Better to Light a Candle: Chapter Two—Introduction to PCB Fabrication

Editor’s Note: This column is part of a series on a new university course in PCB manufacturing at Michigan Technological University. Marc will chronicle the progress of this class, interview the guest lecturers, introduce the students, etc. The interview with students was also edited for clarity.

In my first column, I reported on a grassroots effort being started to prepare the next generation of printed circuit board (PCB) “experts.” A fortunate alignment of academia, the industry, resources, and concerned, well-seasoned board geeks came together to pass on PCB experience to the next generation through a very practical design, build, assemble, and test opportunity at Michigan Technological University (MTU). I also shared the thoughts of a few of the many people that were key players in getting this effort started. 

As a reminder, “EE4800: Printed Circuit Board Fabrication” is a hands-on class intended to give engineering undergraduate students an introduction to the basics of printed circuit design, fabrication, and assembly, which started on January 14 of this year. A high-level overview of the course, it’s approach, and goals can be seen in the poster shared at several events at IPC APEX EXPO 2019 in San Diego, California (Figure 1).


Figure 1: EE4800 course poster.

Here’s an abridged excerpt of the course description:

“Printed circuit board fabrication techniques are presented and explored utilizing wet-chemical process techniques. Single and multilayer boards using internal layers for power and ground planes as well as plated feed-through via structures, solder masks, and silk screens will be discussed. While hands-on fabrication will be the main focus, students will be introduced to software design packages specific to circuit layout and design. Final testing and evaluation of the fabricated boards will be performed.”

A major portion of the class consists of guest lecture presentations by industry experts, many whom traveled to Houghton, Michigan, this winter to provide the most direct interactive experience for the students. A schedule of those lectures can be found in Table 1.


Table 1: EE4800 guest lecture calendar.

In addition to their time, companies and individuals have supplied materials and labor to help make the design, fabrication, assembly, and test capabilities fully functional to enable a true hands-on, start-to-finish process experience for the students. I’ll showcase those contributions in a future column. 

Interview With Students

In February, Dr. Christopher Middlebrook and I interviewed some of the students and asked them to share some of the student’s initial impressions, hopes, and suggestions for future versions of this class at MTU or elsewhere after their first month’s experience. Some excerpts of their responses are included.

Marc Carter: Folks, I’m here with Dr. Middlebrook and some of the students attending the Michigan Tech class on design, fabrication, assembly, and test of PCBs. These students have graciously volunteered to submit to some questions to get a better feel for their expectations, what they hope to learn, and to help us improve it for the future.

Dr. Middlebrook: The course we put together has multiple tiers to get students interested and expose them to the areas of electronic design, manufacturing, and testing. This just one course out of a greater number of courses that will be coming along. It really stresses getting them into the lab, putting their hands on some of the equipment, and using the equipment to make simple PCBs. We want them to understand some of the challenges of the design process. Even if they’re not directly involved with fabrication—such as design, for example—they’ll have a better sense of what they’re asking for and the requirements and standards going into it.

Carter: The first question is obvious. What prompted you to sign up for this class in the first place? 

Michael: I’ve had some experience doing microfabrication for wafer-level devices. I wanted to expand my understanding of how everything is manufactured from the chip level up to the circuit board (assembly) level to see how those are related.

Max: I took a course called “Introduction to MEMS” and thought this would be an interesting course.

Steven: I worked with embedded system designs and created circuit board designs, and I thought this course would help me design better circuit boards.

Evan: I’m near the end of my college career and will be working as an analog engineer. Since PCBs are ubiquitous, this course should be useful and give me some background for my professional career.

Carter: What do you hope to take away from this course both in knowledge and for your career?

Tyler: One of the takeaways is we don’t get a lot of experience with PCBs in our courses as electrical engineers, and I’m really hoping to get a better understanding of that. I’m going into hardware design, so knowing how these things are made from the ground up will help.

Carter: We’re in the early days, of course, but is it going as you’d hoped or expected?

Max: It has been very interesting. I like the labs a lot and am eager to keep going.

Michael: So far, we’ve looked at how these processes work, and when we get to the actual building and testing of circuit boards, it will be more interesting.

Carter: Is there something about this class so far that stands out or is out of the nor, compared to the other classes you take at Michigan Tech?

Lucas: The focus on labs is different. I prefer hands-on learning and to be active in the process. With this course’s heavy focus on the lab, it has been very easy for me to pick up and retain the concepts.

Tyler: Besides the lab, we’re having a lot of speakers from the industry, which gives us more connections. In a lot of our courses, there’s a disconnect from the industry.

Jacob: I like the small-group aspects of the lab work in this course.

Marc Carter: Is there something in this course that has been particularly hard or confusing that we should work on for the future?

Evan: Most of the challenges so far have been getting the kinks out, learning the limitations of our equipment, and just becoming familiar with the process and equipment.

Lucas: There have been cancellations due to weather, the Winter Carnival, etc., that have made the startup rough. A concern for the future is trying to make the jump from academic language to industry language.

Carter: Have you had much chance to look at the “read-ahead” material Dr. Middlebrook has shared from the Printed Circuits Handbook?

Tyler: I’ve done a little bit of that, but between the cancellations and spending time initially on safety briefings, I haven’t done that much yet.

Carter: As a wrap-up, what we should be looking at for next year?

Evan: It’s a little bit early for me to see what needs improvement. As it evolves, developing a more set curriculum would be good.

Michael: I like that we’ve tried some trial runs on individual processes before we work on our final board. The scattered location of the various processes is a challenge. If Dr. Middlebrook succeeds in consolidating in one space, that would be an improvement.

Steven: It’s hard to tell which of the many possible errors are critical and which are less critical.

Jacob: I’ve enjoyed the labs and the guest lectures. The new course startup issues are a concern, but I expect it will smooth out as we go on.

Tyler: The small class and lab sizes are nice. The culture of the class is a lot more open. For example, this interview is something we’ve never done in any other course. 

Lucus: I agree with Tyler. The closeness of this class between students and teacher makes it easier to retain.

Max: The guest lecturers are a really cool dynamic of this course. With so many industry people to talk to us about the industry, it’s different than a usual course.

Carter: This has been an interview of students participating in Michigan Tech’s first printed circuit design, fabrication, and assembly. Thanks again, everyone.

To watch the full interview, click here.

For further information, you can reach Dr. Chris Middlebrook at ctmiddle@mtu.eduor me at 

Marc Carter has worked in the electronics interconnection industry since 1984 in a variety of roles in fabrication and assembly materials, processes, environmental compliance, and supply chain management activities around the world. He has had the honor and privilege of working with and learning from many of the true giants of this industry in multiple functions over many years. His experience includes a major mil-aero OEM, field and development work at materials suppliers to the printed circuit industry, and an educational stint as the sole proprietor of a manufacturer’s agency representing multiple high-tech milaero material suppliers.



Better to Light a Candle: Chapter Two—Introduction to PCB Fabrication


As a reminder, “EE4800: Printed Circuit Board Fabrication” is a hands-on class intended to give engineering undergraduate students an introduction to the basics of printed circuit design, fabrication, and assembly, which started on January 14 of this year.

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Better to Light a Candle: Chapter One—Prepping the Next Generation


There has been a considerable amount of (electronic) ink and words shared in our industry bemoaning the graying-out of our industry and the growing shortage of skilled people at all levels. (See the May 2017 PCB007 Magazine column “Help Wanted—and How!” for just one example). As is usually the case, though, when all is said and done, more has been said than done.

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