Connect the Dots: The Power of Forward Thinking

Innovation comes in many forms and from more places these days. Last year, the staff of Popular Science locked themselves in a room and came up with its annual list of 100 greatest innovations. These technological advances will shape how we live and work in the coming years. Included were products like Omrom’s HeartGuide, HTC’s VIVE Pro Eye, and Pro Display XDR by Apple, as well as the national rollout of 5G cellular from all four mobile carriers.

Breakthroughs result when visionary individuals and organizations identify needs that are not being served, platforms that can be improved, or entirely new products capable of transforming daily life. What do these electronic devices and an industry-wide technology shift have in common? They are all innovative, and they all contain PCBs.

Turning Visionary Ideas Into Innovative Products

Whether it’s a new electronic device or advancement of broader technology infrastructure, moving from idea to innovation requires processes—the journey from concept to design to prototype—and manufacturing. Bringing innovation to the market requires many skills across multiple disciplines, all working together.

From mechanical and electrical engineering to sales and marketing, a team needs to have all these resources available to them to be successful. PCBs are at the heart of these products and product innovation; designing, prototyping, and manufacturing them is vital to success.

To the uninitiated, PCB design may seem like a rigid, by-the-book process, but It’s not. Because it takes creativity to turn a concept into design, PCB design is very much an art form. Granted, boards aren’t quite the same as blank canvasses, and there’s nothing artsy-sounding about schematics or a bill of materials or documentation. PCB design is a world filled with limits, tolerances, and parameters—in other words, rules. But, like in “The Matrix,” some of those rules can be bent and others broken.

When you focus on design as an opportunity to be creative, rather than a task standing between you and production, you put yourself in a position to better fulfill the promise of innovation.

Let’s start with components. The placement and use of components aren’t just pragmatic; there is also an element of creativity in their use. There is no single right way to place them, but there is something unspoken about the elegance and aesthetic beauty of well-arranged components. It’s important to remember, and this is where “The Matrix’s” rules cannot be broken; how you orient and organize components will heavily influence the manufacturability of design and, ultimately, the functionality of your finished board (Figure 1).

Sunstone fig 1.JPG

Figure 1: Components.

Pro Design Tips:

  • Orient similar components to facilitate efficient and error-free soldering
  • Do not place components on the solder side of a board that would sit behind through-hole components; your assembly shop will tell you how much room they need
  • Organize through-hole and surface-mount components to minimize assembly steps
  • Avoid components that will give you heating issues when the board is in use or take steps to control or remove that heat

Next, consider routing. Almost every piece of PCB design software has an auto-router feature that can be useful in a lot of situations, but when you’re designing something brand new, you can benefit from taking over the controls yourself.

Leave the auto-router in charge, and the results can be asymmetrical, even look and feel messy. These configurations are not easily manufactured and can be lacking when it comes to performance. It’s like a pilot who doesn’t know the destination of the flight. Use this tool as a complement to your routing efforts—not a replacement for you.

If you have time, hand route the entire design; it will look more professional, work more efficiently, and be easier to update if you must rework a section of the board. If you cannot avoid having to auto-route some of the board, hand route the critical traces yourself, and then auto route the remaining ones. In this capacity, the auto-router can help with schedule compression while also making the bulk of your non-critical connections. There will be some messy routing and too many vias—plus editing will be harder down the road—but you’ll have something to work with much sooner.

Innovation increasingly goes hand in hand with PCBs getting smaller. A multilayered PCB can offer requisite functionality if it occupies a small space in your device. If you have limited or no experience with multilayer board design, the prospect of an attempt can be daunting. Multilayer boards don’t have to be a hassle. Think of them as multiple single-layer boards stacked together.

Pro Design Tips:

  • Become familiar with multilayer design tips and guidelines provided with your CAD tool
  • Familiarize yourself with components, tolerances, and requirements unique to multilayer PCBs
  • Make sure your design tool library is set up for multilayer boards
  • Know your manufacturer’s requirements for multilayer designs
  • Stay away from blind and buried vias unless you really need them
  • Don’t hesitate to ask for help

To be considered an innovator—a profitable one, at least—it’s important that you’re first to market with your product. This presents a seemingly compelling reason to head straight for full production, but designing your PCB is just step one for ensuring its manufacturability and eventual functionality. Prototyping is the critical next step in the process, one that can make you more confident about your production runs.

