From Gerber to working prototype – a PCB manufacturing overview

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The electronics industry – just as with marketing… even politics – is often guilty of an over reliance on jargon.  This is also true of the ubiquity across the industry of O.P.As (often pointless acronyms).

That’s not to say, of course, that the process isn’t complicated, with many precise stages in the process between your vision of a printed circuit board… and the actuality.  However, here at Hi5 we felt it was time we debunked a lot of theory, and to talk to you in simple terms about PCB manufacture.  So have prepared these seven distinct stages, that we can now walk you through, so that you can feel fully assured about the processes involved.  Then, if you feel you want to use the acronyms and the jargon, you can put them back in yourself, at a later stage!

1 “Front End” PCB Manufacturing Process

This initial process is what’s called ‘”Front End” PCB Manufacturing – summarised in the stages below. So the “Front End” will entail your files arriving here at Hi5, and the very start of our work with those files, as we begin to utilise the various processes used in PCB manufacture.

2 Gerber files

You may have heard of Gerber Files, or been asked to supply your PCB design as a “Gerber” file.  You may have thought it was something to do with the top secret briefcase of the German officer from the TV series ‘Allo ‘Allo but no – that was Herr Gruber -whereas “Gerber” files are simply the correct format for working on PCB designs.

Having received them, Hi5 will then utilise all the latest software processes to work on these Gerber files in terms of drill and rout programmes, ident programmes, photo-plotting artworks and anything else we need to do to work up your finished design.

PCB layers like a cake3 Layers

Not a layer cake; although, in fact, not far off.  You may have been asked to supply files containing the various “layers” of your PCB design.  For a double-sided printed circuit board, for instance, you will simply supply files with the two copper layers.  And in another rare break from overcomplicating the situation, these are usually labeled “top” and… wait for it… “bottom”.  The files will also contain one or possibly two ident layers, two solder resist layers, drilling co-ordinates and a board outline.

4 VisualCam

Again, don’t worry, this doesn’t mean anyone’s hacked your laptop’s webcam, it simply refers to the software used to work the supplied files into the format needed to actually manufacture the board.  The software will check the solder resist layers to ensure no copper, beyond the pads, are exposed, and that the layers are genuinely free from resist.  It will also check the track layers to smooth out any errors ahead of actual production.

5 Routing Programme

No, not a Top Gear special reviewing Garmin sat navs; rather, Hi5 will construct a “routing programme” for the final profile of the PCB.  This is really the start of the manufacturing process of the circuit board.  In this stage, copper layers are checked and drilling details are also finalised.

6 Panelise

This simply means the circuit board is optimised so that as many as possible are able to fit onto one of Hi5’s standard panels.  We are able to operate on half, or even a quarter panels, so that customers don’t have to pay for a whole panel, if that is not required.  Precise tooling then ensures the layers perfectly line up, and therefore fit snuggly together.

In BBC terms, however, panelise refers to what management aim to do with Jimmy Carr’s career, in order to fit him onto as many comedy panel shows as possible.

PCB prototyping process7 Outputting

As well as standing for what the BBC will then do with Carr when he has served his useful purpose, in PCB terms this also refers to the process by which these final files are then transmitted to the machines that will then get to work on producing artworks, and the drill and rout programmes and idents mentioned previously, ahead of the actual PCB build.

Of course through all these stages of pre-production we aim to stay in touch with our customers, to ensure problems are smoothed out in these earlier stages, rather than waiting until they appear at more fundamental stages down the line.

To that end, we hope this guide has also been of some use, in terms of simplifying the processes involved, helping you understand what happens at each stage and debunking some of the terminology

 

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