Understanding Software-Accelerated Printed Circuit Board Technology

It may be hard to imagine, but there was a time that electronic circuits existed without integrated circuits or ICs. In fact, ICs did not come along until 1958 when Jack Kilby of Texas Instruments, built one. The impact of this breakthrough in electronic circuit technology cannot be overstated. Coupled with the miniaturization of the transistor and other components, the ability to integrate ever-smaller circuits has led to what seems to be endless possibilities for printed circuit board technology utilization and application.

As circuit designs became more complex, more advanced design methods and tools were required. And software design programs have been the driving force to create the MCUs, CPUs, MPUs, other ICs and microcircuit boards we have today. Just as circuit board designs have advanced in terms of complexity and functionality, the equipment and techniques of PCBA manufacturing have evolved into a well-defined set of steps that reliably produces boards that embody the intended capabilities of the design.

However, with the ever-increasing demand for products, appliances, vehicles and other systems that are faster, more efficient and smaller, and the thrust of Industry 4.0 printed circuit board technology is constantly challenged to advance. Just as circuit design was propelled forward by software, the PCBA manufacturing industry is looking to software to accelerate its processes to faster spins, better quality, and greater efficiency. To best understand software-accelerated printed circuit board technology, let’s first review the more standard PCB technology implementation.

Standard Printed Circuit Board Technology

We can broadly define printed circuit board technology, as follows:

Printed circuit board technology is the utilization of methodologies, techniques, and tools to move a circuit board from concept to final design, which includes the design, fabrication, assembly and testing stages. 

And standard printed circuit board or PCB technology, which is the most common process flow today, can be described in terms of its typical implementation:

  • Design

Consists of the generation of schematic consisting of all components and the nets that connect them, followed by the generation of the PCB manufacturing file(s) or design file package, which is a graphical and/or textual representation of the desired board embodiment. Most often circuit design software is utilized that may include simulation, 3D viewing and other advanced capabilities. Typically, performed by one or more engineers or designers.

  • Fabrication

A multi-step process consisting of imaging, etching, hole drilling, solder masking and finishing in preparation of assembly. Often, performed by a fab house outsourced by the assembler.

  • Assembly

The process of mounting the components on the PCB. Steps include solder paste application, component placing or pick and place, SMT and/or through-hole soldering, rework and depanelization. Each of these is performed by different equipment that must be set up or programmed. As the final stage of PCB manufacturing, the assembly process may include multiple manual and automated inspection techniques.

  • Testing

Testing is performed by an engineer who may not have participated in generating the original design. Electronic testing equipment such as oscilloscopes, multimeters and IC testers may be used to verify the board’s operation.

It is standard for each of these stages to be executed and managed in isolation and with limited collaboration with the professionals that perform the other stages. Although this process does in most cases result in a quality PCBA, it is quite inefficient and does not meet the needs of the evolving PCB clientele.

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Software-Accelerated Printed Circuit Board Technology

Before discussing how software can help contractor manufacturers (CMs) meet the demand challenges for PCBAs, let’s look at how it is driving industrial manufacturing.

Software-Accelerated Manufacturing

Today, printed circuit board (PCB) technology is undergoing a transformation, as it tries to keep pace with the ever-growing PCB market and the demands for smaller, faster and smarter boards. These demands are not simply for boards that comprise consumer products. Instead, much of the demand is for smaller, more complex medical devices, faster development of devices for commercial aerospace applications, and resilient boards for embedding in advanced industrial processes. To meet these needs, the PCB manufacturing industry is gradually turning to software-accelerated manufacturing.

Software-accelerated manufacturing may generally be defined as the use of software to monitor and control manufacturing operations.

The goal of software-accelerated manufacturing is to integrate the various stages of a manufacturing process for centralized management and control. With this level of oversight and integration product movement can be optimized by providing just-in-time data, instructions or commands at the moment when the process equipment is ready and able to utilize it. Quality control is also enhanced as each step of the process can be monitored and changes or updates implemented quickly to address any timing, material or other issues that may adversely affect efficiency.

Software-accelerated manufacturing is currently being used to improve efficiency, improve quality and lower costs in industrial production facilities. Notable implementations can be found in operations that have embraced the advanced technologies Industry 4.0 requires. These include the use of IoT boards for interconnecting factory floor equipment, Cobots for integrated automation, AI and manufacturing software management tools that automate much of the monitoring and control functions. Software-accelerated manufacturing can also be applied to PCBA development.

Software-Accelerated Printed Circuit Board Technology

The utilization of software for the PCB design stage has been the standard for decades and the most advanced programs are well-positioned for creating the design file(s) needed to accurately and efficiently convey specifications and intent to the CM. As testing and design are most often performed in-house by the developer, communication and collaboration between these stages can be coordinated by several computing methods. Therefore, coordination with and between the manufacturing stages, fabrication and assembly, present the greatest challenges for printed circuit board technology. These challenges can best be addressed by doing the following.

Implementing Software-Accelerated Printed Circuit Board Technology

  • Utilizing Web or Cloud-Based Data Transfer

Fast and secure transfer of your design package to your CM is best done via the web. Additionally, a central depository where change orders and other communications can be easily accessed will help facilitate quick responses by your CM. These advantages can also be realized for communications from your CM that may be needed for testing.

  • Utilizing Software-Accelerated Turnkey PCB Manufacturing Services

Turnkey PCB manufacturing where software is the driving engine has distinct advantages over dealing with one company for fabrication and another for assembly. Speed of board turnaround, central monitoring, control over manufacturing, and better quality control are just a few of these.

  • Ensure Your CM is an Agile Manufacturer

Open communication and collaboration can only be fully leveraged if the ability to provide design changes to your CM is coupled with the capability to institute them quickly without any hardware or equipment acquisition being necessary. This is best implemented when your CM has an agile manufacturing process where changes can be incorporated by software.

By following the list above and partnering with a CM that utilizes software-accelerated manufacturing techniques and tools you are positioning yourself to keep pace with the fast-moving and ever-changing PCBA needs of clients and customers.

Tempo‘s Custom PCB Manufacturing Service
  • ISO-9001, IPC-600 and IPC-610 commitment to quality certifications.
  • Accurate quote in less than 1 day.
  • Performs entire turnkey process in as fast as 3 days.
  • Emphasizes DFM to eliminate time-consuming back-and-forth design corrections.
  • Sources components from the most reputable suppliers in the industry to reduce procurement time.
  • Performs multiple automated inspections during assembly to ensure PCB quality for prototyping.
  • Provides support throughout the PCB manufacturing process, beginning with design.
  • Smooth transition from prototyping to production.

Tempo Automation is the PCB industry leader in turnkey PCB prototyping and low-volume production. We build your boards to the highest quality and precision and have the fastest board turnaround time. We employ software-accelerated PCBA manufacturing and our process is agile, where most design modifications can be handled by simple software modifications.

And to help you get started on the best path, we furnish information for your DFM checks and enable you to easily view and download DRC files. If you’re an Altium Designer or Cadence Allegro user, you can simply add these files to your PCB design software. For Mentor Pads or other design packages, we furnish DRC information in other CAD formats and Excel.

If you are ready to have your design manufactured, try our quote tool to upload your CAD and BOM files. If you want more information on printed circuit board technology and how software is accelerating its advancement, contact us.

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