Creating a unique PCB isn’t that difficult either. You only need to know what you want. Each of these boards has a unique set of copper trails that give purpose to them. Also, they can consist of single or multiple layers. These layers — if there’s more than one — can stack up in many different ways. There’s usually a standard stackup. However, you can come up with a custom one that might suit your needs better.
Why does all of this matter? Before you throw yourself into the world of PCBs, it’s only logical you should learn all there is to know about them. That way, you’ll be able to discover what it is you really want out of them.
Similarly, knowing about the fabrication process is equally — if not more — important. This knowledge allows you to predict and bypass any possible mistakes that could be fatal to your project.
In this article, we’ll tell you all there is to know about the fabrication process so that you know exactly what you’re getting yourself into. It’s probably simpler to grasp than you imagine.
What Does the Fabrication Process Include?
Before addressing the individual steps in the fabrication process, first, we need to take a look at the wider picture. Going straight in without prior knowledge can be problematic because you don’t know what you’re getting yourself into. In turn, that can make everything a lot more confusing than it actually is.
The stages of PCB fabrication are probably more intertwined than you think. It’s normal for them to be interconnected. Everything has to work together perfectly to bring you the perfect final product.
So you can probably imagine the succession of stages. First comes development, and it’s followed by manufacturing, testing, and assembly at the very end.
The development stage is as much of a step as it is a process. It consists of three steps itself — designing your PCB, producing, and testing. In layman’s terms, this is the process that brings your PCB from a simple design to the actual product. This is the step where you aim to obtain the highest quality possible within the given time frame.
We all know what manufacturing is, so let’s talk about testing. It’s done right after your product is complete to ensure that the PCB functions to the best of its ability. This is a perfect time to fix any errors in production or design.
Last but not least, there’s assembling. PCBA — printed circuit board assembly — is the step where your board gets accessories that make it look less naked than before. This is the stage in which the components unite with boards through soldering.
Now that you know what the process entails in general, let’s talk about some of the techniques used in manufacturing.
PCB Production Techniques
At this point in the article, we’re well into the whole process of production and yet, we know so little about the techniques that make our boards come to life. That’s about to change. Once your board design is final, it’s time to take it to production. This is a good time to review your design and ensure it’s exactly what you want it to be. If it’s not, there’s nothing to worry about. There’s still time to change the faulty design if the testing shows any errors.
When it comes to the techniques that make your PCB become real, there are eight of them in total. Most of them you’ve probably never heard of because this isn’t the case of simple printing and assembling. As in the fabrication stages, these techniques intertwine to ensure you get the best product possible. They include:
- Imaging your layout of choice on laminates covered with copper
- Removing — or etching — excess copper to reveal pads and traces
- Creating the PCB layer stackup of your choice before laminating them together at high temperatures
- Drilling mounting holes through hole pins and vias
- Plating said pin and via holes
- Solder masking — adding a protective coating to the surface
- Silkscreen printing any markings you desire on the surface of the board
- Adding a finish to copper surface areas — this is optional
Once the production is over, you have a final product in your hands. If testing shows any errors, you’ll have to go through all of these steps all over again. If that happens — fear not. This process is done by machines, and it will ensure that you get your unique PCB promptly.
Why Does This Matter?
As we’ve said at the beginning, knowing all about the fabrication process helps you prevent and bypass any possible errors. You’ll also be able to utilize the time you have better and come up with a superior product. To simplify, you’ll be able to use this newfound knowledge however you see fit. However, is that all there is to it? Why else is it important to understand the PCB fabrication process? We’re glad you asked.
Indeed, this process isn’t something you’ll be doing yourself. You’ll give your design to a supplier, and they’ll produce exactly what you ask for. Still, knowing how they’re going to do it will give you more than just peace of mind.
Your supplier doesn’t know what you’ll be using this PCB for. That means they can’t point out if you’re making any wrong choices, and there are definitely some to be made. Your stackup could be wrong — or just not good for what you’re going for — and so could the materials you’re planning on using. There can be issues with other components of your board, and nobody will be able to tell you about them. These issues can impact several things, such as:
- Manufacturability — This depends solely on the design choices you make. Making design mistakes will likely result in you having to redesign your entire circuit board, which means starting from the beginning yet again.
- Reliability — Your board will receive a classification based on what you intend to use it for. This means that it will have to meet certain standards to be considered reliable. Failing to meet said standards will result in PCB failure, which is something nobody wants.
- Yield rate — Even though there are issues with your board, it can — and will — be successfully manufactured. However, that only means you’ll have a lot of PCBs, many of which won’t even be working properly.
Successfully creating a PCB is definitely not an easy task. Still, it can be made easy if you just make some effort to learn a few things about manufacturing. That’s a way for you to perform quality control on your own product. Sure, you won’t be manufacturing the boards by hand, but you’ll have a way of knowing if they’ll turn out how you intended them to.
Knowing the stages of PCB fabrication matters for more than one reason. Nobody likes spending a lot of time designing something just to watch it fail in the end. Once you find out how everything works, you’ll be able to make better-informed decisions at the beginning, designing stages as well. How so? Well, doing a great amount of research beforehand ensures that you use all the right materials for your board as well as design it in a way that guarantees success.
Notice we’ve said “a great amount” of research. That means that a little bit of research likely won’t be enough. It’s not enough to find out which materials people most commonly use or what usually goes where. If you’re creating a PCB based on a certain template — or following a standard pattern — that fits your project, learning all about the fabrication stages seems to be unnecessary… but it definitely is necessary!
If you want your board to be unique and help your project succeed, take a bit of your time to find out how the production process really works. Knowing what goes on behind closed doors will ensure your PCB fabrication goes as smoothly as possible.