How to protect your PCB design from manufacturer?

Some people may worry that the PCB design maybe copied by manufacturers since if you are contract turnkey manufacturing your PCB in China, you will have to offer them with all the assembly documentation as well as the BOM and Gerber art for the PCB and any programming for Firmware.

Some advice for you to avoid your design being cloned by a PCB manufacturer or even a turnkey contractor manufacturer.

  • Ask for signing a NDA (Non-disclosure agreement) with the PCB manufacturer to get your design legally protected.
  • Turnkey contractor manufacturers send the IC to a third party (for example authorized by Microchip or ST. etc) for programming and meanwhile, you share programming files (hex/bin) with the third party.
  • Make sure that one organization does not have both the Gerbers and the BOM at the same time. That means you will have to order the PCB blanks from a reputable firm, give them the Gerbers, then ship the PCB blanks to your PCB assembler with a BOM and assembly diagram for them to order and place parts.
  • Choose PCB fabricators who do not have a design service. Their business model relies on manufacturing to a customer’s specifications. The PCB fabrication business is really mostly chemical engineering, not electronics. Some of these also do ODM work. Since these companies do more than just fabrication, they might be tempted to copy something that comes through the door.
  • Pick a reliable and professional manufacturer, not only the price but also think about the quality, the service and the comment. This is the most important thing you need to do.

In fact, PCB is only a small part of the completed product. There are many things that need to be done to get a finished product, like components, software, enclosure, etc. You can’t get a product to run without programming and software. Basically, the contract manufacturer won’t copy your design as their core business is different from yours.

So in most cases, you don’t need to worry about your contractor as much. Most contractors do not have overlapping business with their customers, although there are cases otherwise as well. What you really need is for your competitors to get hold of your PCB and reverse engineer it, and this is something that can’t be helped. Even if someone reverses engineers a particular design and reaches the point of selling it, the originators of the design will have already produced version 2 of the design and still be a generation ahead.