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If there is one way to ensure that a product is reliable, it is to ensure predictability for its PCB, which is an essential component of the product.  In fact PCBs are today the core component in nearly every electronic gadget ranging from phones to computer systems. In fact from automotive to defense, aeronautics to, technology, there is no industry where PCBs don’t have a ubiquitous presence.

In all these industries reliability of the product is of utmost importance. Be it medical technology or aviation, any mistake can prove to be costly. Similarly in the medical arena failure of a device can have dire consequences resulting in loss of life.

What this necessitates is that the conventional approach to predictability is recast. Traditional approaches to predictability are typically based on physical inspection.  However inspection comes with an inherent disadvantage, which is that only outwardly flaws can be checked. Also the additional issue faced with physical inspection is that when PCBs are complex and have innumerable vias, micro sectioning and inspection becomes a logistical nightmare. In case just a few vias are inspected, the process can ever be fool proof. With high product diversity, traditional statistical tools aren’t enough to figure out the flaws

The other primary disadvantage with the inspection process is that it can be carried out after the manufacturing process is over. One, this process is costly. Secondly, the flaws could have other inter linkages and thus there is a chance that other lots could also be affected.

For PCBs that are high on complexity and product diversity, therefore, predictability, which traditional inspection cannot guarantee is all the more crucial.

A solution to this issue is the use of extremely comprehensive data analysis, testing automation and digitalization. It is comprehensive statistics that can lead to reliability as well as traceability. With robust data predictions can be accurately made. Any unusual behavior can be called out and atypical products can be removed.

What this essentially requires is that all available data be stored in a centralized manner. In fact each machine needs to be programmed with an interface so that all data is loaded into a centralized warehouse. This in turn, allows in-depth data analysis. It also ensures that unlike the process of physical inspection, relevant correlations are made when there are failures. However even here there is a challenge as data is procured from multiple sources and translates to innumerable data points. This problem can be overcome with formalizing a two-stage data processing format. The first stage refers to normalizing the data and the second, analyzing this normalized data. Scientific data analysis means that you need not rely on finding the issue after the process of manufacturing is over and then respond to it on a reactive basis. Instead it allows you to predict issues on a proactive basis and ensure the chances of failure are minimized. This is made possible as the process input variables are controlled. In turn what it controls are delays which can prove to be extremely costly.

Even though predictability may come at a premium, the fact is that the cost of failure far outweighs this cost.

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When it comes to Printed Circuit Board Assembly, there are a host of factors that determine its cost. Beginning with the technology used to the number of components, there are an array of aspects that directly impact the cost. However what is often forgotten are a number of indirect factors that also add to the PCB Assembly Cost. These factors include areas such as lack of testing equipment for example or even lack of trained manpower. Best practices such as lack of Design for Assembly as well as design for Manufacturing can also go a long way in positively impacting efficiency and negatively impacting cost. At the design stage itself, components need to be chosen with utmost care. Similarly the placement of these components can have a bearing on costs. Ensuring that you Design for Manufacturing, for example also goes a long way in eliminating issues at the design stage itself, as well as keeping costs under control. If not done correctly, aspects such as the design and placement of components could significantly affect costs.

Here is a quick overview of some of the factors that impact assembly cost:

  • Technology Used- Assembly process may use Surface Mount or Through Hole Technology. Sometimes though some assemblies may require both these technologies to be used, adding to the cost.
  • Single or Double Sided board- A Single sided board assembly cost would typically be lower than one where you use a double sided board.
  • Number of placements- Costs can typically increase with the number of placements required
  • Size of components- Typically smaller components and densely packed assembly boards add to the cost.
  • Availability of components- It stands to reason that cost is also impacted by the (non)availability of components.
  • Compliance- Often times testing to ensure assembly compliance also adds to the cost. Compliances such as RoHS and non- RoHS, IPC-A-610D Class I, II or III ITAR are often required, adding to the cost.
  • Processes needed- Some PCB Assemblies could need a host of processes such as:
  • Wave Solder
  • X-Ray
  • Automated Optical Inspection
  • Hand Solder, and other such processes. These could add to the cost significantly.
  • Flexible or rigid PCB Assembly- Typically flexible PCB Assembly cost is higher than that of a rigid one.
  • Coating- Cost is also impacted by the coating requirements. Aspects such as whether you are using spray or a brush, the number of coats required, impact the cost.
  • Testing- From thermal cycling to in circuit tests, there are a number of tests required before the PCB can be shipped. The testing in turn have a direct correlation with costs.
  • Shipping Requirements- Whether you need special containers or electrostatic discharge bags, once again can add to the costs
  • Delivery – In case express delivery is required, costs are likely to increase.

