Changes In Manufacturing Of Electronic Products Are Better Than Over The Past 50 Years

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A significant amount of the technology used by people today stems from 50 years ago. In 1968 Robort Noyce and Gordon Moore launched intel. This has evolved to become the largest semiconductor companies in the world, about twice as big as closest competitor, Samsung Electronics Co Ltd and more than triple the size of the next-largest producer, Qualcomm Inc. (QCOM). During this time we also saw the first large-scale test of communications network ARPANET. Originally meant for scientists and researchers who wanted to share computers remotely, ARPANET soon turned into something far greater; the Internet. Although technology has improved dramatically since then, much of today’s complex and lucrative technologies are rooted in the life-changing breakthroughs of the late 1960’s. These have changed the global landscape dramatically. As developments in areas such as artificial intelligence, big data and the Internet of Things come together, we find ourselves at the beginning of a new era of innovation. The future of technology is just around the corner.

In this essay I will discuss in detail where, when and how technology and its manufacturing processes have evolved over the last 50 years with reference to the printed circuit board and how I think it will continue to progress to suit the consumer market demand into the future.

The Evolution Of PCBs

1960’s

Multi-layered Printed Circuit boards began production during the 1960’s. The extra layers (often up to 4) added Power. Due to the increased circuit density of multiple layers, they became more powerful than less intricate designs. They have a higher operating capacity and can run at higher speeds, which is often necessary for the advanced devices they were beginning to power and are still powering today which allowed for improved performance. This was an important point in the evolution of PCB’s. Another improvement at this time was the introduction of a new design to boards, the new design was a 4:1, red-and-blue line vellum method for hand-taping components and tracks. A precision camera then created the negative manufacturing film. A good, well-qualified designer could layout and tape a board every two hours for each similar 14-pin integrated circuit on the board.

1970’s

During the 1970’s the size of circuit boards began to get a lot smaller, making products altogether more convenient for everyday use and portability. Hot air soldering was creeping in also, this had many benefits at the time; low-cost, availability, excellent shelf life and the ability to be reused. In Japan developers started creating screen processes using various aqueous developed LPI’s (liquid photo imageable masks). This was soon the industry standard. Gerber Scientific introduced RS-274-D as a machine-based format for vector photo-plotters in this decade too.The 70’s saw the manufacturing of Jack Kilby’s microprocessor. Kilby had conceptualised the microprocessor soon after beginning work as an engineer for Texas Instruments, however because he was new he had little power and had to wait until all of his seniors went to a week long press-conference before he could test out the idea. It was then that he developed the first microprocessor in the form of an integrated circuit (IC). Although this happened in 1958, it wasn’t until the 70’s that official production began.

1980’s

The 1980’s is often referred to as the dawn of the digital age. This time brought about many changes in how we consumed media. Personal devices like the VHS, gaming consoles, walkmans and cameras were produced. At this time PCB’s were still being drawn by hand with a lightboard and stencils before computers and EDA arrived.

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This completely changed how we designed and manufactured electronics. Instead of photographs of PCBs, we’re now able to save our designs as text files whose coordinates can be sent into manufacturing machinery to produce a circuit board. Another critical improvement was the industry switch from through-hole components to surface mount parts, which became the preferred option for manufacturers. The benefit this had was that it reduced size but maintained the same functionality. In 1986 the RS-274X took over in place of the RS-274-D. This had an abundance of new, high level controls that allowed the writer of the gerber data to specify the photoplot very accurately - much more so than previously used RS274D which forced you to pass a lot of critical information separately from the data file, which was long, tedious and mistake-prone.

1990’s

The 1990’s was known as the internet age. Ball grid arrays were introduced to the market with the use of silicone. Because of this we can fit more gates onto a single chip and embed memories and systems on Chips together. This is also a period of intense miniaturization in electronics. There wasn’t much new, groundbreaking features added to PCBs, but the entire design process was starting to change and evolve, shifting to the Integrated Circuit(I.C).

