The Different Stages of PCB Manufacturing

When you are creating a product, whether it be a laptop computer or a handheld device, chances are you’re designing a printed circuit board (PCB). This is the electronic circuit that connects your electronics together. Your PCB design has to follow specific steps for it to be successfully produced and assembled, so it is important to understand the different stages of a standard PCB manufacturing process.

1. Gerber File Creation – The first step is the designer creating a file that is accepted by PCB manufacturers as a standard for recording the specification of a PCB. This file is known as a “gerber” and will provide the manufacturer with the details of the layout and components that should be placed on the board, ensuring they can produce it correctly.

2. Photo Tool Printing – This stage involves the manufacturer printing a photo tool, or film, of the PCB design on a transparent sheet using a special type of printer called a plotter. This is a film that looks much like a regular transparency, but is actually a picture negative of the actual board design.

3. Copper Etching – This is the phase where unwanted copper (Cu) is removed from the board to create the desired circuit pattern. This phase varies in time and the amount of copper etching solvent used depending on the size and structure of the PCB.

4. Plating – This is the final step that provides the desired conductive walls in the vias, which are holes that allow interconnection between layers of a PCB. This process is usually carried out in a high-pressure spray chamber and can be done dry or wet.

5. Hole Drilling – Holes are then drilled in the PCB to accept component leads that can be inserted and soldered onto traces. This step requires accurate and clean hole walls and sophisticated optics.

6. Component Placement – The components are then placed on the etched board, which is reflow soldered. The reflow process is a heating and cooling cycle that ensures the solder adheres to each other and that connections are secure.

7. Board Finishing – This is the final step before packaging and shipping the boards. The board is then finished with a protective coating, mainly to keep the copper areas from oxidation. This may include electroless nickel immersion gold (ENIG), electroless nickel electroless palladium immersion gold (ENEPIG), lead-free hot air solder level (HASL) or immersion tin.

8. Electrical Testing – The next stage of the production process is the electrical test of the boards, which is based on the test points that were called out in the PCB netlist. This is a process that will typically involve continuity tests, where open and shorts are tested between various nodes on the board to make sure everything is working as expected.

The PCB manufacturing process is complex and requires many different steps to be completed in order to successfully produce a PCB. It is crucial for designers to be familiar with all of these steps so they can spot mistakes in their designs and avoid having them cause production failures that would require scrapping the board and starting over.

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