Printed circuit technologies are underexploited

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Edited by the Electronicstalk editorial team Mar 30, 2006

Today's printed circuit technologies offer a wide range of capabilities that are not widely appreciated by the rest of the electronics industry, argues Keith Barnett.

With regard to PCB design and systems manufacture, there has always been a gulf between the knowledge of a designer and/or product development manager and the industry associated with delivering the most economic and innovative printed circuit solutions.

In terms of value-engineering, it is almost impossible for the designer to obtain comprehensive information that will ensure that his or her company or corporation will realise the most cost effective solutions to their interconnection needs.

Although there are notable exceptions, few circuit fabricators are so deeply collaborative with their customers that this gulf is ever closed.

However, even in the few circumstances where close technical support is exceptional, no sophisticated fabrication organisation involved in this rare activity can promote techniques that it does not sell and no one organisation has a broad range of specialist and innovative techniques available to it on a global basis.

Although every major fabricator will quietly acknowledge that it is aware that customer "A" is purchasing a very similar device in the same marketplace, with the same requirements and specifications as company "B", but using a much more cost-effective circuit technology, it is obviously not in its interests or indeed ethical, to inform the less aware customer of perhaps a better approach.

Furthermore, integrity issues aside, it would take a very unusual marketing representative to promote a reduction in his or her sales figures by proffering a significantly lower cost solution.

This however is just the tip of the iceberg: awareness of new technology and its potential is very poorly presented to designers and/or product owners.

The old adage that those who have something unique will keep it to themselves and those that publicise innovation often have less capability than they state, still applies.

Although it is true that the printed circuit is just another component, the fact that this is one of the few customised parts of an assembly and in recognition that it is often the most troublesome, this gives it a high degree of importance within most major manufacturing organisations.

Of particular importance is the fact that the application of new circuit technology can reduce overall unit costs well beyond its own value - in simple maths - clever applications can effectively result in a PCB being free.

Rather than doubt this statement, consider this example of grossly undermarketed technology that is in use by only two companies.

An instrument manufacturing company with an extremely dynamic and innovative system designer worked very closely with an award winning circuit processing technologist to explore the possibilities of printed resistor properties.

Although there were a number of very challenging hurdles to overcome, this was not a simple case of providing printed resistors on FR4 circuits.

To cut a long story short, it was felt that by combining a square pattern of high-resistance carbon on the surface of the circuit and using a domed elastomer button, a touch sensitive potentiometer could be created.

The project was not only highly successful but some 10,000 instruments containing an array of these patterns are currently in the field.

Not only did this system provide a marketing edge for the OEM, but the cost reduction by the elimination of having to purchase electromechanical pots far outweighed the price of the PCBs.

Again, the applications for this technique are limitless.

Push harder, go faster, louder, dimmer, closer etc - the uses are only restricted by the knowledge that the system exists and innovative imagination, but this is just one of many neglected and volume-capable applications.

Other process are similarly proven but again, unknown or not promoted to those that influence designers.

Contourless and flat switching technology for automotive and aerospace potentiometers; high-density circuit construction that eliminates solder cream and does not rely on goosenecks, restrictions or a solder mask to define footprints; printed heatsink technology and embedded passive applications without laser trimming or screen printing - the list goes on.

These are all high-volume processes and all proven - but in the most part unknown.

Although we all complain about our business disappearing to the Far East and other locations, many millions of dollars are wasted every year because of these factors and a great deal of innovation that can reduce costs goes unused, undermarketed and undersold.

In many cases, this may be because despite their being a huge number of clever and innovative circuit technologists within their respective companies, the executives and marketing departments within a fabrication company do not have the specialist knowledge to exploit such innovation.

Whatever the reason, the status quo remains the same.

With a new website under development, IRI hopes that some of these issues will be addressed by creating a focal point and central forum where the proven and volume applications of new circuit technology can be accessed by designers and product owners without the natural bias of a specific vendor or circuit supplier.

In short, it is hoped that a bridge can be built for a designer and the OEM that will enable a much better exploitation of available technology and benefit us all.

Sadly, most PCB designers are wholly unappreciated.

Most of the hierarchy within a company does not know how much or how little his or her work affects the cost and productivity their corporation.

IRI at least appreciates this and hopes it can do something to help.

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