The Economics of Reducing Cycle Time in PCB Fabrication

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The area of cycle time most visible to the market is the total product cycle time through the fabrication process. This is an area of great importance to both OEMs and bareboard customers. As circuit board fabricators are constantly pressured for cost reductions, speed is definitely one thing worth paying for in 2015. For North American fabricators, there is a great deal of emphasis on quick-turn and development work, resulting in a high-mix, low-volume market whereby job setup is a key factor in the cycle time. In fact, it is not uncommon for 10–20% of the total product cycle time to be eaten up during layout, CAM and planning, which must be completed prior to releasing a job.

Leaders in the quick-turn and prototyping market reserve a significant percentage of their capacity for supporting this demand. Even so, they realize it is important to reduce cycle time for steps like sequential lamination, drilling, imaging, and final test.

Following are actual examples of industry practices that successful fabricators in the quick-turn market embrace that can help those companies who want to reduce cycle times in their operations.

Less is More

Some fabricators, such as Streamline Circuits, differentiate themselves by running a largely toolless process, which means that everything is digitized from laser drilling to LDI imaging and from LDI solder-mask to digital legend printing, and finally to flying probe testing at the end of the line.

With a 100% filmless process, Streamline can tool more than 20 jobs per day, which, once released, can move rapidly through the shop from start to finish without waiting on test fixtures, phototools, or legend screens. Investing in the latest equipment, such as a digital legend printer, 25-micron AOI, and 18-micron LDI capability and increasing press capacity also contributes to improved cycle time.

The Importance of Culture

Another critical aspect for cycle time that can’t be conveyed in a brochure, is culture. An example of this is at APCT Inc., in Santa Clara, California, where a healthy culture is embodied throughout every level of the company. Everyone, from top management to shop floor operators, is committed to quick-turn, including the theory of constraints mindset and a sense of urgency, which will contribute to the customers’ needs being met day in and day out. This approach has allowed APCT to establish a core competency as a high-speed HDI operation, one that can consistently produce a 10-layer board, with vias on every layer and five sets of copper- filled laser micro-vias, and four lamination cycles, within a week.

APCT is unique in that they confirm the raw material delivery date from their supplier before they will quote turn time to their customer for the job. Other quick-turn specialists employ consignment inventories and close communication and partnership with their material suppliers as a means of delivering on the speed requirements in today’s market.

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Editor's Note: This article originally appeared in the October 2015 issue of The PCB Magazine.


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