Front End is the term used to describe what is essentially, the start of the PCB manufacturing process. It’s here that a customer’s files will arrive and it’s then down to us to manipulate these files into the various formats used in printed circuit board manufacture.
First of all, the customer sends us his “Gerber” files. Gerber files are a format that various software tools can use to produce photo-plotting artworks, drill and rout programmes, ident programmes and any other requirements the customer may have for his finished circuit board.
For a typical double sided PCB as an example, the customer will supply us with files showing the 2 copper layers (usually labelled TOP & BOTTOM…but not always!), 2 Solder Resist layers, 1 or maybe 2 Ident layers, drilling co-ordinates and a board outline drawing.
Here at Hi-5 Electronics we use VisualCam software to manipulate the above files into the various formats we need to make the board. Track layers are checked for any errors that may result in production problems. Solder resist layers are also checked to make sure that all necessary pads are left free from resist and that no areas of copper other than the pads are exposed.
Once this initial stage of the PCB manufacturing process is complete, the drilling details are then checked alongside the copper layers and we make a routing programme for the finished board profile. In the screen-shot below, the routing programme can be seen as the red outline of the PCB.
The PCB is then stepped-up or ‘panelised’ to fit as many as possible onto our standard panel. Our tooling is then added to ensure that all the layers fit together and line up.
After all this, the files are out-putted, via the computer network, to the machines that will produce artworks, drill and rout programmes and idents.
Obviously, it is essential that the work done at this pre-production stage is all OK as any faults here will surface further down the the line during the PCB manufacturing process. We also like to maintain contact with our customers during this stage to iron-out any perceived difficulties we may encounter, so that production is satisfactorily achieved.