Testing Todd: The PCB Limbo—How Low Can You Go?

Welcome to the grand illusion. There I was, mid-1986, and in my first job with printed circuits. I knew what circuit boards were but had no idea about all the processes involved in their manufacture and test. Here in the Pacific Northwest, there were probably two dozen PCB manufacturers producing everything from double-sided to 16-layer stacks. All were PTH-only at the time. Surface mount technology was not to make its debut for a year or two.

Fixture testers were 100-mil grids (0.100”) and there were no such things as double-sided testers. What? There was no need at this point as SMT was not active. Test fixture manufacture was simple. You could either use the production drill file or alter the tool sizes for the test pins and drill. Once complete you could lay the plate over film and X-out the vias. Or you could digitize the outer layer and optimize mid-points and vias. Either way, you would then assemble the fixture and it was ready for the tester. There were no netlists back then, only self-learn or “golden board” learn. 

As time progressed, SMT appeared on the scene and changed everything. Technology had evolved, and the PCB industry had to react to new equipment, processes, and ways to manufacture. ET had to evolve as well, such as with double-sided fixtures for single sided testers, and spring probes and wires translating the top-side fixture down through the bottom to the test field. This was expensive. However, the industry was booming on into the 1990s and life was good.

Everyone was enjoying the returns and competition was flourishing. Competition in an open market is good as long as margins remain safe and technology continues to advance. However, something went very, very wrong.

In the late ‘90s, the industry started to pull back. Demand dropped with the tightening economy. The supply of manufacturers outweighed the demand, and the wars broke out. It became a consumer’s market. Customers threatened to take business to other suppliers who offered discounted pricing. It was then that supplier XYZ would cave in and match the price. This is when the dominos started to fall.

As with any business, there are fixed costs: building/land, utilities, insurance, and taxes. These do not change, and in many cases some of them increase over time. Continuous pressure to reduce costs from the manufacturer started a practice of taking losses, in some cases, just to keep the business running. This worked somewhat during this time as margins could be made up on quick-turn or high-demand orders. The problem was that there was no lower control limit to stop the fall. This practice continued until smaller shops began to disappear, either crushed by the price-cutting competition or unable to keep up with the fast-changing technology with no margin to expand or upgrade.

Printed circuits are the building blocks to almost everything today. Even your toaster has one. The costs of production have not changed significantly. The same basic concepts still must be used to produce them. Yes, there have been efficiency enhancements and automation to lower production time, but these have also required capital investments requiring depreciation over time. The cost is fixed, yet the buyers and customers still demand price cutting. No one ever put the flag in the sand saying “enough.” Margins continued to decrease and what was a strong diverse group of manufacturers in the Pacific Northwest no longer remains. They are gone, stamped out or purchased by the mega-manufacturers. Making matters worse is the outsourcing offshore where certain variables have been manipulated or compromised to reduce cost. 

The problem is that now customers do not have a vast selection of manufacturing vendors to choose from. The much smaller arena of manufacturers still fight for the business and still compete against the mega-manufacturers. Some find a niche and can continue to thrive, but others are finding the end to a dream. 

Now, throw in a pandemic and the workforce disappears, or shops are forced to close due to cases of infection. The government kicks in and helps those in need but overlooked the scenario that the help was providing higher wages than minimum for the jobs that needed filling. Now the manufacturers are in trouble as they cannot find workers for their paid wage scale. Human nature is keeping workers away as they are financially better off staying home.

How low does this bar go? Had someone kept an eye on the downward spiral the industry may have stayed buoyant. However, it did not happen and now margins are at a bare minimum and mostly below healthy model limits. Since fixed costs could not be adjusted, wages and employee counts were the variable that had to be adjusted. The industry is no longer appealing to the college graduates as future projections are unstable and personal growth is limited in many aspects. Another economical problem is now we are down to a supplier pool approaching a monopolization. This “eggs in one basket” approach is dangerous for obvious reasons. If those suppliers fail or have extended production interruptions, it will cause an immediate supply chain crisis. 

How to recover in this industry to make it stable will be a challenge. Unless mindsets and models change, this “limbo bar” will stay where it is and hopefully not go any lower.

This column originally appeared in the July 2021 issue of PCB007 Magazine.

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2021

Testing Todd: The PCB Limbo—How Low Can You Go?

07-26-2021

Columnist Todd Kolmodin takes a stinging look at the price of printed circuit boards over the past 30 years. What caused this "downward spiral" in the industry?

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Testing Todd: Meet Mr. Henry and Do Not Blow a Fuse

06-18-2021

Columnist Todd Kolmodin explains the connection between electrical test and Joseph Henry. Can you figure it out?