While the above factors impact cost, there are some standard tips that can be kept in mind so that PCB Assembly costs can be kept under check:

  • Look for multiple component sources- This will help you to source components at the lowest cost without sacrificing efficiency. It will help to set up a process between the design engineering and purchase departments in order to ensure that conflicting priorities do not lead to a lack of cost optimization. Setting up cost reduction committees for example, could go a long way in identifying opportunities for cost reduction without of course negatively impacting efficiency.
  • Ensure that you do a Design-for-Manufacturing test- This will take into account multiple factors at the design stage itself. Optimizing the bare board schematic will mean checking for areas such as:
    • Complexity
    • Number of holes and their size
    • Via tech
    • Material
    • Layer Count
  • Prepare a complete BOM- Simply put, the bill of materials or BOM as it is popularly called,is a list of parts and components used on the PCB. A complete Bill of Materials including details such as part number, manufacturer name, quantity, description, component replacements etc. can significantly expedite the quotation process, as also help source components at the right price. A thoroughly prepared BOM means lesser time spent back and forth and therefore greater efficiency.
  • Order Value and lead time- Costs are typically inversely proportional to order value and lead time. Planning well in advance so that you can request for quantities at one go as also ensuring that you have enough lead time will help in controlling costs.
  • Inspection- Even though testing and inspection adds to the cost, skimping on the same can have larger repercussions. Some manufacturers can offer in house inspection which can save you the time and hassle of getting a third party to inspect the boards.
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Simply put, Automated X-ray inspection or AXI technology as it is popularly referred to, uses X-rays to inspect the features of target objects. As an application, it finds place in a whole lot of industries today including but not limited to aerospace, medical, PCB Assembly and more.

X-rays go a long way in testing PCB quality as traditional inspection devices have their own limitations especially when miniaturization is on the increase. Also there are added issues of solder joints being hidden in some cases. X-rays however can penetrate and inspect quality of hidden solder joints as well. Therefore, while Automated Optical Inspection is only applicable for defects that are relatively easy to spot, such as open circuits or solder bridges, Automated X-ray inspection is required where inspection isn’t possible basis light alone.

The advantage with X-rays comes on account of the fact that materials absorb X-rays proportional to their atomic weight and depending on their density and thickness. Heavier elements thus absorb more X-rays as compared to lighter ones. Hidden defects, therefore, such as those to do with missing electrical components, shorts etc are far easy to catch.

An ideal X-ray system however must have clear images so that information with respect to defect analysis is clear and actionable. It is ideal, therefore, that the X-ray inspection system has adequate magnification as well as oblique angle inspection function. The latter ensures that solder balls aren’t just inspected from above.

X-ray inspection devices typically come in two forms- two- dimensional and three-dimensional systems. Both these can be operated off line and therefore make the inspection process easy. Some devices however can be used online. The choice of offline versus online devices typically depends on the amount of inspection required. In cases where there are large quantities to inspect and the level of inspection is complex, online devices are generally used. While a two-dimensional system can display 2D images of components from both sides, a three-dimensional system can generate images of cross sections. 3D systems can also combine images of a cross section in a method known as laminography.

The kind of resolution required also necessitates the need to choose the right X-ray tube, which is typically available in two categories- open and closed. Also the amount of magnification required determines the distance between the sample and X-ray tube. The X-ray voltage is yet another determinant of its penetration capacity. With a large voltage, objects with high density and thickness can be inspected easily. With single sided boards, however it is enough to go with low voltage. Similarly multi-layered boards call for high voltage.

