How Commercial Printed Circuit Boards Are Made

Most of us who have dabbled a little in electronics will have made our own printed circuit boards at some point. We’ll have rubbed on sticky transfers, laser-printed onto acetate, covered our clothing with ferric chloride stains, and applied ourselves to the many complex and tricky processes involved. And after all that, there’s a chance we’ll have ended up with boards that were over or under-etched, and had faults. For many the arrival of affordable online small-run professional PCB production from those mostly-overseas suppliers has been a step-change to our electronic construction abilities.

[Fran Blanche] used to make her own boards for her Frantone effects pedals, but as she admits it was a process that could at times be tedious. With increased production she had to move to using a board house, and for her that means a very high-quality local operation rather than one on the other side of the world. In the video below the break she takes us through each step of the PCB production process as it’s done by the professionals with a human input rather than by robots or ferric-stained dilettantes.

Though it’s twenty minutes or so long it’s an extremely interesting watch, as while we’re all used to casually specifying the parameters of the different layers and holes in our CAD packages we may not have seen how they translate to the real-world processes that deliver our finished boards. Some operations are very different from those you’d do at home, for example the holes are drilled as a first step rather than at the end because as you might imagine the through-plating process needs a hole to plate. The etching is a negative process rather than a positive one, because it serves to expose the tracks for the plating process before etching, and the plating becomes the etch resist.

If you’re used to packages from far afield containing your prototype PCBs landing on your doorstep as if by magic, take a look. It’s as well to know a little more detail about how they were made.

[Fran] is no stranger to Hackaday, aside from a joint video production with our own [Bil Herd]. We’ve had a blast following along as she exposes the hardware secrets embodied in the Apollo program.

30 thoughts on “How Commercial Printed Circuit Boards Are Made

  1. So what is the difference between her process that the team in Philly did and one of those quick turn houses? Number of people involved? I have ordered boards and including the shipping had them in 3 days. She says in the video “over the next few days”. How can you speed this up?

    1. I’m guessing it has something to do with the investment in “state of the art” hardware to produce the product. Did you notice that several of the PCs controlling the machines were very dated? I’ll bet the “quick turn” labs don’t have AT computers running the hardware. I’ll also be that they cut every corner they can quality-wise.

    2. The economy megahouses in China are fully automated assembly lines start to finish – no humans touch the work at any stage of production. That’s what makes them fast and cheap. But what also makes them cheap is that to dispose of the waste and chemistry they simply dump it all right in the river. Over here in Philly we have ecological compliance and we employ skilled human workers who earn a good wage for their hours, and I support all that.

      1. OSH Park uses US boardhouses for production. Their rapid service is ~7 days order to doorstep, including shipping time. I try to order all my PCBs from them or a US board house where possible largely because of the ecological aspect and wanting to support US manufacturing. Boards are already so cheap… No need to save a few pennies when they can go towards responsible manufacturing that benefits the economy. I’m sure global materials are used by US boardhouses but still. Do what you can?

          1. I worked a reflow station for one of the major video graphics manufacturers in the 90’s. You might have heard of them, XFX.

            Those machines would screw up at least half the first sheet and run of every batch every single night. That’s half of 1200 boards that we would have to not only reflow, but inspect and test and often times have to send back to be rebuilt from the board up.

            Albeit, this isn’t the board manufacturing process, but the soldering of stuff on the board, which is a far simpler and easier process than actually etching a board.

            One guy says, oh it’s automated, so the machines should be more efficient. Everyone forgets, a human is maintaining that machines and setting it up, and the setup involved everything from temperature and humidity stability, to Juan was sweeping at the time and got dust into the machine confusing the system by clouding the optics and thus making everyone wonder why all the boards are crap after it was just “re-calibrated”.

            Everyone likes to imagine it’s like Star Trek and humans don’t make errors.

    1. That’s not the way shops I have seen work. That shop had very old equipment. Did you see how they manually aligned the negative by eye ball. What happened to the alignment pin?

    2. Quite frankly it’s a rather old and antiquated manufacturing setup.
      This video bring back memories from one of my first internship in the late 90’s: old production line, all by hand by kind ladies, no to little smt but some CNC machines at this time (for drilling PCB and sheet punching/bending).
      PCB were done by silkscreen (single side) with employees the same age as this video. The shop manager keep them because they were close to retirement.
      Anyway, soon after my internship end the shop was closed by the mother company in a dirty way.

    3. Correct, a more appropriate title of this article would be “How low volume, low complexity boards are made in a small fab house”. This is barely a “commercial fab house” from my perspective. (disclaimer: I work at a low to mid-volume EMS in California that manufactures ~11,000 PCBAs a month)

    1. Frans guitar and bass pedals are regarded as the Rolls Royce of FX pedals, are hand-made in America, and cost $100s. And 2nd hand originals are even more expensive! I have met guitarists who love them and wish they could afford more!

      As to vintage equipment, “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it”! In this case there is no need for more automation. During the intro Fran made the point that this shop makes specialist boards for NASA and the military.

  2. I really hate it when ‘douche bags’ start making comments…like ‘ah we don’t need human beings getting involved in the manufacturing of a critical part of modern technology (PCBs)….let’s lay them off and outsource to China to save money!’

    Remember what goes around comes around….and just like they got laid off its only a matter of time before your a** gets laid off as well (except if you are a politician, banker or a CEO of a large conglomerate….actually CEOs get fired a lot…but they make so much money that even they don’t care). Globalization is cancer to the health of local communities and societies in so many ways.

      1. No one is asking for pity……but when they (in China) dont have to worry about environmental regulations, decent wages, benefits, heathcare, pension e.t.c and we do……The playing field will never be even.

        In order for us to compete we have to compromise on things that we should never compromise on……

          1. In the meantime (for the past 20 years and likely for the next 10 years at least) massive technology transfers are taking place from west to east, the rich (in the east and the west…but mostly the west…) get richer at an exponential rate, while the middle class is gutted, the working class is made completely redundant and unemployment is at 23% (look at John Williams Shadow stats).

            This in turn translates into lower incomes and hence a lower tax base which means that services such as education, health care, roads e.t.c suffer and that states and the country in general have to borrow money to meet a minimum of their obligations to their constituencies……yeah…not a win-win in my book.

  3. Hi,

    We recently start to receive bowed PCBs, but we are not experts, according to our supplier all the parameters were in spec. but maybe you could give me an Idea were the PCBs can be bowed, I thinking now about the raw material, just the Board.
    Thank you for your feedback

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