Some feel prototyping costs too much, takes too much time, or must be outsourced abroad. Even if you are in a hurry, prototyping makes sense. It also doesn’t have to cost a lot or happen 5,000 miles away. We believe prototyping is vital to a smooth, successful production run. It cost-effectively validates manufacturability of design, helps avoid incredibly expensive mistakes during full production, creates more opportunities to innovate, and tests your boards for quality and durability.

Prototype fabrication services can vary, and if you are working on something cutting-edge, there are several critical elements to keep in mind. Many manufacturers offer a feasibility assessment of your design to ensure PCB manufacturability and viability. This can help you avoid costly and unnecessary iteration during the prototyping phase. Layout review may uncover expanded manufacturing needs, so don’t be afraid to ask questions and make sure your prototyping partner uses processes and equipment that match your desired speed of production and quality of the product (Figure 2).

Sunstone fig 2.JPG

Figure 2: DFM.

Once an acceptable prototype has been manufactured, assembled, and proven, your board moves on to full production and then assembly. At assembly, functional components for power regulation, I/O interfaces, and processing are connected with the wiring of your PCB. The resulting printed circuit assembly (PCA) will be key to end-product functionality.

In terms of time, money, and reputation, the cost of a do-over after assembly is more than at the design or prototyping phases—especially at higher volumes. A PCA with performance problems at this point could result in delayed order fulfillment, project cost overruns, or a competitor beating your product to market—a missed opportunity for innovation. That is why choosing your assembler wisely is so important. A reliable assembly partner will help you avoid costly failures associated with slipshod production, as well as defective and improperly installed components.

Moving your PCB design through prototyping, manufacturing, and assembly is the journey within the journey for product innovation. Every part of it is a continuous learning process that offers an opportunity for improvement. That’s what makes innovation both challenging and exciting.

Bob Tise is an engineer at Sunstone Circuits, and Matt Stevenson is the VP of sales and marketing at Sunstone Circuits. To read past columns or contact Tise and Stevenson, click here.

This column originally appeared in the June 2020 issue of Design007 Magazine

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2020

Connect the Dots: The Power of Forward Thinking

07-06-2020

Innovation comes in many forms and from more places these days. Bob Tise and Matt Stevenson discuss how innovative electronic devices all contain PCBs, and share pro design tips for bringing new products to the market.

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Connect the Dots: Picking a Prototyping Strategy

06-29-2020

No matter how simple or complicated your electronic project, PCB prototyping is part of its journey from concept to reality. This process of turning the design into something physical can teach you a lot about what needs to be tweaked and improved before your PCB is ready for full production. Bob Tise and Matt Stevenson explain how before you can prototype, you have to design.

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Connect the Dots: Increased Focus on Health and Wellness Transforms the PCB Industry

05-04-2020

Our increased focus on health and wellness drives technology advancement for personal devices and those used in the delivery of healthcare. Bob Tise and Matt Stevenson explain how this trend also drives both PCB production innovation and a long-overdue update of the employer/employee relationship.

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Connect the Dots: The Seven-year Etch

04-16-2020

PCB etching seems like a simple task on the surface, but quite a few things can go wrong during this process. Adhering to best practice and continuous improvement is a must to help avoid issues with your finished board. Bob Tise and Matt Stevenson share their design tips for a better etching process.

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Connect the Dots: Design Tips For Layout

02-06-2020

As a PCB manufacturer, we receive hundreds of PCB layouts represented in Gerber format every week. As you might expect, they’re not all created equal. Some of the layouts check every box and roll straight into manufacturing, while others need work before they can be sent to the production floor.

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Connect the Dots: A Penny for Your Thoughts on Copper

01-22-2020

You're probably thinking: “Bob can’t possibly write an entire article dedicated to the use of copper in PCBs.” To that, Bob says, “Hold my beer.”

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2019

Connect the Dots: A Penny for Your Thoughts on Copper

12-19-2019

Copper is the primary metal for standard PCBs. And while standard PCB capabilities depend on what materials are used and how they are constructed, copper is the go-to choice. Bob Tise explains some of copper's applications, advantages, and challenges.