The early inspection devices came with an image intensifier linked to a CCD Camera, the image intensifier, however, came with the following constraints:

  • Limited range- The limited range in turn implies that the area may need to be inspected with more than one technique. This in turn increases the time taken to satisfactorily carry out the inspection.
  • Limited field of view- At a given point in time a three to five inch diameter areas can be inspected.
  • Image blooming- There is a chance of the image bleeding at the edges as the ionizing radiation passing by the edge of the casting is not attenuated
  • Increased Noise levels- The image intensifier produces a noisy image. A clean, noise free image necessitates a digital processing of the image, which in turn is time consuming and does not let the process remain real time.

The above constraints however can be mitigated with the use of a direct digital imaging device. It not only offers a larger inspection area but also an improvement in resolution.

WITH X-RAY INSPECTION, WE CAN DO THE FOLLOWING:

  • Perform a non-destructive inspection
  • Locate short circuits
  • Detect voids in solder joints
  • Determine displacements of components
  • Examine semiconductors
  • Check switches, relays , plug and cable connections

To sum up, the advantages of Automated X-ray inspection technology are as below:

  • Reliable and consistent results
  • Reduced time for inspection
  • Reduction in labour cost.
  • Effective process control as defects can be found in the early stage of the PCB assembly process and that it stops defects from flooding among the remaining PCB assembly.

Overall, therefore, X-Ray inspection technology is certainly a boon for PCBA manufacturers as it helps them improve product quality significantly. With the need for sub-micron resolution and extremely high definition images at high speed, the need for and the complexity of X-ray inspection technology will only grow. The way forward will be to be able to reduce the number of expensive operators as also remove the probability of human errors, if any, in the inspection process. This can be achieved by developing some inspection algorithms to be able to tackle these complexities.

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Technological advances have ensured that Printed Circuit Boards cannot only perform complex functions they can also be produced inexpensively. This is the exact reason why PCBs are an integral part of so many devices. However the quality of the device is directly proportional to the quality of the PCB used. PCB failure can therefore have debilitating consequences wherein entire systems can fail. It is therefore extremely important to stick to some quality measures in the PCB design and manufacturing process.

 IPC Standards

The Institute for Printed Circuit Boards (actually, it is a name the association was formerly known as; currently it is called Association Connecting Electronics Industries, even though it has retained the IPC moniker) is a global trade association, which has set certain standards for the manufacture of PCBs as well as other electronic components. Founded in 1957, the institute releases acceptability standards for Printed Circuit Boards. The Industry Association has over 4000 members that make and design PCBs and assemblies, which include but are not limited to the following industries:

  • Military and aerospace
  • Automotive
  • IT
  • Industrial equipment
  • Medical equipment and devices
  • Telecommunications

IPC standards, therefore, are industry-adopted standards for nearly every step of PCB manufacturing, beginning with design, production, and finally for electronic assembly.

There are a number of benefits that accrue from adhering to IPC standards issued by the industry body, primary among them being:

  • Consistency– By maintaining IPC certification, you can ensure that you produce high quality PCBs consistently. This in turn translates into customer satisfaction and therefore improved business.
  • Improved communication– IPC certification ensures that vendors and manufacturers use the same terminology so there isn’t any scope of miscommunication. It becomes a common language between designers, assemblers, and testers. With everyone on the same page, there is no scope of confusion, besides improved speed. With improved cross channel communication, overall production time and efficiencies automatically see an improvement.
  • Reduced costs– What naturally follows from improved communication is a reduction in cost as there are reduced rebuilds and reworks.

As per IPC there are several advantages of being trained and certified to use IPC standards. These include:

  • Having standardized training programs that enhance understanding and application.
  • Developing an understanding of the accept and reject criteria
  • Teaching methods and processes that enhance skills
  • Teaching techniques to apply the various criteria to production.

IPC standards come in a variety of classes. One of the commonly used one being the IPC-A-610. Some of the elements that IPC-A-610 covers includes but is not limited to:

  • Heat sinks
  • Solders
  • Terminal connections
  • Component mounting
  • Chip components
  • Terminations
  • Arrays
  • Laminate conditions

Some of the basic principles of the IPC-A-610 classes are:

Class 1

This is applicable for General Electronic Products where the major requirement is function of the completed assembly. This is therefore considered as one of the most lenient classes when it comes to allowing potential defects and therefore isn’t one that OEMs request.

Class 2

This is the standard that is very often put to use for non-critical assemblies where long term reliability is a pre-requisite, although this class also allows for some degree of imperfection.

