Why would printed circuit board (PCB) engineers turn a rigid board into a flex circuit?
Up until a decade ago, they wouldn’t.
Even if product schematics called for a flexible PCB design, engineers of yesteryear would usually just connect two or three small rigid boards with cables and approximate the shape of the flex circuit desired.
Every product with an on/off switch has some kind of circuit board inside of it.
For the most part, manufacturers and consumers are used to seeing circuit boards in their traditional format – flat, rectangular boards inserted into flat, rectangular products like televisions and laptop computers.
But new ergonomic product designs and the proliferation of wearable tech are changing the game for manufacturers.
Building custom cables to meet the application needs of a client is common practice at Power Design Services.
Our ability to customize cable assemblies is great news for many of our clients who are new to product development. Seeking to avoid taking on an “electrical engineering” project themselves, they are often initially dismayed to learn that other companies that manufacture large amounts of cable are unable or unwilling to handle their small-scale specifications.
However, Power Design Services specializes in orders for printed circuit board prototypes and small to medium sized
Power Design Services and other reputable PCB contractors fabricate the great majority of printed circuit boards through automated processes. The efficiency of automation has lowered overall costs, cut production time and results in PCBs of consistently high quality.
However, even in these days of automated production, there are still instances when hand assembly of PCBs makes sense.
The days when beginner-level soldering was suitable for reworking integrated circuits (ICs) on a PCB are long gone. Reworking modern PCBs often requires expert attention and surgical precision.
Additionally, ball grid arrays, quad flat no-leads packages, and other common technologies typically require specialized equipment that manufacturers simply don’t have at hand.
The success of new product introduction (NPI) and prototypes in the electronics industry boils down to two major factors:
- Skillful development, and
- Minimizing the time from initial concept to market arrival
Power Design Services opened its doors in 2003 with the revolutionary idea of providing a quick and effective process for NPIs and prototype creation. Our founders were optimistic Silicon Valley veterans who believed that they could build a company to fill this valuable niche in a hyper-competitive industry.
PCB experts usually agree that automated processes reduce errors during assembly. Modern surface mount technology allows SMT line machines to produce better results more consistently for the broad majority of PCB components.
However, there are times when assembling a PCB by hand makes sense. In particular, when building prototype circuit boards in low quantities, the right combination of factors may make manual PCB assembly the preferred option.
Volume Limits for Manual PCB Assembly
One of the primary factors making a case for hand assembly is volume. Any order above ten individual boards is best performed through automated pick-and-place assembly. However, there are plenty of instances when manufacturers don’t need more than ten PCBs. If a manufacturer is deciding between two main prototype designs, it may only need two boards to fulfill its objective.
In this case, having an employee load and solder components onto the circuit board can be advantageous in terms of man-hours spent. Calibrating an SMT machine for such a job may take longer and present more complications than simply assembling the pieces manually.
Component Choices and Other Factors
Another factor that may go into the decision to assemble a prototype PCB order by hand is component choice. Components made of low-melting point metals may not withstand the heat of automated soldering without careful and painstaking machine calibration, for instance.
Similarly, a component with an unusual shape and center of gravity may present issues during automated processes that, for low-volume orders, are best addressed by a skilled technician’s hand. Also, sometimes manufacturers send parts in bulk or in loose bags that can’t be placed on SMT line machines, or simply send insufficient documentation for an automated process to make sense.
If the required volume is low, the board technology is simple, and there are relatively few individual components per-board, a professional prototype PCB assembly service may choose to build the board by hand.
Compensating for Errors in Manual PCB Assembly
Naturally, hand assembly produces a larger margin of error than automated PCB assembly. This is one of the main reasons people use large-volume machines in the first place. However, having a well-defined manual workflow and numerous quality failsafe checks ensures that the finished board functions just like an automated one would.
For instance, there is little reason not to automate the solder paste printing process. Screen printing solder paste onto the circuit board ensures consistent results and takes less time than manually applying paste even for small-volume orders.
For best results, the manual element should only consist of the actual placement of components on the board. The result is easy to verify using standard process and quality checks, ensuring that low-volume PCB orders are subject to the same standards as automated high-volume ones.
Box builds are quite different from straightforward printed circuit board manufacturing.
The process of a box build often begins with inserting a PCB into a specially constructed enclosure. The next step – connecting the framed, printed circuit board to a sub-assembly – can be simple, or involve linking to complex electro-mechanical assemblies that border on machines.
Let’s say your business wishes to move forward with a bold new electronic application. Your first step toward production is finding a contractor who offers PCB assembly services advanced enough to handle your innovative concept.
As today’s electronic applications become more complex, the challenges of producing quality printed circuit board prototypes grow.
At Power Design Services, the management of PCB prototype development timelines and costs starts with our engineers.
Their comprehensive knowledge of the process of producing quality printed circuit boards is the foundation of Power Design Services’ reputation for outstanding customer service.