It is easy to say that computers, in many shapes and forms, have become the standard for most types of work today. Computers are more than a laptop, PC, or a Mac; speaking more broadly, computers are information processors that can be found in most electronic items today, from calculators to video game consoles to cars and more. Early computers date back to the 1940s, massive machines that used vacuum tubes. By the 1960s, computers were using hole-punched paper reels for simple programs, and pioneers such as Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, and their cohorts made use of them. Today, meanwhile, a computer will run off a printed circuit board, or a PCB, and printed circuit board assembly is a major sector of manufacturing today. Given the massive demand for compact, powerful computers everywhere, it is no surprise that board assembly is also a robust industry. PCB prototype assembly is often done first to test a new, advanced model, and then board assembly may follow. How might this work?

The Basics of Board Assembly

Board assembly is a sort of joint project between human engineers and robotic arms and other automated machinery that makes them. It may be interesting to note that machines running off of PCBs are in fact making other PCBs for future devices. To the start the process of board assembly, human board designers will use specialized software to develop new models, to figure out the best layout for these future PCBs. This may be delicate and exacting work, since the printed circuit board being designed may have some very small spaces involved. Often, the space between the electrical conducting paths will be 0.04 inches (1 millimeter) across or even narrower. And what is more, the PCB being designed may very well be a multi layer model, as many applications call for advanced computing power that, in turn, requires multiple PCB layers. If a PCB isn’t going to be single-layer, then it may have four, six, eight, 10, or even more layers. In fact, some of the most advanced circuit boards have 42 layers in them, for very advanced and demanding work.

Creating the circuit board takes time, and while it is possible to assemble them by hand, these PCBs are most efficiently built when robotic arms are producing them. This allows for a larger output of them in a given time, and a board assembly firm might have to do this so it can keep up with demand. Soldering work will be done, but the robotic arms must be programmed exactly so that they use temperatures carefully, or else the PCB being built may warp or even melt. Until a temperature of 160 degrees Celsius is reached, the soldering work should heat up one or two degrees per second. If done correctly, this is efficient work; just one automated line for building PCBs can make more of them than 50 human operators, and with more consistent quality, too. Meanwhile, a soldier paste applier, along with a high speed chip shooter, pick-and-place machine and an infrared oven may all be placed on a conveyor configuration to assemble over 50,000 parts per hour. Some board assembly lines have been known to have a standard turn-time of five days or under, and that’s 75% faster than the industry’s average.

The PCB manufacturing industry is only a few decades old, as PCBs did not even exist early in the 20th century, but engineers are always looking for new and greater heights every year with this technology. Computers are commonplace and always growing in power, as is the demand for them and their processors. In theory, transistors may keep miniaturizing until they are only one nanometer wide, the thickness of just 10 atoms in a row.

This is why many prototypes may be built, to test tomorrow’s cutting-edge PCB models. Aberdeen Group launched some surveys and found that simple PCBs will require an average of 11.6 physical prototypes during development, and more advanced ones may need as many as 16.1 physical prototypes to work out all the problems during development. These boards are important; these circuit boards represent 31% of the cost of any product, meaning there’s very little room for delay or errors during production.