as published in EBN 

Cost Drivers in PCB Production….or why China?

by Thomas Smiley, President, Precision PCBS

Most of our customers believe that the PCB is an uninteresting commodity. They imagine a long machine into which fiberglass and copper are poured and out pops a shiny 10 layer pcb, customized to their needs.  This being the case, why China? Automation is automation, build them here.

The short answer is your lowly, ubiquitous, uninteresting 10 layer board required about 25 separate steps to produce, cutting across multiple technologies and skill sets.

Here is what is behind the curtain…..Your received CAD files are cleaned up and made usable by our CAM department who sends them to the film department.  The film department takes a sheet of copper laminated onto fiberglass, coats the fiberglass with a photo sensitive material and with UV light exposure and contact printing technology, transfers the layers, one at a time, to the copper.

Okay, now even I am bored…for the full process go to our web site, www.precisionpcbs.com. Click on “PCB Manufacturing” and then click on “PCB Explained”.

Here is the short version (steps/skills/technologies involved) –

CAD – CAM – silver film processing – UV imaging – etching – stacking and laminating – CNC drilling – copper plating – more etching – soldermask coating- legend printing – nickel/gold coating – cnc routing – testing.

Skills required –

Computer, Chemistry, CNC Operation, Skilled Technicians to etch, process silver film, plate copper, nickel and gold, apply UV image, apply soldermask, final test, IPC certified inspectors, a patient boss….oh, I left off knowledge of waste treatment and EPA rules regarding disposal of hazardous chemicals.

I skipped about 10 minor steps to not get bored again.  But what I described involved 9 separate skill sets and discrete technologies which, no small matter, cannot be processed in the same room.

So, while it is quite true that the better shops are highly automated, the bigger truth and the answer to the first question is, no one has figured out how to mash all of this into one long machine. Yet.

The USA now has only about 165 fab shops in the USA, down from 3500 just 15 years ago. Asian factories now dominate, with China in the lead.  They just did what they do best, bring low cost labor, low cost materials, easier regulations, and smart manufacturing thinking to this very convoluted, wildly diverse set of technologies.

I gave up manufacturing here 3 years ago. We decided to put pride aside and service our customers from this installed capacity in Asia…..Our customers, above all, desperately wanted ( read needed ) to lower their costs. So, from our China factories, we can now bring them  improved margins, a better ability to compete in their markets, and incidentally keep their American workers productive.  For now, it is the best solution.