, even a $0.1 difference in mass PCB production can result in significant cost variations. For DIY enthusiasts, assessing whether the expense is worthwhile is equally crucial. While there are many PCB cost calculators available from manufacturers to expedite estimation, understanding PCB cost drivers and having a rough idea of them is a better starting point.

Bare Board Cost Drivers

Compared to assembly projects, bare boards are more transparent, as there are fewer miscellaneous items that manufacturers can use to obfuscate costs. Generally, PCB bare board cost drivers mainly include substrate, layer count, size, and drilling.

Substrate

The substrate is the core of a PCB and is usually named after the material it’s made of, such as ceramic PCB and Rogers PCB. The choice of substrate typically depends on project requirements rather than cost considerations. For instance, in high-power LED projects, more expensive aluminum substrates might be used for better heat dissipation instead of FR4. When determining substrate, one can initially opt for the general direction that meets requirements, then choose the most cost-effective option within that category.

  • General Electronic: Polyimide > High TG FR-4 > FR4 > FR1 > CEM-1
  • High Frequency: Rogers > Isola > Taconic > Dupont > Panasonic
  • Flexible: Polyimide > Polyamide > Polyester > PTFE
  • Metal: Aluminum > Copper > Iron

Layer Count

Circuit boards are sandwich-like structures formed by stacking layers, and as the layer count increases, additional material and wiring costs are incurred. However, the most critical factor is not just these but the increase in manufacturing complexity and process intricacy. These changes ultimately increase the failure rate, which, in turn, shifts these potential risks and costs onto users. Additionally, not all manufacturers are equipped to handle more layers, further limiting your options and ultimately leading to significantly increased costs.

Increase in layer countIncrease in overall cost
1 layer to 2 layers35 to 40%
2 layers to 4 layers35 to 40%
4 layers to 6 layers30 to 40%
6 layers to 8 layers30 to 35%
8 layers to 10 layers20 to 30%
10 layers to 12 layers20 to 30%

Size

Size encompasses both PCB size and panel size. Generally, smaller sizes are more cost-effective under the same conditions because they require less material. While PCB size needs little explanation, panel size is related to the shape.

During the production process, PCB are typically manufactured in panel form, where multiple PCB are integrated onto a larger panel and then cut into individual boards upon completion. This implies that there are gaps between boards, which are considered as waste. If you use regular PCB outlines, you can get more boards on the same panel size.

Drilling

Drilling is a core in PCB manufacturing process, including holes for component connection and mounting. Its impact on PCB board costs primarily lies in size and quantity.

For some miniaturized designs or advanced applications, designers often employ more micro-drilling to achieve surface utilization and improve electrical performance. Traditional processes use CNC for drilling, but it may not be suitable for microvias, requiring more advanced laser drilling equipment to ensure smooth hole walls. Regarding quantity, it mainly brings additional workload as each hole requires precise processing and testing.

PCB Assembly Cost Drivers

Compared to bare board manufacturing, differences between manufacturers may be more significant in assembly services. On the one hand, this is related to the services you choose; on the other hand, the component also has a significant impact. Generally, factors PCBA cost drivers mainly include component procurement, assembly services, and testing services.

Component Procurement

If you opt for turnkey services, manufacturers will procure components for you. Obviously, this service is not free, and you may need to pay higher costs. For example, if there are 100 components on one PCB, and you need 10,000 boards, even if the price of each component increases by one cent, you will need to pay an additional $10,000. For most companies focused on assembly services, this may be their main source of income. However, this does not mean that turnkey services are not cost-effective, as you do not need to prepare warehouses to store components, nor do you need to spend a lot of time comparing component prices.

Assembly Services

In fact, assembly services only have two directions: SMT assembly and THT assembly. For mass production, it is usually automated. The former uses pick-and-place machines and reflow ovens to complete the process, while the latter uses insertion machines and reflow ovens. For small batches or prototypes, assembly may be done manually throughout the entire process.

Testing Services

To ensure accuracy in production, the PCB assembly process usually includes necessary testing as a key quality control measure. However, these tests may not always cover all PCBA project requirements. For some special PCBA projects, additional testing may be required to meet industry standards and specific requirements, such as temperature cycling tests for automotive projects or biocompatibility tests for medical projects. These all require additional costs!

Extra Items

Expedited Services

When selecting a manufacturer, you are usually informed of a standard production cycle and sign confirmation in the contract. However, for some customers who need projects to be completed quickly, such standard times may not meet their needs. Therefore, they may need to choose expedited services. This means that manufacturers need to take additional measures, such as prioritizing customers’ projects or running production continuously day and night to ensure that projects can be completed on time. To do this you need to compensate the manufacturer or pay employees overtime.

Service-Oriented Companies

According to the operating mode of manufacturers, they can be divided into different types, including self-owned factories, intermediaries, and service-oriented companies. If you choose a service-oriented company, you may face higher project costs. These companies act as a bridge between you and the manufacturer, helping you track the progress of the project and organizing documents more professionally for your reference. Choosing such companies is equivalent to hiring an external project management team to serve you, and all you need to do is pay for the service fees.

Shipping and Packaging

With the deepening of the global market, your projects are no longer limited to domestic manufacturing. For customers in Europe and the United States, they may choose services from China, India, and other places to reduce costs. However, this raises the issue of shipping costs because air, land, and sea transportation all have different prices and advantages. Moreover, choosing appropriate packaging is also essential because additional protection may increase costs.

Acceptance Standards

You can instruct manufacturers to execute acceptance standards, such as not accepting scratches or only not accepting faults. These standards directly affect the yield rate. For example, if you require manufacturers to execute IPC-A-600E Class 1 standards, it may result in 98% of the board in a batch meeting acceptance standards. However, if executed according to Class 3 standards, this number may decrease to 90%. Obviously, the number that does not pass acceptance will ultimately be included in your costs.

Ending

PCB costs are influenced by numerous factors and cannot be summarized in just a few sentences. However, one thing is clear: do not sacrifice quality for cost reduction. Therefore, you should choose verified manufacturers and ensure that they meet your expectations in terms of price, service, and quality. If you are confused about how to choose, don’t worry, TechSparks has prepared a list of PCB manufacturers for you, these manufacturers are active and have received praise from many users.

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