The Fabrication Process
A misconception by many people is that printed circuit boards are a commodity. A commodity is defined as a good for which there is a demand, but which is supplied without qualitative differentiation across a market. The product is the same no matter who produces it. Paper is paper and copper is copper. One would think that if a printed circuit board is manufactured to the standards of the IPC then it would be considered as a commodity. If the board meets the specification requirements then it would be consistent enough from supplier to supplier to be considered a commodity. The reality is far different than the wish.
It is true that a printed circuit board is built to an industry standard. The industry standard specifies the minimum acceptable requirements for quality and performance. However, a board made by one manufacturer is not the same as a board made by another manufacturer. The equipment and materials used in the manufacturing process vary from supplier to supplier. In truth, a printed circuit board is a custom manufactured composite structure. The number of operations required to build the printed circuit board shall vary upon the complexity of the design itself. The more complex the design, the more operations required to build the board. The quality and performance of the printed circuit board is a function of the equipment, materials and skilled labor used in the manufacturing process.
Some manufacturers are reputable, some are not. Some have poorly maintained equipment due to economic restraints. Other manufacturers keep up with their preventative maintenance schedules. Now more than ever it is important for a buyer or designer to visit their manufacturer and audit their process. Ask questions and become familiar with their manufacturing process. Get to know your supplier. At the same time see how stable that supplier is. In this latest recession/depression it is becoming common place for companies to close. Make sure your supplier is not one of them. Is your supplier financially stable. Is the equipment being maintained. Are they properly staffed. Are they just getting by or are they installing new equipment and investing in the future.
The intent of the next series of blog posts is to outline the basic fabrication process. Understanding the operations used in the process is important for a designer. The more understanding a designer has on his manufacturer’s process, the better his design shall be. I shall keep the posts as generic as possible. Do not get the impression that these blog posts are the only methods available. Different technologies require different manufacturing techniques. Please feel free to ask for clarification or information on different manufacturing practices if interested. If you are in the New England area and have an interested in touring an actual manufacturing facility please feel free to ask.