Smart Factory Enabling Electronics Engineers to Prototype Two Times Faster

PCBs can now be manufactured in a smart factory in three days. It was quite different a century ago when the first circuit boards emerged.
Susan Fourtané

Traditionally, electronics manufacturers had to use a decades-old, slow and transparent, outsourced contract-manufacturing process for the development of their printed circuit boards (PCB) and prototype products, a key component of electronics today.

Prototyping has always been paramount to the development of final products that push the boundaries of technology and innovation. This was already true in the 1920s when the  Prototyping becomes essential in technologies that are crucial to the continued development of the future of electronics.

In prototyping, time is essential. And time equals money. It would sometimes take weeks to a month to just get one printed circuit board. This would slow down the entire product lifecycle and limit their ability to push those technological boundaries. 

Agile prototyping for smart electronics manufacturing 

Tempo Automationa San Francisco-based smart factory, has set sail in the sea of agile prototyping and smart manufacturing. The company is producing a printed circuit board assembly (PCBA) for some of the biggest leaders across multiple markets such as NASA JPL, Lockheed Martin (also investor in the company), and GE Healthcare among others. 

Tempo Automation has applied the agile development model to the hardware space building a smart factory in the heart of San Francisco. The smart factory is layered with proprietary software that delivers three things that companies and engineers have long desired from their contract manufacturers: Speed, quality, and transparency. 

Becoming the world's fastest PCBA manufacturing service, Tempo Automation is disrupting the electronics industry trying to solve a major problem in the engineering community by creating prototypes in a fraction of the time that the industry has previously seen.

According to Tempo Automation, it takes just a few days from design upload to final product and shipment, usually not more than three days. This much faster process helps companies which are competing to developing new and complex technologies, such as NASA for the Mars 2020 mission. These companies are usually on awfully tight timelines and the sooner they can get the products they need, the better.  

NASA and Lockheed are competing in a New Space Race akin to the one with the Russians in the 1960s. This has resurfaced and demanded new capabilities and priorities that are coming about in the aerospace industry. In order to remain competitive, they need trustworthy resources that can help them speed up their production process. This brings the smart factory into the picture as well as focus on industry applications. 

How to produce reliable circuit boards for aerospace applications:

  • Risk Assessment or the identification and categorization of all pertinent risks to development

  • Risk Analysis or the review of the impacts of each risk and the development of corrective actions or controls

  • Controls Implementation or the application of appropriate corrective actions to mitigate or eliminate the risks when necessary

Rapid prototyping and the evolution of printed circuit boards from 1920 to 2020

Printed circuit board assembly during a flying probe in-circuit test on flying probe tester system, Source: genkur/iStock

The evolution of printed circuit boards is fascinating. In a 100-year lifespan, it went from not being very popular in the 1920s to being a paramount element in the electronics manufacturing industry in 2020. These printed circuit boards, which support the connections between the electrical and electronic components, are an integral part of every computer, mobile device, and other electronic devices we use today. 

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1920s: First circuit boards for gramophones and radios 

One of the most glamorous decades of the 20th century. From film to fashion to technology and of course, electronics, the 1920s was a decade of great change. It was in the 20s that the first iterations of the circuit board originated. The circuit board itself could be made of almost anything as the base material, including wood.

There was no automation back then, no robots. Humans drilled holes into the chosen material and then they would place flat wires onto the board. At the time, nuts and bolts were used instead of rivets. They certainly looked different than today's PCBs, although they were functional which is what mattered. In the 1920s, there were not too many applications for PCBs, though, and thus they were not very popular. The main uses for this concept of first circuit boards were mainly in gramophones and radios.

1950s to 1960s: Introduction of the process of Assembling Electrical Circuits

During the 1950s to 1960s, the types of materials that were previously used for the PCB began slowly shifting toward various types of resins and other suitable materials. It was during these decades that most circuit boards were single-sided with the components on one side of the board and the circuitry on the other side. This was a significant improvement over the bulky wiring that was used before.

The U.S. introduced the process of Assembling Electrical Circuits in these years, which improved the ways PCBs were made. This process involved drawing the wiring pattern before photographing it onto a zinc plate, which could then be used as a printing plate. This was a significant breakthrough; circuit boards began seeing a much wider adoption than before.

1960s: Improvements in design and introduction of multilayer PCBs

It was in the 1960s when the United States and the U.S.S.R. (Union of Socialist and Soviet Republic, now Russia) were competing in the Space Race. And so printed circuit boards began to show a more dedicated design process with more advanced techniques and methods which helped to protect the traces and components from corrosion. The 1960s was also the decade when multilayer PCBs began its production.

1970s: Miniaturization begins

The 1970s brought the circuitry and the overall size of the circuit boards to a much smaller size. It was also in the 70s when hot air soldering methods started to be used.

1980s: Further size reductions thanks to surface mount components

In the 1980s, the circuit board saw further size reductions thanks to surface mount components. This quickly became the preferred method over through-hole components because it retained the same level of functionality with the advantage of requiring less space.

1990s: PCBs developed by Computer-Aided Manufacturing

Already in the 1990s, PCBs began to be developed by using Computer Aided Manufacturing (CAM). This became the new conventional way and of course, it implied added complexity of circuit board designs. However, this gradual development of technology brought more efficient boards at the same time that opened up an array of new possibilities for different uses and applications. Surprisingly, the complexity of circuit boards were increasing, yet the costs were kept low. 

1995: High-Density Interconnector PCBs

High-Density Interconnector PCBs began to be used around 1995. The main features of these boards included smaller lines, pads. They provided various benefits, such as reduced weight and size. It was at this point when the older boards became outdated. At the same time, flex and rigid PCBs became more common and they were more affordable as well.

At this point, the miniaturization of electronic devices and equipment continued to drive PCB manufacturing technology and there was a push for more efficient and densely-packed designs. With all these advances and improvements the printed circuit board industry remained dynamic and in constant development.

It has always been the focus of the industry to keep up with the needs of modern and future technology. And this is how we found ourselves today diving into smart factory and rapid prototyping responding to the industry needs in 2020. 

2020: Smart factory and rapid prototyping 

Fast forward to 2020. Smart Factory is a term that describes a highly digitalized and connected environment linked to the manufacturing industry. In a Smart Factory, machinery and equipment improve all processes through automation and self-optimization. The implied benefits of a Smart Factory extend beyond the physical production of goods. Benefits include functions such as better planning, supply chain logistics, and even product development.

Quite much has changed in 100 years since the first circuit boards appeared. In their Smart Factory, Tempo Automation develops printed circuit board assembly (PCBA), which basically is the production of a circuit board, not the components themselves and it all happens in around 72 hours. According to the company, Tempo Automation is specifically focused on prototypes for fast-growing industries that need to innovate and iterate quickly, hence they are not running mass production, only small orders up to 1,000.

The technology behind the factory is quite unique, too; they use a software on both the front and back-end of the factory in order to more quickly develop PCBA, but also glean crucial data which is important for QC/QA and design insights for customers. Tempo Automation claims that there is no other PCBA manufacturer that currently provides this level of insight into designs and it helps electronics engineers to experiment and innovate as well as helping their companies to rethink their design timelines and processes.

As it is happening with everything smart, smart prototyping and the smart factory are reshaping the electronics manufacturing industry to a greater smart future. 

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