Class 3

This is the highest standard, meant for the more critical PCB assemblies. A good CEM provider will therefore manufacture products to class 3 standards. This does call for a higher cost as there is extra inspection involved as well as the need to slow down surface mount machines to ensure the required placement accuracy. Conversely, it may sometimes require an allowance for higher degrees of scrap.

The advantage of using the IPC standards also stems from the fact that they have worldwide acceptance and that they have been tested across myriad industries. However if there is any conflict when it comes to acceptance of the product, as per the IPC, the following order of precedence applies:

-Procurement as agreed and documented between customer and supplier

-Master drawings

– IPC-A-610

IPC has also defined conditions that help refine processes. These conditions include:

Target Condition – This is a near perfect condition, which is the ideal to aim for, even though it may not always be achievable

Acceptable Condition –  While this condition may not be ideal as there could be trade offs between design and performance, however this condition maintains reliability.

Defect Condition- This is where the product is rejected as it needs rework or repair

Process Indicator Conditions – These are conditions that aren’t known to affect either the form or function of the product but emanate from material, design or machine related factors.

Essentially then, IPC Standards help the manufacturer to clearly understand customer requirements and deliver up to expectations. As a customer you can select the IPC standard class and be rest assured that the product will live up to your requirements.

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With Printed Circuit Boards becoming an integral part of more and more devices, PCB prototyping is at an all time high. With companies continuously innovating, the need of the hour is small batch PCB Assembly which can offer high turnaround times without the manufacturer being stuck with high inventory that he is unable to make use of.

Here are some distinct advantages of small batch PCB assembly that are of immense value to a manufacturer:

  • Cost advantage– Although traditionally economies of scale are known to accrue with high volume of production, in an ever-changing technological scenario low volume PCB production comes with significant cost advantages. For one, you will not land up getting more boards produced than you require. Also, with changing technology the boards won’t be rendered redundant.

At the prototype stage, you are often improvising on the product, both in terms of design and functionality. Low batch production means that you aren’t stuck with faulty products. Also since you are able to outsource small batch PCB Assembly, what it means in terms of your own business is lower overhead costs. You can also save on precious time that can be utilized in other productive areas of business. With lower batches you also tend to save on storage costs that can accrue in case you are stuck with a heavy inventory load, which is also dead inventory if the prototypes are faulty. Small batch PCB Assembly can therefore offer a low cost testing method

  • Turnaround time– Low volumes also come with quick turnaround times. You can therefore assess if there are any design changes to be made, quickly. This, in turn leads to shorter time to market, which in today’s world can be a source of significant competitive advantage.
  • Agility– If there is one attribute that stands between business success and failure, it is agility of businesses to respond to changes. Small batch PCB Assembly inherently offers this advantage to businesses as businesses aren’t stuck with high volume of production as well as have the advantage of quick turnaround times. With improved ability to see whether there are any flaws in the product, whether the design needs any changes, businesses can be extremely agile in dovetailing the product to suit customer needs. Needless to say that the chances of success are increased manifold.
  • Quality Final Product– With quick turnaround time of PCB prototypes and the ability to detect flaws early, you have the advantage of improving the products and therefore to go to the market with quality products. This goes a long way in improved credibility as the product is successful in the market place and brings repute to the manufacturer.

 

  • Feasible for startups and hobbyists as well– Business these days is no longer the realm of large business houses alone. With small batch PCB assembly and the low costs associated with testing out ideas, business has become a level playing field. It is easy for small businesses as well as hobbyists to test their ideas with ease without having to invest large sums of money. For startups wanting to pitch to investors, it is also easy to have a proof of concept beyond just a business plan on paper.

To summarize, small batch PCB Assembly comes with multiple advantages, beginning from saving overhead costs by outsourcing your work. Small order sizes automatically lead to improved turnaround times. Also, it is an easy and low-cost way of testing product design ideas without incurring a whole lot of cost.

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When it comes to supply chain management, a single weak link can impact business. If you are in the electronics business, printed circuit board assembly can very often become that weak link.

In choosing the PCBA supplier, it is therefore imperative that you are able to go with the one who can safeguard quality all right but also someone who can use their body of experience to ensure supplier efficacy throughout the supply chain.

