When creating printed circuit boards en masse, you should ensure that your process is as efficient as possible, without sacrificing quality. There are a number of aspects to consider when analysing the efficiency of your manufacturing process, which we discuss below, as well as tips and tricks of the trade to help you along the way. 

Optimise your design process 

The first step in streamlining your manufacturing process is to ensure that your design process is seamless. As the first stage of creating your board and end product, it’s important that due diligence is done here for quality control. Before starting the design process, do your research. What are you creating? Where will it be used? Make sure that you take any key learnings from previous boards or designs with you into the process. 

While you want to streamline this process and ensure you are removing any bottlenecks or time wasting, planning for your design is not a part of the process you should rush. Once you’ve got your brief and research ready, it’s time to take pen to paper and sketch or draft your design. Here is where some software or platforms can help with efficiency, as you can use products such as PCB design software like Altium. There are a lot of free options for design software on the market, so it’s important to shop around and find the software that works best for you for cost efficiency.

Another way to optimise your design process is by investing in computer-aided manufacturing (CAM) to help automate your manufacturing process. To put it simply, CAMs work by communicating instructions to manufacturing machines. A CAM will receive design files from a designer, check the data in electronic format, and perform the following:

  • Verify the layer order of the PCB
  • Check the design files and perform a design rules check (DRC) to ensure it passes standards required for manufacturing
  • Check for any errors that may cause an issue during the manufacturing process
  • Prepare files for production and use its data to send instructions to machines

CAM is an extremely precise and efficient process that will help to catch errors and streamline your manufacturing process.

As well as automated software to help streamline your process, there are other guidelines you can follow to ensure you are taking the right steps in creating a high-quality PCB. Design For Manufacturing (DFM) guidelines are available to mitigate the risk of any issues or errors during the assembly or manufacturing process. Following these guidelines and undergoing checks and analysis early in the process will help avoid errors further down the line.

All of these steps will help improve your team’s efficiency and accuracy when it comes to manufacturing PCBs.

Invest in automation and advanced equipment 

Automation in the creation of PCBs goes beyond the design process. There is also a plethora of equipment and technology to help streamline your manufacturing and assembly process. 

Using automated technology and equipment in the process has several benefits. It helps keep labour costs down, reduces human error, and has a higher level of precision due to the advanced technology used. Automation also increases time efficiency, meaning you can create high-quality PCBs on a quicker time scale.

Some of the automation and advanced technology equipment you can use within the assembly and manufacturing process includes soldering machines, pick and place machines, and solvent cleaning equipment.

Soldering machines, such as wave soldering machines or reflow ovens, are used to solder through-hole and surface-mount components onto a PCB. You can hand solder PCBs using thermaltronics soldering and rework tools, however, the soldering machines can work with greater accuracy and at a greater speed. Pick and place machines do what they say on the tin, they pick the components and place them on the board before the soldering process. Pick and place machines have become a popular and essential part of the manufacturing process due to their speed, precision, and flexibility. The machines have the capacity to pick and place approximately 136,000 components per hour while having a higher level of accuracy than the human hand, due to its optical sensor. Additionally, pick and place machines can handle a wide variety of specifications and dimensions, meaning they are versatile and flexible, and yet not complicated to manage or use. While the machine itself may be costly upfront, its speed and accuracy means there are huge cost savings in the long run, as you are able to improve the speed of the manufacturing process while not compromising on quality.

Implement a just-in-time inventory system

A just-in-time (JIT) inventory system is a process whereby goods, or components in the case of the PCB industry, are only ordered or received from suppliers when they are needed. Trying to balance your stock as a PCB manufacturer can be difficult. Not having enough stock can lead to issues in supply and fulfilling orders, but similarly having too many components is also a high-risk strategy if orders are not made.

Utilising the JIT inventory system avoids having a backlog of inventory and helps minimise storage costs, reduce waste, and help improve cash flow. This can also be beneficial in the current market, as the semiconductor shortage is ongoing. You can read more tips on how to manage this in our recent blog. The JIT method works by ensuring manufacturers can reliably maintain a minimum stock level in order to meet customers’ orders, by only restocking or placing orders for components when a customer order is made. This means the new components come ‘just in time’ to fulfil the next order. 

