What Do Hobbyists Want From A PCB Manufacturer?

For prototype printed circuit boards, I have a favorite PCB manufacturer that I use almost exclusively. I prefer them because they have excellent quality, low prices, and no extra charges for solder mask, silkscreen, and non-rectangular boards.

I wondered what types of things other people look for in a PCB manufacturer. So, I set up a survey through SurveyMonkey.

Consider taking the survey before you read the results, to avoid swaying your opinion. It’s only 10 quick questions.

Seriously.

Less than five minutes.

Ready?

Okay.

Here are the questions, results, and personal commentary...

Q1: How many prototypes boards per order would you prefer?

Optimal boards per order

Optimal boards per order

No surprise here. I usually use one or two boards, with the third being the spare (unless the resulting project is fantastic). If you want more, most people are comfortable placing multiple orders of three.


Q2: If there was a maximum board dimension limit (but you could make smaller boards), what would be a reasonable maximum?

Maximum board size

Maximum board size

The smallest size is the ExpressPCB standard. I figured most people would choose that. But, I guess enough people have run into a limit there, where 4x5 gives enough breathing room for most projects.


Q3: If there was a preset price for that maximum size limit, what would be reasonable and would cause you to switch from your current manufacturer?

Cost per board

Cost per board

The $5 price was a trick answer. If most people chose that, then I knew the survey was not an effective way of getting pricing information. So, I was pleased to see that people were reasonable with a low (but not unobtainable) price.


Q4: For prototypes, would you prefer fixed pricing or per square inch?

Pricing model

Pricing model

This was a dumb question by me. For prototypes, the pricing formula doesn’t matter as long as the final price is reasonable.


Q5: What is the optimal price for the total order (not including postage)

Optimal cost per order

Optimal cost per order

Because the responses are pinned on the low end, I should have included some lower values. Given the '$10 per board' and '3 boards per order' answers, would people have chosen $30 total? Or would people have been willing to have a fixed $20 per order setup cost to raise the total to $50?


Q6: How long should it take to manufacture? (From the time the order is received to the time it is placed in the mail)

Manufacturing time

Manufacturing time

This is a healthy response. Most people are willing to wait a little bit. I admit that I would prefer 3 days with 2 day shipping so that I can work on a weekend and get the board by the next weekend. I’d be willing to pay a moderate premium (33%) for such a service, as long as that including US shipping.


Q7: Assume 2 layer/4 layer, top silkscreen, and solder mask on both sides. In order of importance, what other features are most important to you?

Feature choices

Feature choices

People really want flexibility on board shape. At first, I figured that was because people show off their prototype boards, but then I saw that people didn’t care about solder mask and silkscreen colors (which bummed me out). I guess it is because a lot of prototypes are for custom solutions and no one likes to machine FR-4 substrate.

I understand why no one cares about IPC and ISO standards for prototypes.

A lot of people ask me how to add non-plated holes to a PCB. This survey response was not as strong as I thought it would be, but I guess if you have the need for non-plated holes, then you must really have the need.


Q8: Do you care if the manufacturer gets to pick whatever solder mask color (green, red, blue, etc) they have in the machine at the time the prototypes run?

Solder mask color

Solder mask color

Okay manufacturers, now is your opportunity to play around a little bit. People do not care about solder mask color. Try red or blue! Use leftovers from a larger run!


9: In order of priority, which is the most important for you when ordering prototypes

Choosing manufacturer

Choosing manufacturer

I was glad to see that price was balanced with other factors, such as quality, volume, speed, and convenience.

The last response, 'established relationship' is a great example of the error of self-selection in surveys. You see, I posted this survey to an online forum that primarily consists of people who are comfortable switching from an exclusive vendor. In comparison, there are presumably tens of thousands of ExpressPCB customers that are willing to pay more for their boards and be constrained in size and shape. If you were a PCB manufacturer and took these survey results at face value, you'd be mistaken in assuming that customers aren't driven by an established relationship. When you have a positive experience with a PCB manufacturer, you tend to use them as long they stay in the ballpark competitively, and don't mess up any of your orders.

I found the survey results very interesting. Thank you to everyone who responded.