Another major advantage of choosing the right PCBA is also that they can use their experience to audit not just PCB layouts but also the prototypes. What it means in turn is that they help align the engineering schematics with speed considerations early on, enabling you to go to market faster

While the above factors will help you choose the PCBA with prudence, here are some of the things you can do to ensure that the supply chain is speeded up:

#1 Have proper communication channels

When you are on a tight deadline, there is little scope for a communication breakdown. Ensure therefore that communication with the PCBA is clear and responses are not delayed. It is best to avoid assumptions as far as possible and put everything in clearly understandable terms, well in advance as far as possible.

In fact good partnering practices with your PCB supplier include:

  • Routine conference calls between your team and that of the PCB supplier
  • Quarterly Reviews that are designed to review the performance metrics and any business updates. Ideally this can be a two way process with updates being shared from both sides related to any business growth, new products and more. Essentially any information that impacts the production process as well as the business relationship needs to be shared.
  • Supplier score cards with objective and subjective metrics is yet another process that should be maintained. Things such as on-time delivery, defect rates as well as communication issues and more should be flagged off from time to time so that everyone is aware of issues, if any.
  • You also need to ensure that the supplier has a quality improvement program in place with periodic reviews.

The above best practices will ensure that the process is kept under check and also that the equation with the PCBA is that of partnership and not just of a vendor.

#2 Ensure that your documentation is complete

Ensure that you have worked through your documentation well in advance and that the documentation includes the following:

  • Bill of Materials – Do remember to go by the format that the supplier prefers
  • Gerber Files
  • XY data file
  • Stencil Files
  • Special assembly instructions

If there are any sub-assemblies that need to be manufactured in advance, it is also imperative that you have a bill of materials for each sub assembly and estimate the lead time for the parts. It is also important to verify their compatibility with the finished product

Try and avoid any last minute changes to ensure that everything is in order well in advance.

#3 Identify parts which have long lead-time

Ever so often electronic components have long lead times, often running into months. Identifying these components early can help the PCBA look for either alternate parts or source suppliers who have shorter lead times. In turn this can help cut lead times significantly as also impact costs.

#4 Forecasting demand

Keeping the PCBA posted on the demand forecasts instead of waiting to inform them of out of stock products at the last minute can also go a long way in keeping cost in check. It is commonly known that express shipping can come at a far higher cost and can derail the overall costing. Keeping the supplier posted on demand forecasts, on the other hand can offer the lead time to procure supplies at efficient rates.

#5 End to end partnership

Look for a PCBA who can provide end-to-end solutions and can assist you right from the conceptualization to the production phase. This will streamline the entire process and will cut down time.

The above steps when followed can ensure that the PCB Assembly process and the PCB Assembly provider does not become the weak link in your supply chain and is instead recognized as a critical part of the entire operation.

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Just as manufacturing has reaped advantages from automation earlier, Artificial Intelligence promises to be the next frontier in productivity improvement as it has the potential to enhance human capabilities and ensure higher efficiencies in business. Though it is no longer a new concept it has only recently crossed into the mainstream to help businesses improve revenues and market share.

 With AI there is increased possibility for machines to accomplish specific tasks primarily through processing large amount of data as well as recognizing patterns in them. Implemented responsibly, AI can amplify human existence and improve how we live and work. The growth in AI is fuelled by improved computing power, which is available at low costs as also by improved learning algorithms as well as the availability of big data. Little surprise then that from being seen as a futuristic concept, it has fast emerged as an extremely usable and relevant technology.

 AI revolutionizing the PCB Manufacturing Industry

As with other fields, AI is revolutionizing the PCB manufacturing industry as well where it can be used to simplify the production process as also cause an overall improvement in productivity. AI can help automation systems communicate with each other as well as with humans in real-time and thereby go a long way in disrupting the market. In fact machine learning, a subset of AI brings a number of benefits including but not limited to:

  • Improved performance
  • Efficient management of assets
  • Reduced scrap rates
  • Improved supply chain management and more

For example, AI can be embedded in the precision placement tool, which can help determine how each component should be placed so as to improve performance. This can also significantly reduce the time required for assembly, which further impacts cost. The use of AI is also known to reduce the bill of materials or BOMs. Essentially then human designers can be augmented with state-of-the-art artificial intelligence to design your board faster as well as at a lower cost.

