As the world becomes more connected and data can be shared between more devices, manufacturing technologies are set to see a revolution. Improved connectivity between manufacturing assets yields the potential to reduce cycle times, increase the predictability of costs and fabrication times, and provide greater control over product quality. Digital manufacturing technologies also provide greater monitoring of product quality and predictive maintenance of manufacturing systems. These benefits can increase yields and performance, and decrease fabrication costs, allowing competitive manufacturers to pass these benefits on to the consumer.
The existing subtractive manufacturing processes for PCBs are time consuming and produce significant material waste. Although these processes are reliable and scalable, the costs and fabrication time are highly dependent on product complexity. Integrating additive and digital manufacturing technologies into PCB production changes the design and production dynamic. It also allows innovative PCB manufacturers and product designers to remain competitive, provide customized boards on demand, and protect their intellectual property.
New digital manufacturing technologies are here.
Integrating Digital Manufacturing Technologies for PCBs
The idea of a fully digitized, nearly autonomous factory may seem foreign to many manufacturers. The PCB manufacturing industry has historically been demand-driven, and legacy assets may not be so easy to integrate into a digital ecosystem. Here’s how a connected digital manufacturing facility looks and operates:
The Factory Floor
When we say digital manufacturing assets are connected, we mean they share data wirelessly or over Ethernet on a standard network. Digital manufacturing assets must be integrated into a standard network topology (usually point-to-point) so that data can be passed between equipment in a standard data format. This provides greater autonomy across the factory floor and allows workers to focus on product quality, yield, and preventative maintenance.
As an example in PCB production, the fabrication unit can tell the assembly unit when a finished board will arrive, which components are required, and where each component will be placed. Although it may not be obvious, this allows customized products to be produced in succession. Bringing an additive manufacturing system into this process is ideal for producing fully customized PCBs thanks to the fixed fabrication time and complexity-agnostic fabrication process.
In addition to connections between manufacturing assets on the factory floor, data from manufacturing equipment can be monitored at a control center. This includes monitoring lead times, raw material consumption, energy usage, and signs of upcoming maintenance. The standardized data format used by connected manufacturing assets also allows data to be analyzed using standard techniques.
Data is gathered in this environment thanks to arrays of sensors distributed throughout manufacturing equipment. Newer digital manufacturing technologies already integrate these sensor arrays into their equipment. These capabilities can be easily added to older equipment with small IoT devices that include embedded sensors and wireless communication capabilities.
Customer orders are processed at the control center and are approved for production by engineers. These orders can be fully custom designs from customers, or they can be requested from the manufacturer’s existing digital inventory. The manufacturer can provide design guidelines to their customers in order to streamline the approval process.
The connected nature of digital manufacturing technologies brings up the question of cybersecurity systems and practices. Both physical and virtual security practices need to be implemented in a connected factory in order to protect intellectual property, supply chain data, and customer information. Many in the industry recommend taking the “castle approach” to cybersecurity, where customer-facing portions of the IT infrastructure are disconnected from manufacturing assets.
This requires implementing network segmentation, employee monitoring, and regulating access to sensitive manufacturing data. This also requires regulating physical access to manufacturing assets. The goal is to prevent unauthorized access to sensitive PCB design data, component data, and customer data, both within a factory and from intruders.
How Digital Manufacturing Technologies Affect R&D and Production
Bringing digital manufacturing technologies onto the factory floor, particularly additive manufacturing systems, forces product designers and engineers to rethink the way they create their designs, stock physical and digital inventory, and the overall product development process.
As part of full-scale manufacturing, integrating additive systems alongside other digital manufacturing technologies provides faster lead times than a fully subtractive PCB fabrication processes. With additive manufacturing systems, the costs and lead time involved in producing a complex product do not depend significantly on the product’s complexity. Instead, the primary cost driver in additive manufacturing, particularly for PCB production, is the weight of materials deposited during fabrication. The fabrication time becomes fixed thanks in part to elimination of repetitive assembly steps, especially with multilayer PCBs.
This automated soldering robot can be integrated alongside other digital manufacturing technologies, including an additive manufacturing system for PCBs.
These fixed costs and fabrication times with additive manufacturing systems hasten R&D cycles for new electronics. The fixed fabrication time provided by additive systems allows product designers to produce one-off boards and test them quickly as part of R&D and product development. Designers can also experiment with unique designs as they are not constrained by the traditional PCB manufacturing process. This includes producing boards with non-planar PCB architecture, embedded components, orthogonal via architecture, and advanced materials.
Whether an additive manufacturing system is used for R&D or full-scale production, the digital nature of these systems allows them to be integrated alongside other digital manufacturing technologies. As more digitally-capable manufacturing assets are created and legacy manufacturing assets are upgraded, one can expect to see greater connectivity throughout a factory floor. The IPC-CFX standards currently provide a standardized procedure for manufacturers, software developers, and engineers to fully connect digital manufacturing technologies and legacy manufacturing assets. Innovative companies and manufacturers should capitalize on the opportunity to implement these systems into their product development and fabrication processes.
The inherently digital nature of additive manufacturing systems makes them ideal for integration into a standard manufacturing process for PCB fabrication. The DragonFly LDM system from Nano Dimension is one of many digital manufacturing technologies that is set to revolutionize PCB production. This system allows low to medium scale manufacturing of complex electronics with a planar or non-planar architecture. Read a case study or contact us today to learn more about the DragonFly LDM system.