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Testing Todd: Keeping the Tools Sharp

05-18-2021

Quality is not just an action; it is a way of life. We can say we are quality conscious but as the days pass the discipline can fade. The tools become worn, dull and finally discarded. So, we must revisit the tool shed periodically to make sure our tools are razor sharp and at the ready.

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Testing Todd: A Point of Order—Do Not Just Rearrange the Pencils!

04-28-2021

In our concentration on continuous improvement, we should look in to the order of things. Efficiency comes from streamlining processes, effective training, and the ability to monitor success through KPIs and feedback on deliverables.

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Testing Todd: Homing in on the Target

03-30-2021

Although electrical testing provides a beneficial safeguard against an electrically inferior product reaching a customer, it does require adherence to critical processes.

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Testing Todd: Owning Your Processes

02-23-2021

It’s extremely common to write a process or work instruction and let it loose in the wild to thrive. The problem is, if there is a problem or a glitch it may never get noticed. Why you ask? It’s simple. Humans have an extraordinary ability to adapt.

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Testing Todd: Getting 'Lean' in 2021

01-26-2021

Many companies and individuals had to make life-altering adjustments in 2020 because of the pandemic, including reduced hours, telecommuting and examining how we do things in this “new normal.” Although the circumstances causing these changes are tragic, it forced us into becoming lean.

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2020

Testing Todd: Training the Force or the Few

12-31-2020

As with any business, the quality of goods and/or services is of the utmost importance. Company reputations are gauged by the success or failure in maintaining high-quality outputs. Todd Kolmodin explains how maintaining high-quality and on-time delivery depends on multiple factors: first, equipment and tools to produce the product or service, and second, the power of the workforce behind the product.

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Testing Todd: Don’t Get Pickled by the Barrel

11-25-2020

Whether you have two layers or 50 layers, it all comes down to how the layers communicate. Otherwise, you just have a bunch of two-dimensional layers, and that isn’t practical. Todd Kolmodin describes how the practical magic, of course, is plated drilled holes.

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Testing Todd: Roadmap? First, Find the Road!

10-22-2020

Todd Kolmodin originally thought of discussing roadmaps and how they pertain to our industry and analyzing trends. However, it’s difficult to work with the roadmap when you cannot find the road. Todd shares his thoughts and experiences regarding the wildfires in Oregon and the West Coast of the U.S.

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Testing Todd: Don’t Be a Boss—Be a Leader

08-26-2020

Leader, boss, follower, collaborator, teammate. These are terms we have heard many times during our travels through this thing called life. Todd Kolmodin explores the difference between a boss and a leader and shares his observations on leadership.

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Testing Todd: Too Much Automation?

08-03-2020

The last six months have brought monumental changes to commerce, manufacturing, recreation, and almost every aspect of our daily lives. Todd Kolmodin shares his thoughts on how much automation is enough?

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Testing Todd: Down-shifting to the New Normal

05-17-2020

Today, we find ourselves in a place none of us even thought could happen due to the global COVID-19 outbreak. Todd Kolmodin encourages readers to be heroes and shift down to the new normal for a bit.

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Testing Todd: It’s Not Easy Being Green (or Is It?)

04-24-2020

“It’s not easy being green,” are well-spoken words from our amphibian friend, Kermit the Frog. Now, more than ever, there is a focus on being green. Todd Kolmodin explains how one of the largest—if not the largest—contributor to waste is paper, but the difficulty is letting go of it in the consumer and manufacturing segments. For the workplace, this can be more difficult, or is it?

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Testing Todd: Waste Not, Want Not

03-15-2020

Any time we overestimate our projects, we lose costs. For individuals, it may not be as monumental, but for manufacturing, it can be painful.

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Testing Todd: Looking at Digital With 11111100100 Vision

02-12-2020

Todd Kolmodin explores how far technology has come, from the challenge to "plug in" in the '80s, to how difficult it can be to "unplug" in this digital age.

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2019

Testing Todd: Go To Bed Hungry

12-19-2019

Another decade is coming to an end, so, forward thinkers, let's take this time to review the past, evaluate past decisions, and hopefully make prudent decisions to move forward in the ever-changing marketplace in which we exist. There has never been a Magic 8 Ball to predict what is going to happen, so we all do our best to calculate, look over the fences, and aim to remain in this competitive meat grinder we call “the market.”

