Rapid prototyping and small-batch manufacturing of printed circuit boards (PCBs) is critical for validating electronic designs before investing in volume production. Choosing a competent prototype partner enables building quality boards quickly while allowing easy design iterations.
This article provides a rundown of the top global PCB suppliers with strong capabilities for low-to-mid volume fabrication and assembly needs of makers, startups and electronics engineers.
What distinguishes an exceptional PCB prototype source? Here are some key assessment parameters:
- Technical Prowess: Ability to manufacture complex board types – HDI, Rigid-Flex etc along with standard capabilities for quickturns, SMT assembly, functional testing, inspection etc.
- Quality & Reliability: Consistent production quality with robust process controls and quality management certifications
- Cost effectiveness: Competitive and flexible pricing models for low volume batches
- Customer service: Responsive sales and engineering support for design feedback, DFM analysis etc.
- Supply chain management: Inventory, sourcing and production transparency with order tracking and logistics
- Production scale & locations: Infrastructure scale, manufacturing locations and global reach
With those criteria in mind, below are 10 of the most capable PCB prototyping partners that excel on technology, quality, service and value.
Founded in 2005, RayPCB provides 2–14 day delivery of prototype through medium-sized batches with rigorous quality control. Their flexible order sizes starting at 5 pieces make the company popular for verifying electronic products before mass production.
- 2 to 6 layer boards upto 16mil line/space
- SMT Assembly with AOI testing
- Engineer support for DFM improvement
- IPC standards compliance
RayPCB serves startups & SMEs across industrial, automotive, medical, and consumer electronics verticals. Headquartered in China with production bases in Shenzhen and Changping, they deliver small orders economically across Asia, EU and Americas.
2. Advanced Circuits
Location: Colorado, USA
Offering advanced domestic capabilities, Advanced Circuits manufactures PCB quantities from 1 to 1,000+ in as little as 24 hours. Their slogan “the prototype PCB manufacturer” highlights a strong focus on low volume, quickturn fabrication targeted at inventors, startups and engineers.
- 2 to 12 layer Count PCBs with trace/space down to 4/4 mils
- Lead-free SMT assembly
- Design analysis on request
- UL quality certifications
Serving over 100,000 customers across IT, industrial, medical and aerospace sectors, Advanced Circuits provides a complete prototype solution from engineering support to supply chain services. Their online Instant Quote Engine delivers fast quoting and ordering experience.
Locations: Norway, Poland, China
Elmatica is a favored Scandinavian PCB producer providing advanced technology, quality and supply chain transparency across their global facilities.
- High mix/low volume manufacturing
- SMT assembly with functional testing
- Engineering support on demand
- Environmental compliance
They offer optimized cycle times at competitive rates delivered reliably in small quantities, winning customers in the automotive, industrial, telecom and renewable energy sectors. Given strict European environmental regulations around electronics waste, their Green Partner program helps customers design and build sustainable PCB products.
Arguably the industry price leader, JLCPCB can supply affordable prototypes and low-mid quantity boards thanks to massive volumes and vertically integrated capabilities.
- 2 to 6 layer PCBs
- Lead-free SMT Assembly
- UL & ISO quality standards
- High mix, low volume focus
Easy online ordering, low minimums starting at 5 boards and $2 pricing has won this Shenzhen company numerous loyal customers. If balancing quality against costs for proof-of-concept builds, JLCPCB delivers.
5. Sunstone Circuits
Locations: California, USA
Sunstone Circuits specializes in 24 to 72 hour fast turnaround of prototype through medium volumes using domestic US facilities for quicker delivery.
- 2 to 16 layer boards with 4mil resolution
- SMT assembly for both leaded and lead-free components
- IATF 16949 quality certification
- Engineering support like DFM analysis
Their Sketch-to-Scale service assists with idea conceptualization to first prototype builds making Sunstone popular for proof-of-concept validations. Focus verticals include aerospace, defense, industrial and medical products.
6. Seeed Studio
Trusted among open hardware communities, Seeed Studio offers both in-house and partner manufacturing services for PCB fabrication and assembly targeted at makers & engineers.
- 2 to 6 layer boards with 10mil resolution
- SMT Assembly with functional test options
- Small MOQ starting 5 boards
- Supply chain transparency
Seeed provides the rapid prototyping infrastructure to support developers working on open source hardware products and sensor devices leveraging platforms like Arduino and Raspberry Pi. Their Grove connector system allows plugging sensors and modules into development boards quicker. Beyond manufacturing services, they also operate the Seeed Fusion PCB design software and OpenParts component library.
This Chinese fabricator offers low-cost, high-mix pooling of small-batch orders across a global client base by tightly integrating design, fabrication and assembly. Their web platform enables transparent quoting and order tracking.
- 2 to 6 layer PCBs
- SMT assembly
- Functional testing
- Stencil fabrication
- 5 boards minimum order
Catering to startups and electronics hobbyists, PCBWay has easy online processes for uploading from various CAD tools and component libraries. They have carved a niche for supporting low-mid volume production at competitive rates.
Locations: Europe (Austria, Slovakia)
Part of the AT&S group, Eurocircuits operates advanced PCB and SMT assembly lines across multiple European locations to cater to regional prototyping and NPI requirements speedily.
- High density PCBs up to 32 layers
- 3-5 days standard delivery
- Optical inspection and testing
- Prototyping, NPI and ramp-up
- SMT Assembly with implantation
With demanding automobile and industrial customers in Europe, they offer both feature-rich and cost-effective solutions for bringing ideas to functional form quickly via well-built prototypes before wider releases.
