The State-of-the-Art in PCB Pre-production Engineering

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If there’s one benefit of old age, it’s being able to remember the introduction to our industry of technologies that may be taken for granted by the present generation, but were revolutionary at the time. I can recall the history of Ucamco as far back as the late 1980s when, as one of the very early adopters of the DISC laser plotter and its associated electronic PCB front-end tooling system, our company gained entry to a spectacular new world of pre-production engineering capability. Since then, I have followed with keen interest the development, advancement and evolution of PCB CAM systems, their increasing functionality and user-friendliness, and watched as DISC was incorporated into Barco ETS, which later for a while operated as part of the Mania group, and ultimately became the company we know as Ucamco. Ucam was originally launched in 1992 and has become globally recognised as Ucamco’s core CAM software product.

Ucamco has gone through many iterations of development, culminating in the release in January 2015 of UcamX, which set new standards of speed and capability—the increase in speed achieved using parallel processing algorithms to divide CPU-intensive tasks among several different CPUs in a multi-core 64-bit workstation.

Evolution of UcamX continues, in no small part driven by Ucamco’s close working relationships with their users and response to their feedback, and following the release of their most recent v2017.04 revision, a learning seminar was organised by distributor Adeon Technologies to discuss the latest enhancements with UcamX users in the UK.

Which is how I came to be sitting, welcomed as privileged visitor, in a room-full of high-end pre-production engineers and CAM applications specialists. Intense? Not really. Although the technical content was at the highest level, there was a relaxed air of professional confidence about the place, with everyone keen to share knowledge and experience and the collective objective of achieving the ultimate in efficiency, completeness and zero-defect accuracy of the PCB front-end engineering function.

AndreBodegom.jpgIntroduced by Adeon MD Andre Bodegom, Ucamco applications engineers Sylvia Liemer and Adam Newington took turns to explore and explain the characteristics and operational details of the current UcamX package, and at all stages encouraged interaction and feedback from participants, in an informal workshop-style environment.

They covered an enormous range of features and functions—too many for me to list here. The most immediately visible was a new intuitive graphical user interface, which enabled the creation of a customised workspace to suit the specific needs of a task, workflow or department, with the ability to place windows wherever they were required, in floating, docked or auto-hide mode, and to switch quickly between them, with script tools directly accessible from a toolbar icon. And it was announced that the facility to support 4K graphics would shortly be available.

SylviaLiemer.jpgParallel processing offered the scope to considerably reduce processing time on operations like building netlists in background whilst continuing to use all the normal functionality of the system uninterrupted. And a new “load balanced session” capability allowed multiple jobs to be opened simultaneously with access to the full range of UcamX capability.

Optimisation of panel layout, from the points of view of maximising both manufacturing yield and material utilisation, is an increasingly significant engineering requirement. UcamX offered comprehensive intelligent panelisation facilities for rigid, flex and HDI PCBs, including nesting of single or multiple designs in the same panel and the creation of circuit arrays, high yield production panel and customer-specific panels. Used with yield-enhancing layout optimisation and etch compensation functions, these combined to improve manufacturability and reduce manufacturing cost.

AdamNewington.jpgThe benefits of the Gerber X2 format, now supported by UcamX, were discussed, with particular reference to the accuracy of netlist data. And Ucamco had just released a free-of-charge reference Gerber viewer to the Gerber user community, which was of particular benefit when the need arose to discuss details or interpretation of a Gerber file via a shared internet link.

Ucamco’s “Visual Hyperscript” custom CAM automation tool had become more powerful and easier to use, enabling substantial labour saving and reduction in time-per-job without the need for specialist programming skills, and could now automate the task of data preparation for electrical testing. New functionality based on the feedback from users made it easier to start scripting and to share scripts across a company.

It was clear that the scope of UcamX extended far beyond the processing of layout data. It could integrate netlist information, customer specifications, mechanical drawings and manufacturing rules into a single engineering database with all the necessary upstream and downstream interfaces, from which DRC and DFM routines could be launched automatically, and fully-automated machine-optimised tooling could be output for all industry-standard electrical testers and AOI systems, photo plotters, drilling and routing equipment and direct imagers. A far cry from the days of tape-masters, colour separations and camera reductions, drill programmes digitised hole-by-hole, and smudgy blueprints of engineering drawings, to which circuit technologists of my generation can still relate with some nostalgia.

My thanks to Adeon Technologies and Ucamco for a most enlightening day. Although I arrived with a reasonable idea of what to expect, I left with a very clear impression of the scope and power of the tools now available to support the work of the printed circuit manufacturing engineer. I am sure we can foresee a day when the entire operation might become fully automated and autonomous. But until then, the skill and experience of the engineer will remain critically important, and the “A” in CAM will continue to stand for “Aided.”


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