This meant designers now had to implement Design for Test (D.F.T) strategies into their layouts. It was no longer as easy to take off a component and add a blue wire. Engineers would have to design their layouts with a foresight of future reworks in mind. They had to ensure that all components were implemented in a way in which they could be easily removed. This became a problem they never had to consider before. This was also a time where smaller component packages such as 0402 made the hand soldering of boards extremely difficult. The designers now had to handle EDA software and the manufacturer handled the assembly and physical production. Another important change was Valor Computerized Systems new Genesis 2000 software. While the complexity of modern circuit boards continued to go up, the size of the boards and costs of materials was constantly declining. Once developers were able to start using multi-layer circuit boards they were able to minimize the size and input combinations of stiff and flexible PCB’s in a range of devices. Going forward, new developments would continue to produce more efficient circuits that could effectively meet the needs of a rapidly growing technology market. In 1995 US PCB production reached $7.1 billion, topping $7 billion for first time in history. In 1995 the Use of Microvia technology in production begun, taking in the era of H.D.I PCB’s. In 1997 Valor Computerized Systems released ODB ++ printed circuit board manufacturing data format to public domain.

2000-present

In 2000 the US PCB market hit 10 billion US dollars for the first time. From 2000 to present is known as the hybrid age because in the past you needed separate devices for separate needs e.g. If you needed an alarm clock you bought an alarm clock but now you can buy a smartphone that can do multiple things for you. Since the 2000’s flex PCBs have become an affordable option and are commonly used. These have better thermal properties and are more aesthetic than what was previously used.

The future

The swift progression of printed circuit boards over the past 50 years has completely transformed the world we live in, but what can the future hold in store? One trend that will likely continue is the minimization of electronic components. As of now most circuit boards are using multiple-step techniques for example, conventional vacuum deposition and photolithographic designing. However these strategies have barriers; they are expensive, they produce and leave behind deadly waste and have an extremely high handling temperature, making them dangerous and slowing down production. The future of PCB’s has already began with the concept of 3D printed circuit boards becoming more and more normal. The increased use of integrated circuit chips, POP (package on package) as well as embedded components is also predicted. Some believe these and other advancements will keep the design and manufacture of printed circuit boards a diverse and fresh industry long into the future. Others disagree, pointing out that trends suggest that the market is in a crisis in which it may never recover; Only 25% of today’s PCB designers are under the age of 45. Maybe the future of PCB’s is in robotics, or in wearables with flexible circuitry, there is even the posability we might see protons replacing electrons with Photonics. As for the physical PCB’s that we have grew up with, even those might change for the better. Instead of needing a physical medium to connect components there is potential for wave technology. This would allow components to wirelessly transmit signals/waves without using copper.The truth is no one really knows where PCB design is headed in the future or even electronics as a whole, it’s an impossible market to predict especially with the rapid growth rate increase it continues to experience.

Conclusion

Almost 130 years have gone by since the age of technology kicked into motion. The world has been forever changed with incredible inventions like the car, electrical appliances, the computer, phones etc... We no longer rely on coal, wood, or oil for everything. We have electronics that can help us attain our every day needs. The scope of significance ranges far beyond cars and smartphones. Disposable products i.e packaging, can be highly technological. Silicon-free printed electronics could lead us to a world of tech designed for disposable products. Evolving product design and fabrication with printed electronics means that the electronic industry can now use resources only ever usable before by large semiconductor companies such as Intel.

As of today, production for the average circuit board is as such: The board is designed and printed, after this the printed circuit board is ready to be populated, a list of parts needed are ordered from distributors. When they arrive they are placed onto the PCB either via machine or hand, dependant on the situation. When everything is ready, the PCB is sent to be inputted into the final product is was made for, unless it is the product itself. If a problem appears during the manufacturing process then engineers may have to rearrange the circuit board or atleast a section of it, afterwards they must change the component list,before changing the entire production line as a circumstance of the change. These changes and the time lost implementing them often cost a company both a lot money and essential resources with the average PCB lead times being a week. This is basically 7 days of no sales, which is huge for companies. Printed electronics could change the game, imagine a circuit has been designed and is ready for prototyping. Instead of sending fora PCB to be fabricated and having to hand-construct the unit, the print design would be sent to be 3D printed. This would take a couple of hours if not less, saving a huge amount of time and completely altering the way companies work. If problems arose the time needed would be miniscule in comparison to the time consumed now. Another undoubted benefit to printed electronics would be the ability to mass produce trillions of components at any given time, the posabilities are endless. However, with the power of semiconductors approaching its limit, we may not be able to maximise the potential of 3D printing for some time.  

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