Another advantage with using AI is that it can quickly do an inspection based on the common location for a defect and narrow down defects with ease and in a manner that saves time. Also with real-time problem-solving, manufacturers can potentially save millions of dollars in repairs as well as lost businesses.

 Requirements for successful AI Implementation

Successful AI implementation in PCB manufacturing, however, requires deep expertise in both verticals- PCB manufacturing as well as AI. What is needed is that process expertise is supported by operational know-how. Also AI can be successful when high quality data is put to use. Defect classification, for example, is an important aspect of having an automated solution that provides optical inspection. With an AOI machine, images of defective PCBs can be sent to a multi image verification station, which may be in a remote location. The defects may then be classified as true or false defects. The same thing when done with human intervention is not only expensive but also prone to errors. The AI system on the other hand provides accuracy provided of course accurate data is available. Small changes in data can of course lead to a host of changes and hence data sensitivity is of utmost essence.

The other aspect besides accuracy of data that ensures success of AI in PCB Manufacturing is a strong collaboration between the AI solution provider and the PCB manufacturer. It is important that the AI provider has enough understanding of the PCB manufacturing process to be able to create a meaningful system. It is also important that the AI provider invests in R&D so that it can offer up-to-date robust solutions that are effective and efficient. With effective use of AI, the provider will help the business in more than the following ways:

  • Help recast business models as well as business processes- With intelligent automation, process will be optimized
  • Unlock the trapped value of data- AI can be used to study data analytics as well as to discover trends and generate insights
  • Change the relationship between humans and machines- With the use of AI, the manpower will be able to spend more time on non-routinized tasks.

Going forward, AI will result in improved processes as well as exponential speed which will in turn go a long way in taking the PCB manufacturing industry to a whole new level. It is only a matter of time where Industrial companies also become digital companies with customers becoming totally centric to their operations. As AI becomes more and more mainstream within organizations, it will see improved trust and dependability and will become mission critical to organizational success.

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IOT also often known as the fourth Industrial revolution, is not just here to stay, it is only going to get more and more ubiquitous. As per a Gartner research about 26 billion devices are estimated to be connected to the internet by 2020.

All this is not to say that IOT does not come with its own set of challenges. The first and the foremost being, cramming the advanced functionality into shrinking sizes. Here is how some of the challenges commonly associated with IOT can be overcome with smart PCB manufacturing:

Space Constraints

When you have to fit the functionality of perhaps a smart phone into the size of a watch, that you have to fight for every inch, is a given. What can help solve this ever-growing space issue is Rigid flex as well as High Density Interconnect PCBs also popularly referred to as HDI PCBs. They allow for dense component placement that saves precious space. Also with rigid flex PCBs, you can fit the smallest of spaces opening up a world of possibilities when it comes to mobile devices. The added advantages that accrue with them include:

  • Reduced design limitation
  • The possibility of denser circuitry
  • Suitability for use in harsh environments
  • High tensile strength
  • Light weight- in fact they can offer weight savings of up to ninety five percent.
  • Greater resistance
  • Improved speed and reliability
  • Cleaner circuit route- HDI boards offer versatile routing options. Additionally, designers can replace through-holes with microvias, which go a long way in improving signal integrity.
  • Cost efficiency- A reduced need for layering lead to a product along with the smaller size also lead to evident advantages in cost.

In fact, Industry leaders focus on combining flex and HDI strategies to create designs that are both appealing as well as offer a whole lot of efficiency. The combination of the two also offers high tensile strength, as also the creation of electronics that are suitable for tough environments. They also go a long way in improving signal quality as well as reducing thermal stress.

Product fitting

Virtual prototyping can go a long way in keeping the design in sync with the IOT form that it is meant for. Often PCB designs would also need to make use of non-traditional materials such as mesh or plastic that will aid functionality.

Wearable products

The thing with wearable tech products is that the PCB design will need to budget for human body temperature, movement as well as moisture. To overcome this challenge smart PCB manufacturing relies on thorough simulation tests. The design needs to accommodate these aspects, as also allow sufficient cooling as soon as possible.

Power consumption

With IOT devices in constant communication with their networks, a strong focus on battery life and power integrity is a must have. The PCB design, therefore, needs to keep energy usage within the individual circuit blocks within a tight budget. Thorough testing can go a long way in overcoming the challenge of high power consumption.

