A printed circuit board (PCB) copy service reproduces an existing PCB design by creating a duplicate board. This allows companies or individuals to leverage proven PCB designs without incurring the full cost of designing and testing a new board. Key benefits of using a PCB copy service include saving time and money on the PCB development process.
How does PCB copy service work?
The PCB copy process is relatively straightforward. The key steps include:
Provide the Original PCB Files
The client provides Gerber files, drill files, and any other necessary data for the existing PCB design. This gives the PCB copy house all the information they need to replicate the board.
Review and Optimization
The PCB manufacturer reviews the supplied files to ensure they meet manufacturing requirements. This may involve making minor adjustments or optimizations to the PCB layout or layer stackup.
Fabricate the Copy PCB
Using the original design data, the PCB fabricator creates brand new boards. This involves the same manufacturing processes used for producing new PCB designs, such as:
- Photolithography to pattern copper layers
- Drilling of holes and vias
- Plating and etching to form conductive traces
- Soldermask application
- Silkscreen printing of component outlines and labels
- Testing and inspection
The end result is a fresh set of circuit boards matching the original design.
Why Use PCB Copy Services?
There are several key reasons companies and engineers utilize PCB copying services:
Save Development Time and Cost
The primary benefit is avoiding the time and expense of designing a new PCB from scratch. By re-using proven designs, engineers minimize risk and speed time-to-market.
Update Legacy or Discontinued Boards
If an older PCB design becomes unavailable, copying can recreate the needed boards. This helps when original design files or fabrication data is lost.
Reduce Risk of Design Changes
Copying an existing, field-tested PCB avoids introducing risks of modifying the design. The replicated board retains the electrical and physical characteristics of the original.
Duplicate Small Batch or Custom PCBs
For one-off or short-run boards, copying eliminates minimum order requirements associated with fabricating new designs.
Obtain Replacements for Damaged/Worn Boards
Rather than redesigning and requalifying a new PCB, copying produces inexpensive replacements for worn or damaged boards.
Satisfy Service Agreements
PCB manufacturers often provide copy services to fulfill contractual obligations of supplying boards for ongoing product support.
Scale Production Capacity
Copying PCBs through multiple suppliers scales up manufacturing capacity for high-volume production.
What Does PCB Copy Service Include?
PCB copying services typically provide the following as part of reproducing a customer’s existing board design:
- Accepting Gerber, drill, and other PCB data files
- Reviewing designs and suggesting improvements if needed
- Generating fabrication data
- Procuring necessary materials
- Producing bare boards
- 100% electrical testing
- Visual inspection
- Packaging and delivery
Additional services may include:
- Design rule check (DRC)
- Layer stackup review and optimization
- Test point insertion
- Impedance tuning
- Soldermask color options
- Unique board shapes/routings
- Component procurement/SMT assembly
- Design revisions
- Consulting services
Prototyping and small batch quantities are ideal applications for PCB copying services. Typical turnaround times range from 24 hours up to 15 business days depending on order size.
Gerber File Requirements
To reproduce a PCB design, PCB manufacturers require complete Gerber files of the existing layout. At a minimum, this includes:
- Copper layers (top, bottom, internal)
- Soldermask layers (top, bottom)
- Silkscreen layers (top, bottom)
- Drill file
The preferred format is RS-274X Gerber files, along with Excellon drill files. Customers should supply ReadMe files detailing any special notes, layer stackup info, and other instructions.
PCB Copy vs. New Design – Comparison
Here is a brief comparison between utilizing a PCB copy service versus creating an entirely new board design:
|PCB Copy Service||New PCB Design|
|Faster process – avoids design cycle||Slower process – full design cycle required|
|Lower cost – saves development fees||Higher cost – engineering time required|
|Minimizes risk – proven design||Risk of new design issues|
|Exact replica of original||Modifications introduce unknowns|
|Shorter lead time||Longer lead time|
|Limited quantities||Scales to high-volume mfg|
|Ideal for legacy/discontinued boards||Used for new applications|
Overall, PCB copying is best for recreating an existing, tested design quickly and affordably. Fully new designs allow more flexibility but require greater time, cost, and risk during development.
FQA About PCB Copy Services
Here are answers to some frequently asked questions about PCB copy services:
Q: Can any PCB be copied?
A: Most standard PCB designs can be replicated by a copy service. Complex boards with very fine features may have limitations. The manufacturer reviews designs to verify manufacturability.
Q: How long does PCB copying take?
A: Turnaround time is typically 5-15 business days. Prototyping services can deliver in 24 hours. Production time varies based on order quantity and fabrication backlog.
Q: What are the costs?
A: PCB copying costs are based on size, layer count, and order quantity. In general, copying is cheaper than new fabrication since no engineering time is required.
Q: Can components be assembled onto copied boards?
A: Many PCB manufacturers offer assembly of copied boards either in-house or through partner EMS companies. This provides fully assembled and tested boards.
Q: Can I modify the original design?
A: Limited changes are possible such as testpoints or layer adjustments. But it is not recommended to significantly modify proven designs. Changes can require re-testing.
Q: How many times can a PCB be copied?
A: There is no specific limit. As long as the manufacturer has the Gerber data, a PCB can be duplicated repeatedly over years. New fabrication is done each time.
PCB copy services provide a fast and affordable way to reproduce existing, proven printed circuit board designs. By leveraging previous engineering efforts, companies and engineers can quickly obtain new boards without the cost of new design work. PCB copying is ideal for replacing legacy boards, scaling production, and reducing project risk. Along with a good design for manufacturability review, PCB manufacturers can expertly replicate customer-supplied designs, helping accelerate the product development lifecycle.