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Connect the Dots: Build Quality Into Your Boards and Processes

11-06-2019

To the procurement clerk, a PCB may seem like it is just a line item on a bill of materials (BOM) or parts list during the production of an electronic device. At Sunstone, we know differently. The PCB is the building block for all of the components and parts in your electrical project.

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Connect the Dots: A Proactive Approach to Controlled Impedance

10-09-2019

You can save time, money, and effort if you are aware of the impedance math when you sit down to design your board. Gain this awareness by using a good impedance calculator, and you can build the right tolerances into your design. Impedance testing becomes a double-check of your work instead of the tool you rely on to tell you if your documentation is correct. Documenting impedance requirements properly is more onerous than most people realize. Though it seems simple, PCB documentation is a details game that often leaves knowledge gaps for your manufacturer.

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Connect the Dots: Managing Global Supply Chain Uncertainty

09-03-2019

We are well into the second year of tariff-centric trade policy, and one thing appears certain—uncertainty is here to stay. Though most of the media focus has been on cars and steel or consumer prices and corporate profits, the enduring challenge for both the electronics and PCB industries has been maintaining reliable global supply chains.

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Connect the Dots: Five Best Practices to Ensure Manufacturability

08-01-2019

When you send your design for manufacturing, your partner does not know what type of device the board will be part of nor the conditions in which it will have to perform. It’s common for harsh environments or exposure to mess up a board’s performance. If you call out materials that will not tolerate the end-product’s operating environment, bad things can happen—such as a smoking board, for example. Be sure your board can tolerate thermal stress or solder joints risk breaking and damaging components.

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Connect the Dots: The Future of PCB Manufacturing Doesn't Belong to Robots, but to the Users

07-09-2019

Is the world ready for the consequences of rapid automation? Will the use of robots displace entire categories of workers? Can artificial intelligence really “think”? How will manufacturing, including PCB manufacturing, be affected by all of these smart robots? These questions actually come from a pamphlet published in 1955: "The Age of Automation: Its Effects on Human Welfare."

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Connect the Dots: Accurate Gerber Files Are Mission-Critical for Smooth PCB Manufacturing

05-30-2019

Gerber files can reveal design issues ahead of the quote process and ensure your manufacturer has everything needed to produce your boards correctly. After consulting with Engineering Support Specialist Eric Haugen, we explored some best practices for making sure that Gerber files are accurate.

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Connect the Dots: Preparing for Tomorrow’s Technology Today

05-16-2019

At a recent Sunstone Circuits planning summit, Matt Stevenson, VP of sales and marketing, and Bob Tise had a wide-ranging discussion about emerging technologies and how they will impact PCB manufacturing. The following is an abridged transcript of this conversation.

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Connect the Dots: MakeHarvard 2019: Bigger and Better!

04-09-2019

Sunstone Circuits was eager to return to MakeHarvard as a sponsor and creator of a competition category this year, also serving as both mentors and competition judges. If you were there, you saw us—we were hard to miss in our bright orange vests. As mentors, we were out and about helping students and answering questions.

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Connect the Dots: Exploding PCBs: Don’t Lose Track of Voltage in Your Design

04-01-2019

Managing split planes? Your CAM tool will not do it for you. We see this almost every day—not exploding PCBs, which pretty rare—but rather problems created by having more than one voltage on a power plane layer. From where we sit, this is one of the more insidious and costly challenges facing PCB designers.

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2018

Connect the Dots: Six Tips to Ensure Parts Fit on Your Board

12-12-2018

One of the most frustrating mismatches with alternative through-hole parts occurs when the land pattern matches, but the pin size is off. If hole sizes are too tight, pins may not fit through the holes, or if they do go into the holes, they may not solder well. Solder will need to flow through the gap between the pin and the hole barrel. If there is not enough space to allow enough solder mass to flow through the hole, the circuit board will absorb heat from the molten solder and cause the solder to solidify partway up the hole. This is called a cold solder joint and can result in a premature failure of your circuit.

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Connect the Dots: New Landing Design to Reduce Thermal Pad Failure

11-16-2018

You’ve finally finished your design. All the traces are correct and the IC landings are to the manufacturer’s specifications. A short run of test boards performs perfectly. For best results, you select a reputable domestic board house for production and a quality assembly shop to do the soldering. When the finished boards arrive, everything looks great. You’re in high spirits and congratulate yourself on a job well done. Then the reports start coming in.

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