Agile Manufacturing is Changing How PCBs are Made

Back when I used to play football, my teammates and I were considered by some classmates to simply be “dumb jocks.” This could not have been further from the truth, as football can be a relatively complex game of strategy and execution. For example, coaches typically have a different game plan for each opponent, and each game plan consists of multiple plays. Each player has to memorize their responsibilities for each of the plays, and some players have to know the responsibilities of multiple players for each play. Then, after all of that planning, players often have to completely change what they are doing in the middle of a play. It can be challenging to summon the physical and mental agility necessary to respond to sudden changes during a play. However, the consequences of not doing so can result in an adverse outcome, like giving up a touchdown.

Even if you are not that familiar with how PCBs are made, you probably know that the manufacture of your boards consists of many, sometimes complex steps. Most contract manufacturers (CMs) are diligent about consistently implementing the steps of their PCB manufacturing process. However, the hardware electronics development landscape is changing. The development of PCBs and electronics systems now closely resembles the development of a software application or platform, which typically has to incorporate changing requirements, objectives, functionality, and capability. For software, instituting changes typically means rewriting and debugging code. For hardware, implementing changes is not usually that simple for most manufacturers. Let’s take a look at how PCBs are made and what is required for a CM to have an agile PCB manufacturing process that can rapidly change as the landscape evolves.

How PCBs are Made Traditionally

The objective of PCB manufacturing is to transform a design concept into a physical device that can implement electrical or electronic circuitry. There are four levels of PCB manufacturing: A) proof of concept, B) prototype, C) low-volume production and D) high-volume production. Regardless of the manufacturing level, the process consists of three stages:

Stage 1: Board fabrication

During this stage, your board is constructed. This includes laying out your footprints and traces, arranging your material selections into the layer stackupdrilling holes/vias and applying solder mask.

Stage 2: Component procurement

Obviously, component selection is the prime determinant for your board’s performance. For manufacturing, there are component lifecycle considerations to help you avoid shortages and counterfeits.

Stage 3: PCB assembly

This is the final stage of PCB manufacturing, where your surface mount devices (SMDs) and through-hole components are mounted on the board. This is where any design flaws with your PCB layout, components or silkscreen will reveal themselves.

Commonly, these three stages provide a fixed paradigm that defines how PCBs are made. This process works perfectly fine for well-defined designs that do not undergo any significant changes at the current manufacturing level.

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How PCBs are Made in Agile Manufacturing

Agile manufacturing can be defined as an organization’s ability and capacity to quickly respond to changes in customer demands and/or industry requirements without compromising the quality of services or products or needing to make major process changes or resource acquisitions. This means that a CM must be able to identify changes, which may be initiated by the customer, the industry or regulatory agencies, and adapt their methodology, technique(s) and/or process(es) to implement the change “on the fly” with minimal impact on the current project or deliverable quality and schedule.

As this capability has not typically been necessary for PCB manufacturing, most CMs do not possess the equipment, processes, and expertise necessary to meet these requirements in any, except rudimentary, cases. To match the challenges of an agile PCB manufacturing process, CMs should be able to meet the following requirements.

CM Capability Requirement

Agile Manufacturing Purpose/Benefit

Open communication with client

Early notification of client’s customer initiated changes

Transparency of manufacturing equipment, capabilities and techniques with the client

Ensure that client design changes fall within DFM guidelines (e.g. drill hole size change)

Broad materials supply chain

Able to obtain new materials quickly (e.g. material type change)

Broad components supply chain

Able to obtain new components quickly (e.g. component replacement)

Advanced and robust fabrication capabilities

Easily incorporate new fabrication requirements (e.g. rigid to flex change)

Advanced and robust assembly capabilities

Easily incorporate new assembly requirements (e.g. SMD to through-hole component change)

Familiarity with pertinent standards and regulations for board manufacture and quality

Anticipate new regulations and adjust techniques and/or processes in a timely manner

If your CM has the capabilities listed above, it is likely that any necessary changes to your PCB manufacturing process can be quickly implemented without requiring equipment acquisition, methodology or technique modifications or in-depth or extended training.

Tempo‘s Custom PCB Manufacturing Service
  • 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.

At Tempo Automation, we employ a white box approach to manufacturing that is based on transparency and the secure free-flow of information. We have mass customization capacity that is built upon our software-driven facilities and unbroken digital thread from the engineer to the factory floor.

And to help you get started on the best path, we furnish information for your DFM and enable you to easily view and download DRC files. If you’re an Altium user, you can simply add these files to your PCB design software.

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 how PCBs are made or agile manufacturing, contact us.

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