A common theme of science fiction is warning of the perils of automation. It is interesting that, for a genre that is dependent on the advancement of technology, it sure seems to spend a lot of time pushing back on the same theme. Whether it is computers taking over spaceships, cyborg assassins, or artificial intelligence controlling the world, automation is often bad news in these stories. But the truth is that without automation, there wouldn’t be any growth—especially in manufacturing. From the first assembly lines pioneered by Henry Ford, automation has been and will continue to be the key to improving the efficiency in the industry.
Automation in printed circuit board manufacturing is no different. Without these advances, we wouldn’t enjoy the benefits of today’s high-speed, high-density, complex multilayer circuit boards. This would be extremely detrimental to industries such as computing, telecommunication, and IoT, which rely on the latest PCB manufacturing techniques to get their electronics built quickly and with high quality. To keep up with the needs of today’s technologies, PCB assemblers are constantly looking for new and better ways to improve their manufacturing techniques. We’ll take a look here at some of the basics of automation in PCB manufacturing, and then ahead to what is coming next.
The Benefits of Automation in PCB Manufacturing
While electronics continually shrink in size to meet the needs of evolving technologies, such as IoT devices, the demand for them is growing at a phenomenal rate. Not only does this mean that the need for PCB manufacturing is growing to supply these needs, but the extended industrial systems that test or accompany these technologies is growing along with it. For example, for every new consumer IoT medical device that comes to the market, there are the related test and manufacturing equipment, or large-scale hospital systems that are required as well.
To stay ahead of the burgeoning demand for more PCBs in these markets, PCBA contract manufacturers are always looking for new ways to streamline and update their manufacturing processes. One way to do this is to increase the amount of automation that is used for manufacturing. In its infancy, PCB manufacturing was a manual operation, but those days are long gone. Today’s small and compact PCBs couldn’t be mass produced without automated assembly processes, and this automation brings with it a lot of benefits:
- Reduced cost: The use of automation reduces the amount of manual assembly that is required, which in turn, reduces labor costs.
- Shorter assembly times: Automated assembly can be done at a much faster rate than manual assembly.
- Eliminates manual assembly errors: Manual assembly can introduce human error into the process, which can be more difficult to locate because of the random nature of human error.
- Higher quality: Automated assembly machines are designed for repetitive and delicate tasks at a higher quality than manual labor.
- Miniaturization: Some electronic assembly is so small that it is no longer possible for it to be reliably done manually, requiring automated assembly processes.
Automated manufacturing systems can sort and disperse parts, place components, apply sealants, perform testing, and package the assembled products. You may be surprised at just how much automation is already in use at your local CM for building your PCBs.
There’s More to PCB Manufacturing Automation Than You Might Realize
The more automation that can be used in the manufacturing of PCBs, the faster the assembly can be done, which will reduce the final cost to you. Automation usually brings to mind robotics for assembly, which is a key aspect of PCB manufacturing, but there is a lot more than just traditional robotic services in use at your CM. Starting with PCB assembly, here are some of the automated systems that you will find being used by your CM:
- Marking and labeling systems for component and PCBA identification.
- Pick-and-place machines for placing parts on the board.
- Soldering systems for placed parts, including reflow ovens and wave solder systems.
- Automatic routing machines for separating individual boards out of panels.
In addition to those traditional assembly systems, there are also automated systems in place for testing the PCBs during and after manufacturing:
- Optical and X-ray systems for visual inspection of the board.
- In-circuit test systems to verify the manufacturing integrity of individual net connections of a PCB.
- Flying probe test systems also for verifying manufacturing integrity of the PCB.
- Functional test to automatically test the full functionality of an assembled PCB.
There is also another aspect of PCB manufacturing that often does not get considered when thinking about automated manufacturing systems. The manufacturing facility needs to move materials in and assembled boards out. To move and track this much material manually would require a lot of labor and is usually automated with the following systems:
- Conveyors for transporting materials and boards through the manufacturing process.
- Bar-code readers for processing and tracking components and boards within the factory.
- Component delivery systems to provide components for pick-and-place machines.
- Packaging systems to seal and dispense the final PCB products once completed.
As you can see, there is a lot of automation in use within your contract manufacturer’s facility. PCB technology will continue to advance, however, and to keep up with these advancements, your CM will continue to look for and evaluate new methods of improving the automated manufacturing process even further.
Advancements in PCB Manufacturing Techniques
To improve performance and get more electronics into smaller packages, PCB fabrication technology will continue to advance. Trace and space widths down to 1 mil are now being considered as well as new materials that may have better electrical and temperature performance characteristics for what is currently available.
To assemble boards that are fabricated according to these new specifications will take enhanced assembly automation to place parts within the tighter tolerances. There are also new testing techniques that could be leveraged to improve a board’s test coverage.
As an electronics designer, you need a CM that is committed to maintaining its automation at the highest standards of quality and efficiency, and is always looking ahead to new enhancements in PCB assembly automation. This is the only way you can be sure your board will be manufactured to meet your requirements today, and the increased requirements of the industry in the years to come.