Up until now, two primary methods of circuit board depaneling have dominated the market: Mechanical depaneling for durable boards and CO2 lasers for those with more precise needs. But as technology advanced, current circuit board designs have failed to keep up with the increasing demands of various industries. Thankfully, flexible circuit boards have answered the call and designers are flocking to them for the versatility, weight and size reduction, and intricacy that square, rigid boards lack.
Despite leading the charge toward the future, flexible circuit boards have created a problem of their own. Namely, traditional depaneling methods are ineffective on the delicate and expensive materials. This means PCB manufacturers are not capitalizing on the benefits of flexible boards due to outdated depaneling technology. Since then, the market has demanded a depaneling device that operates with surgical precision and creates limited stress; UV lasers have answered the call.
UV Lasers Offer PCB Manufacturers a Solution
While UV lasers are relatively new on the market, they are quickly gaining a reputation as a reliable and cost-effective solution. This is because UV lasers offer some advantages over mechanical and CO2 laser depaneling. However, the two benefits that make them truly groundbreaking is that they eliminate mechanical and thermal stress during the depaneling process.
Inefficiency Caused by Mechanical and Thermal Stress
- Mechanical Stress: Some PCBs are durable enough to be depaneled mechanically. Mechanical depaneling requires physical contact with the PCB. Typical mechanical devices include hand breaking, “pizza cutters,” punches, routers, and even precision saws. While simpler than other options, these methods have obvious drawbacks.
- Lack of Versatility: Smaller circuits with intricate designs cannot be mechanically depaneled. The blades themselves limit the size of the cuts; therefore, mechanical cuts are typically large. This means that the circuit design is limited by the length of the cutting tool. Additionally, mechanical depaneling devices are physically consumable. The delicate tips wear out and must be regularly replaced. Finally, when a new circuit might require a custom tip that is not regularly available on the market.
- Physical Damage: The physical stress of mechanically depaneling PCBs will fracture or damage circuits. While these failures only occur on a small number of PCBs, this poses a serious problem for mass production. Furthermore, mechanically depaneling creates physical debris. The debris creates a residue on the board that can damage intricate circuit systems.
- Thermal Stress: Thankfully, many of the downfalls of mechanical depaneling methods have been eliminated with the introduction of CO2 laser technologies. However, with the widespread use of laser depaneling, another danger has emerged: thermal stress. Thermal stress comes in two main methods.
- Burning: Because CO2 lasers operate at extremely high temperatures, the excess heat can burn printed circuit boards or damage the intricate internal mechanisms. The circuit board may have avoided the stress dangers of mechanical depaneling, but it can still be damaged if exposed to the excess heat of a CO2 laser. This thermal stress on the PCB can extend the length of a 1mm cut into a 1.2mm cut. Flexible boards are particularly susceptible to heat damage due to thin, delicate design.
- Inconsistent Cut Lengths: CO2 lasers also improve over mechanical depaneling by offering smaller cut lengths for more versatility and smaller designs. However, the CO2 laser cut lengths aren’t consistent; the laser and burn radius can fluctuate on microscopic levels. When manufacturing intricate or microcircuit boards, this can cause significant problems and make CO2 lasers ineffective.
UV Lasers Eliminate Both Mechanical and Thermal Stress
With the relatively recent introduction of UV lasers into the PCB manufacturing market, the issues that plague both mechanical and CO2 laser depaneling have been eliminated. By utilizing precision “cold” cutting, UV lasers produce consistent cuts without stress.
- No Physical Stress: Obviously, UV lasers make no physical contact with the PCB. This eliminates any physical stress on the PCB during depaneling meaning PCBs will never physically damage a PCB.
Consistently Clean Cuts Without Thermal Stress: UV lasers use “cold” cutting technology that operates at a much lower temperature than CO2 lasers. While CO2 lasers leave a burnt trail along their cuts which can vary in length, UV lasers provide a clean and consistent cut without damaging the edges of the cuts.
- Eliminates Debris Waste and Interference: UV Laser cuts are physically smaller than both mechanical and CO2 laser cuts. Smaller cuts mean less material is need between circuits and along the edges of the PCB, which allows for efficient utilization of the board. Also, because less material is being physically removed, there is essentially no risk of debris damaging the circuits.
- Perfect for Flexible Circuit Boards: Mechanical depaneling is simply unfit for flexible boards due to physical stress. The thermal stress and inconsistent cut lengths of CO2 lasers make them ineffective for flexible boards as well. UV lasers and “cold” cutting technology is the only viable option for effectively depaneling flexible circuit boards.
Despite that there are three primary options available for printed circuit board depaneling, UV lasers are the smart choice. Their versatility, stress reduction, narrow cut lengths, and overall consistency makes the remaining options obsolete, especially since flexible circuit boards are the future of the tech industry. Boards are regularly getting smaller, thinner, and more intricate ever couple of years. The high precision and no-stress cuts of UV lasers make them a must-have investment for businesses anticipating the future trends of the PCB industry.