Continuous improvement 

While we may discuss some tips and solutions to help streamline your processes and improve productivity, these ideas must also be ingrained and implemented within your culture. We will discuss how you can implement a culture of continuous improvement in your team  in the next section, and here we will focus on some principles and methods you can instil within the workplace to help with that process and thinking. 

One example of this is the ‘Root Cause Analysis’  (RCA). This is a good principle for teams to work towards to help identify issues within the workplace and come up with solutions. The principle centres around finding the root cause of problems to identify the next step and solution. The concept behind this is that the issue is identified at the source, so you’re not just treating symptoms. For example, if you broke a bone, you may take painkillers to help ease the pain. However, if you don’t go to the doctor and get the necessary treatment such as a cast or even surgery, you aren’t fixing the issue at its core, only taping over the cracks.

The root cause can be categorised into three areas; human error, a material failure, or a system/process failure.

There are several steps to the RCA process:

  1. Acknowledge that there is an issue that needs to be looked into and define what the problem might be
  2. Collect data – this data should prove that there is an issue, include analysis of how long the issue has been present, and its current implications
  3. Identify possible cause factor – at this stage you should try to identify as many possible causes as you can
  4. Identify the root cause – dig a little deeper within the ‘causal’ factors you’ve found to try and identify the root cause. Think about why this is happening and what these causal factors have in common
  5. Implement solutions – once you have identified the root cause you must find a solution and implement this within your team 

Source: Edupristine

Another process you can implement to help improve processes and efficiencies is Six Sigma, a set of techniques and tools that use data and statistics for improvement. 

Six Sigma has five simple steps to help identify and resolve problems. These five steps span:

  1. Your customers – looking at your customer base and understanding their needs and the market demand
  2. Using data to find your problem – looking at your processes and which areas are inefficient or causing issue
  3. Removing the inefficiencies and improving the process – from here, remove the processes or steps that are not adding value to the end goal and to your customer, and take out any bottlenecks affecting your efficiency 
  4. Controlling moving forward – here the team be flexible and responsive to issues found and new solutions moving forward. These must be adapted and applied to new processes in the future 

Train and empower your team

Looking ahead at what’s next and how we can improve, both from a management and manufacturing point of view, is important. You must ensure you are instilling an environment of trust and respect within your team and culture, which can be achieved in a few ways:

  • Implementing feedback systems – be this online through a monthly feedback newsletter, or in face to face meetings
  • Encouraging your teamto find out more about the latest equipment and what competitors are doing, and feeding this back to the wider team
  • Implementing a feedback sectioninto employees’ monthly or quarterly reviews
  • Implementing mandatory training sessions for new staff, or refreshers for existing staff – this helps everyone learn new skills, but also acts as a reminder of best practice, and an opportunity to share any new tips they have learnt 

Invest in a robust quality management system

A robust quality management system can help improve the efficiency of an electronic manufacturing process by reducing errors and rework, and improving customer satisfaction. Statistical process control (SPC) is a method that can be used to help monitor processes, identify issues, and find solutions within the production process. One method of SPC is a ‘control chart’. This chart is used to record data across a period of time to be able to identify any anomalies needing to be addressed. Data will be collated and plotted on a graph against control limits, which are determined by the capability of a process. Data that falls within these limits indicates that everything is operating as it should Anything that falls outside of these limits indicates there is an issue with the process that needs to be fixed. 

Using real time data and methods such as SPC has several advantages, such as:

  • Improving productivity
  • Reducing costs, by identifying problem early before further defects occur and keeping an eye on the quality of products
  • Being able to quickly react to process changes

It is also important to define your own internal quality management procedure, creating a step by step guide for employees to follow in order to ensure the products leaving the door are of the best quality. These include process controls following ISO regulations, consistent assembly checks, and inspection tests when the board is completed. 

Use data to drive decision making

In order to ensure you are consistently updating your processes, spotting errors early on and implementing the most streamlined strategies, it is important to be collating data over a sustained period of time. Collecting data from your manufacturing machines, such as your pick and place machine, or even data in regards to sales and orders from customers, will help you make informed decisions moving forward.

You should look to gather data in as many avenues as possible, from the design, manufacturing, and assembly process, alongside inventory for stock and orders. Having a wealth of data to work with will allow you to easily spot anomalies or errors early on. Data will also allow you to assess any trends that may be occuring, helping you make informed decisions as to whether you have the most efficient equipment, for example, or if you could trim down parts of the process that aren’t adding value to the end product.

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