Wireless Connectivity

IOT PCB has the added requirement of providing wireless internet access. This in turn requires installing the right wireless modules and RF Circuit components. Keeping the network speed, power consumption and any security issues in mind will help choose the right components and mitigate the challenges.

Reliability

With IOT devices being used in harsh environments, ensuring reliability and durability is a huge challenge. This can be tackled by using a whole lot of simulation software to test the PCB design under various conditions. In fact it is proper testing as well as working in cohesion with other designers that will ensure that the PCB works reliably under difficult situations.

One of the challenges of IOT is also the transition between the mechanical and the electronic; between the product itself and its PCB form, especially as newer and smaller IOT devices rule the roost. What can come in handy to achieve this is a close collaboration between the designers and engineers through out the design process.

With the industry growing by leaps and bounds, while there is going to be a whole lot of individualization in designs, the fact also is that there will be a lot of common requirements that could allow for some design protocols to emerge. With the development and sophistication in PCB designs the challenges are slowly but surely to get mitigated. The future certainly is one that will be fuelled with technology and innovation- a part that smart PCB manufacturing can play to the hilt. There is no doubt about the fact that approaches to PCB Design will continue to evolve at a rapid pace and that maximizing reliability and reducing errors will be the clarion call for all PCB designers.

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If there is one thing that is crucial to the success of an idea, it is reduced time to market. To achieve that objective, fabricating a prototype fast and with elasticity, is a key requirement. When designers need to spend days waiting for a prototype, they are wasting valuable manhours in evaluating their design and finally getting the product out in the market. Rapid prototyping is thus the need of the hour, which can convert an idea into a circuit panel, which in turn will determine the success of the final product.

The reality however is that so often the time lag between thinking of an idea and having a prototype ready is humungous. It takes forever to first get a quote and finally to have a prototype in your hands. If you need to make further changes in the design that in turn means another significant chunk of time lost.

Fortunately for innovators, there is a way to significantly reduce this time and to ensure that this entire approach to manufacturing is significantly revolutionized. With cloud manufacturing technology, you can simply upload your design and bill of materials. You can thereafter receive an instant quote and once you give your go ahead you can even monitor the production cycle. From the vendor’s perspective what it means is that he can combine several small orders into a large batch, thereby lowering costs as well as reducing turnaround time significantly. This is a huge advantage especially for small organizations, which need low quantities and are typically inundated with costs such as a set up charge or a minimum lot charge for example. Often times when you need only one board you land up paying for as many as 10.

In selecting a partner who can offer you rapid prototyping, you however need to keep in mind the following:

  1. The vendor should be able to give you quotes for your prototype nearly instantly.
  2. Ensure that the vendor is technologically equipped so you can monitor your project as also make any changes.
  3. Ensure that the vendor is able to keep costs low by combining orders and passing on the savings made on account of bulk buys to all customers.
  4. Another aspect to watch out for is to choose a vendor who designs the prototypes onshore as that will ensure that the time lags on account of overseas shipments are significantly reduced.
  5. It is also preferable to have a vendor that has an in-house assembly as that will ensure that there aren’t additional delays or probability of failure that may accrue on account of a third-party service. This will also help in maintaining security as in a highly competitive and proprietary industry you would not want your design to go to multiple vendors and result in any kind of leakage.
  6. Ensure also that you choose a vendor who is able to provide a wide range of PCB Prototypes from single and double sided PCBs to the more complex, multi layered ones.
  7. Be sure to check that there are no hidden costs for specific requests as these hidden charges can often throw your budget off gear.

With the use of a CAD software, the specific layout for the circuit board prototype can be laid. Once the material for the circuit board is selected, the circuit board can then be easily fabricated. The next step is then to test the circuit board. If any faults are noticed or changes are required, it is then easy to modify the layout.

With the right partner there is little need to deal with multiple vendors, there by significantly adding to ease of dealing and peace of mind. In turn this will help you test your ideas with ease. On choosing the right vendor the many PCB nightmares can be laid to rest. You need not worry about:

  1. Prototyping being an extremely expensive process typically for small prototyping runs.
  2. Not getting a customized product to suit your bespoke needs.
  3. Long time lags between placing the prototype order and receiving it.
  4. Not being able to monitor your project and hence wastage of time if the final product does not meet your requirements.

