If there is any electronic appliance or device component with zero tolerance for error, it is the Printed Circuit Board (PCB). As the blueprint for your entire circuit, a faulty PCB design can render your electronic project useless or produce serious functional problems.
The standard practice for eliminating the risk of mistakes in PCB design consists of testing and prototyping. It is always safer and cost-effective to prototype a PCB before heading into production. You’ll be saving time and money while maintaining a high level of quality of your circuit designs.
But prototyping is a broad subject of its own. This article will go into the basics of PCB prototyping to help you become familiar with this important phase of any circuit manufacturing project.
Prototyping Circuit Boards and Their Types
There are several different ways to prototype PCB boards. Still, all prototype boards have one thing in common: they lack the permanence of a PCB, allowing you to freely test your circuit before manufacturing the final product.
For instance, if you make a mistake in a PCB, there’s rarely anything you can do about it, other than discarding the whole circuit or salvaging components out of it to be reused in the next circuit.
But with a prototype board, you can try multiple circuit designs, see what works best, and make any modifications based on testing different circuit designs.
Once you’ve made sure the circuit is operating as per requirements, you can confidently move into the production phase and incorporate it into a permanent PCB design.
Let’s now consider some of the most common circuit boards used for PCB prototyping:
A breadboard is a solderless circuit board that is known for its simplicity. Typically, a breadboard consists of an array of small holes that you can fit your electronic components into.
The holes are arranged into rows and columns, with the columns being internally connected. This makes it easy to make a circuit without the use of any wires at all.
To connect one component with another, you can simply fit one of their terminals into the same column’s other holes. There’s no need to solder these components together and connect them with pieces of wire.
Due to this quality of breadboards, you can form countless different arrangements of circuits and perform tests as many times as you’d like. When you’ve found a circuit design that checks all the specification boxes, you’ll need to replicate that design into a PCB and call it a day.
There’s no solution for simple and small circuits that is more cost-effective and user-friendly than prototyping on a breadboard.
Veroboard (also known as stripboard) is another widely used option for prototyping PCB boards. Much like a breadboard, Veroboard consists of a grid of holes joined vertically by strips of copper.
These internal connections between holes serve as substitutes for wires, allowing easy interconnection between circuit components. Veroboards are semi-permanent boards because they usually require soldering for some of the connections (depending on circuit requirements).
The key difference between Veroboard and breadboards is size. Veroboards are thin and allow for a more compact circuit design than breadboards, which are large and bulky.
A perfboard is a type of prototype board that uses the “pad per hole” design, which means every hole is electrically isolated in the board. As a result, components can only be connected through soldering.
Perfboards are characterized by a higher degree of permanence than breadboards and veroboards due to the heavy soldering requirements and lack of internal electrical links between the grid holes.
Perfboards also provide greater flexibility in design since the circuit-maker is free to form connections as they like without being bound by pre-existing links between holes.
Planning a Prototype
While prototyping is always less resource-intensive than building circuits on a PCB, it is not a magical solution by itself.
Prototyping circuits without any prior planning can still prove to be costly. In no stage of circuit design and manufacture should you be wasteful.
Therefore, a wise approach to prototyping is one that is premised on sound planning.
Today, computer software enables easy circuit design planning. Building a circuit on computer software first helps you visualize what it will look like when put it together in practice. You can make endless revisions, edit your design idea on a computer, and even simulate the circuit’s operation or run tests digitally.
All these are valuable features that will improve your circuit designs, reduce costs, and make the whole prototyping phase much smoother. When you’re completely satisfied with the layout and design in the software, you can replicate the design on a prototype board.
To Prototype, or Not to Prototype, That Is the Question
PCB prototyping provides immense value by helping manufacturers detect errors and mistakes early in the production process. It seldom takes more than one bad connection to damage a circuit beyond repair. Prototyping helps avoid such costly failures.
Besides, circuit engineering isn’t just about producing what works. It’s also about producing things that work with the greatest efficiency.
There is always more than one way of designing a circuit for a particular application, but each unique approach entails differences in efficiency levels.
During prototyping, the technician can test different circuit designs and compare their efficiencies in terms of power consumption, heat losses, and component life, thus making better decisions for the project.
Finally, while theoretical analysis is a great tool for understanding a circuit’s behavior and learning plenty of other details about one, there’s no substitute for actual hands-on testing.
On paper, it is all too easy to underestimate the influence of a certain discrete component when included in a complex mesh of other circuit elements. It is a different story to observe a circuit’s behavior with the convenient lens of measuring instruments and equipment.
So prototyping a PCB can help reveal things that may otherwise be unknown to the designer. Once you have the prototype ready, you can share it with a contract electronic manufacturer to inform them of your preferences. The process should improve the quality of the final product and the specifications offered to the assembler/manufacturer. And if you need help with prototyping, contact our experienced team at EMS Solutions.