Like many aspects of the electronics industry, the printed circuit board manufacturing process is hyper-competitive. Clients demand the highest quality products, done quickly, and at the absolute minimum price. This incentivizes some manufacturers to cut corners to reduce their costs and remain competitive. However, this is the wrong approach and will only serve to alienate customers and hurt the business in the long run. Rather, manufacturers can realize better results by improving every step in their manufacturing process to be more streamlined and efficient. By using better tools, products, and saving costs whenever possible, PCB manufacturers can provide their clients with quality products for less. Here are a few ways to begin this process.
Use Design Software
Today’s PCBs are truly works of art. With the electronic devices steadily shrinking, customers are demanding PCBs that are smaller and more complex than ever before. This means that PCB manufacturers must find ways to fit more components onto smaller boards. For this reason, PCB layout software has become all but a standard tool for designers. However, some designers are still doing things the old-fashioned way or with the wrong software. Specialized PCB design software will have built-in tools that help improve process flow, determine best practices, and perform design rule checking. Additionally, the software will allow you to create and store templates to streamline the development of future orders.
Apply Solder Masks to Your PCBs
Many small scale PCB production operations do not utilize solder masks in their manufacturing process. A solder mask is a polymer layer that is applied to PCBs to prevent oxidation and unnecessary short circuits during assembly. Because the circuits are much closer on today’s ever-smaller PCBs, manufacturing without a high-quality solder mask is inefficient and creates unnecessary risks.
Don’t Etch with Ferric Chloride
Historically, ferric chloride is the most common etchant used by PCB manufacturers. It is cheap, available in mass quantities, and safe to use. However, once it has been used for etching, it turns into a dangerous byproduct: copper chloride. Copper chloride is extremely toxic and a significant environmental hazard. Because of that, copper chloride is not allowed to be poured down the drain or thrown out with the trash. To dispose of the chemical properly, you’ll either have to use a neutralizing agent or take it to a specialized hazardous waste disposal site.
Thankfully, there are cheaper and safer alternatives available. Ammonium peroxydisulfate is one of these methods. However, it can be quite expensive in some areas. Rather, cupric chloride is cheaply bought or easily made from hydrochloric acid and hydrogen peroxide. One it’s used, the solution is easily reactivated by simply adding oxygen through a bubbling apparatus, such as an aquarium pump. Because there is no need to dispose of the solution, it completely avoids the disposal problems so familiar to copper chloride users.
Utilize a UV Laser for Depaneling
The final and perhaps most effective method of improving the PCB manufacturing process is by investing in a UV laser for depaneling. There are a number of depaneling methods available on the market, such as breakers, punches, saws, routers, and more. The problem is that all mechanical methods put stress on the boards. This means that manufacturers who utilize mechanical depaneling methods are unable to produce flexible, thin, and other fragile printed circuit boards. In the past, this wasn’t a problem. However today, rigid circuit boards are quickly becoming obsolete. The electronics industry is demanding custom shaped PCBs that fit into smaller devices and hold more information.
UV lasers solve this problem because they do not make contact with the board. This means that they exert no physical stress on the PCB. Paper thin boards can be easily be depaneled without worrying about damaging sensitive components. Manufacturers that invest in UV lasers today will be equipped to supply the future demands of the PCB industry, while competitors will be scrambling to catch up.
But UV lasers have other features as well. They also place no thermal stress on the boards. Other laser depaneling methods, such as CO2 lasers, use heat to separate the boards. While this is an efficient method, the heat can damage the ends of the boards. This means that designers cannot utilize the perimeter of the PCB, wasting precious space. UV lasers, on the other hand, utilize “cold” cutting technology to separate PCBs. UV laser cuts are consistent and cause virtually no damage to the edges of the board. Manufacturers that utilize UV technology can offer smaller designs to their clients by utilizing the full surface area of the board.
An Efficient Manufacturing Process is Key
While these, of course, are only a few simple ways to improve your PCB manufacturing process, the point remains the same. PCB manufacturing technology is being improved every day. But as manufacturers, we may fall into complacency and fail to keep up with the newest trends. This means that we may be using outdated equipment. However, by taking a few simple steps to ensure our manufacturing process is efficient and up to date, our businesses can remain competitive and stand out from the competition.