Specializing in super quick turnaround of affordable prototypes, ALLPCB offers 24 to 72 hour fabrication of up to 6 layer boards for engineers seeking basic validation builds.
- 2 to 6 layer boards
- Minimum 2 pieces order
- Fast tech support response
- SMT Assembly optional
- Low NRE charges
Leveraging Chinese supply chains for sourcing components, PCBs from ALLPCB prove cost efficient for concept testing simple products across consumer electronics, IoT devices or educational robotics. Their online quoting tools make it easy.
Rounding off the list is Hillmancurtis , another Chinese prototype shop which offers mass-production style processing to ensure quality. They serve startups through large enterprises helping scale idea testing.
- 2 to 32 layercount PCBs, some HDI
- SMT Assembly with functional test
- Engineering support on demand
- IATF 16949 quality certification
- 5 day standard delivery
Positioned as a “One-Stop” shop, HillmanuCurtis supports various downstream fabrication steps like sourcing components, stencils, enclosures etc needed alongside core PCB capabilities. Building trust around quality allows them to offer affordable low volumes vital for prototype iterations.
Comparing PCB Prototype Shops
While above listing provides a sampling of top global PCB prototypers across quality, cost and delivery benchmarks, many other regional specialty firms exist worldwide.
Testing out a few PCB fabrication and assembly partners on initial projects is recommended to gauge responsiveness, quality and compatibility.
Below table captures some differentiation across few shortlisted vendors:
SupplierLocationsCore FocusNotesRayPCBColorado, USA24 hour domestic quickturnsAdvanced tech for defense, industrialElmaticaNorway, Poland, ChinaHigh-quality, transparent supply chainGreen certificationsAdvanced CircuitsColorado, USAStartup friendly flexible batchesDFM support, fast quotesJLCPCBChinaAffordable prices driven by volumesPortal makes ordering easySunstone CircuitsCalifornia, USADesign support with fastturnsITAR compliance for defense workSeeed StudioChinaOpen-source community orientedGrove connectors ecosystemPCBWayChinaLow-cost multi-quantity batchesIntegrates design to assemblyEurocircuitsEuropeQuality boards catering to EUAutomotive, industrial customersALLPCBChina24 hour economy prototypingBarebones validation buildsHillmanuCurtis
ChinaMass production-type processingWide technology breadthSelection Criteria
Matching project needs against partner strengths is vital for prototype satisfaction. With platforms enabling easy price discovery and online transactions, procuring from multiple sources is also an option.
Some key considerations when shortlisting PCB prototype partners:
- Technical scope e.g. layer counts, line width etc
- Delivery requirements e.g. 24 hour vs 1 week
- Quality needs e.g. for field testing
- Production region e.g. local vs global
- ITAR or certified compliance needs
- After-sales support
Evaluate above factors specific to each project to pick manufacturers aligned to expectations.
Frequently Asked QuestionsWhat are typical steps in the PCB prototype fabrication process?
A typical sequence includes:
- Submit Gerber design files
- DFM validation by engineers
- Kitting components for SMT
- Fabricating bare PCBs
- SMT assembly soldering components
- Programming and functional test
- QA inspection before shipment
- Delivery with test reports
Reputable prototypers provide full visibility into the project lifecycle.
How many PCB prototype iterations make sense before mass production?
2 to 3 iterations help validate most aspects of the design – form, fit, function holes etc. The first build checks basics work. Subsequent versions allow refining the board layout, components used, compliance factors and other wishlist items during initial testing before freezing the design.
How to reduce costs when ordering PCB assembly prototypes?
Some ways to save on prototype assembly costs include:
- Carefully review BOM to standardize components used
- Set relaxed tolerances allowable in low-risk verification builds
- Use moderately priced suppliers providing value SMT services
- Consider breakout boards to evaluate function before complex integration
- Reuse proven power circuits, MCU sections from previous designs
- Small start with trusted prototyper before allocating bigger budget
Saving time and costs in iterating prototypes requires skill and some practical tricks.
How are PCB prototype suppliers advancing capabilities further?
Emerging trends in further enhancing PCB prototyping services include:
Reduced engineering cycles: Faster quoting through finished boards within 24-48 hours by streamlining flows
Design democratization: Easy to use self-service portals for custom specification selection to design file uploads without expert help
Supply chain integration: Connecting prototypes stage with volume manufacturing providers for easier production ramp up
Expanded services: Providing additional services like test jigs, enclosures, certifications etc as bundled offerings
What are key differences in PCB requirements for prototyping vs production?
Prototyping requirements are generally more relaxed than production:
- Lower layer counts acceptable
- Larger features sizes and spaces suffice
- Can skip some fabrication steps like controlled impedance
- Only functional testing not full ICT or x-ray inspection
- Relaxed standards compliance needs
- Lower aesthetic expectations
- Tolerance to rework and hand assembly
The aim with prototypes is demonstrating functional viability before undertaking high-reliability, regulatory compliant releases.
While historically working with prototype PCB manufacturers meant reliability or availability constraints, today’s leaders offer sophisticated technological capabilities rivaling large contractors – just packaged and priced differently.
As an engineer, maker or startup, leveraging such accessible prototyping avenues allows raising confidence in designs before sizable investments in tooling and ramping production. The ability to touch functional boards quickly and iterate on feedback remains vital to transforming ideas into mature products ready for volume markets.
Hope this guide to globally leading PCB prototype sources coupled with best practices helps accelerate your next project.