An accurate, reliable PCB prototype will also go a long way in being able to solve complex and varied design. With seamless communication between people and computing systems, it is now easy for even new startups to get their products made and ensure that they reach into the hands of their customers without any hassle and importantly without any time lags. With rapid prototyping it is also far easier to quickly explore an idea with minimal cost and time lag. Rapid prototyping, therefore, makes it convenient to progress with your breakthrough idea.

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There would be very few takers wanting to build a device to fit the circuit board; most would prefer to design circuitry to fit the device. This is the exact reason why flex and rigid flex circuits are gaining increasing acceptance. They offer multiple advantages both in terms of a new project or even if you want to re-engineer an old one.

Flex PCBs find application in a number of electronic devices, hard disc drives and desktop printers. They are also used extensively in the following industries:

  • Communications
  • Consumer Electronics
  • Automotive
  • Medical
  • Aerospace
  • Military
  • Transportation

Even though they are not a new invention, they are increasingly being used for their versatility in design. They are known to unlock both functional advantages as well as cost savings for manufacturers.

Here are some of the key advantages of using flex PCB:

Reliability and increased life span of your electronic device

 With both flex and rigid-flex PCBs, the number of interconnections required are significantly reduced. What this in turn means is that there are fewer solder joints, contact crimps as well as connectors. Fewer interconnectors means that there are fewer sources of failure and hence greater reliability and increased life span of the device. The flexibility of the circuit also works towards improving shock performance.

Flexibility in packaging

A flex circuit ensures that there is space saving as also more efficient use of space. What this means is that multiple circuit boards, connectors etc. can be replaced with a single unit. Typically it is seen that flex designs occupy 10% of the weight and space occupied by wired solutions. Fewer parts also create less supply chain risk as well as reduced maintenance requirement.

Improved Capability

 Flex systems are known for their superior performance. They accept any component or connector that works with a rigid PCB, besides working with direct solders, crimped contacts and the like. Besides, flexible circuits are not impacted by harsh environments, including high temperatures. They are also resistant when it comes to exposure to chemicals, radiations and UV.

Cost Efficient

 With lower material requirements, what a flexible circuit board also ensures is lower shipment costs. Also with fewer parts and simple installation the assembly costs are lower. Also with increased reliability comes cost saving on account of longer lasting products.

Precautions in using Flex PCBs

While a flexible printed circuit comes with a whole lot of advantages, it is important to keep some precautions in mind so that the circuit functions reliably.

There are some features that a rigid PCB can incorporate that a flexi PCB must avoid. Primary among them being those that cause discontinuity in the bent areas. A via placed in the bent zone, for example can cause discontinuity. Additionally, conductor width or direction must not be changed in the bent area. An optimum flex-circuit design maintains a uniform width for all conductors. Also, a change in the direction of the conductor in the bend area needs to be avoided.

It is also important not to stack conductors on multiple layer boards. It is also prudent to not have sharp inside corners on the circuit outline as it can cause tears.

Some other areas to pay attention to include the fact that heat should not overstress the circuit. A heat gun can produce high enough temperatures to blister a circuit and hence its use should be avoided. Also, rigid temperature profiles need to be avoided when it comes to reflow flex PCBs.

Wide conductors are known to tolerate bending more than small ones so it is a good idea to widen small conductors in the bend area, even though the widening should be gradual. Also flex circuits with multiple layers are thicker. Often times though the combination of deep plated barrels with the added thickness leads to issues. It is therefore advisable to place vias in areas that have little or no bending or at least in areas that have least amount of bending.

As a standard practice it is also good to place fillets on via pads. They tend to eliminate stress points that have the potential of resulting in cracks.

It is also advisable to consult the manufacturer during the design phase itself as that can lead to finding the most efficient solution that will work for your unique design.  With modern software programs complex 3D designs can be accommodated thereby allowing engineers to stack and test flex parts in layers. This in turn reduces the time and costs associated with testing. Modern 3D modeling software helps developers as well as fabricators to align their expectations as also to speed up the entire process.

With the above precautions in place you will be able to use your flex PCB to numerous advantages including giving your electronic products a whole new lease of life.

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