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Testing Todd: Staying in Your Lane

12-15-2019

As 2019 comes to a close, Todd Kolmodin addresses the importance of standardization, which comes down to an agreement that we are to perform a task or set of tasks the same way every time. Putting your engineering hat on, this provides predictability with a high degree of accuracy.

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Testing Todd: Understanding the Fine Print

10-08-2019

New technologies are emerging each day with more stringent requirements than the past. Also, reversals in obsolescence programs bring products back to the market for which the original documentation and/or requirements are ancient compared to today’s standards; in some cases, this documentation is even lost. Further, it is not uncommon to find that original artwork isn’t available or that the part must be recreated from a finished circuit board sample.

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Testing Todd: What Do You Mean 'Passed' Isn't Enough?

08-05-2019

From a reliability standpoint, we need to quickly assess what risk we may have uncovered when faults are detected during electrical test (ET). "Passed" is not always passed. We must be diligent to scrutinize the failures found during routine ET as a high yield may not indicate high reliability.

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Testing Todd: The Evolution of Probers and Fixture Testers: Blinded by Science

06-26-2019

The evolution of the PCB has come a long way in the last 30 years. The science of electrical test has had to travel that road as well. It's not just a question of screening for opens and shorts. Today, the library extends to interrogating passive components, efficiently and cost-effectively evaluating dielectrics with multiple planes and pairs involved, and adhering to strict requirements from the military, export regulations, and OEMs alike.

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Confidence in Inspection

04-12-2019

The job of third-party inspection is to provide an unbiased review of the customer requirements versus the final product manufactured. This inspection can include both physical and functional criteria. Read on to understand the growing acceptance and requirement of third-party inspection in many areas of the manufacturing industry, including military, aerospace, and medical.

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2018

Testing Todd: What’s in your ET?

07-13-2018

With all the buzz around automation, paperless operation, and integrated processes, it’s time to think about how the connected systems work within an electrical test department. We are all familiar with computer-aided design (CAD) and computer-aided manufacturing (CAM), but with electrical test we can also add computer-aided test (CAT) and computer-aided repair (CAR).

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Testing Todd: How are the Ratings?

05-24-2018

Hello, readers! Thank you for stopping by again. Let’s talk about ratings. No, I’m not talking about the latest Facebook likes or Twitter retweets, but a topic that confuses many final QA technicians the world over. I’m talking PCB voltage ratings.

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Testing Todd: AVI—Your Tireless Friend in Final Inspection

05-01-2018

The “automation vs. human” debate continues. There are experts with many years of experience -performing final inspection with precise detail. This is not debated. However, in the course of human events, circumstances change with unpredictable results. This presents challenges to manufacturers striving to deliver product on-time and within specification guidelines.

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2017

Testing Todd: No Missed Steps—5S Methodology

08-22-2017

In today’s work environment, a company should strive to produce quality product, maximize margins and reduce cost as much as possible. At times, this can be very difficult. Work ethics and methodologies of “how to do things” have developed over many years and can be deeply rooted in many manufacturing theatres. We find at times the “way we have always done it” may not be the most practical way today. This is apparent with the advances in automation, labor force reduction and shifting market demands.

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Flying Probe Testing vs IPC-9252B

05-30-2017

Flying probe testing is extremely popular in today’s manufacturing theatres. The main factor is cost reduction in contrast to dedicated fixtures and fixture testing. However, there are some limitations in flying probe testing when gauged against industry specifications—specifically, the use of indirect vs direct testing in Test Level C.

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Testing Todd: Go With the Flow

04-18-2017

In today’s testing theatre, the flow of information from the OEMs and manufacturers to the independent contractors is mission-critical. Missing information can cause delays, incorrect processing and ultimately scrap or end user rejection of the product. The buzz term being used a lot today is “flow-down.” It pretty much describes itself: It is the flow of information down the supply chain.

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Testing Todd: Plating and Surface Finish—The Challenges to Electrical Test

01-23-2017

Plating and surface finish applications are not without their own set of challenges but these manufacturing processes also affect the electrical test theatre. Microvias, high-aspect ratio plate quality, and surface finish all have their own challenges in ET.

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2016

Testing Todd: Are You a Leader or a Manager?

10-21-2016

The question can be asked, are you a manager or a leader? Can you be both? Is there even a difference? The answer to this latter question is, yes. In a successful organization there are many people performing different tasks all in harmony to make the business successful. Some individuals can be phenomenal leaders while others can be excellent managers. Some can actually be both. How do we define a leader from a manager?

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Test & Measurement—The Case for Validation

07-15-2016

Test and measurement (T&M) are terms that can strike fear into the most robust of minds. Many engineers create designs and products of the future with specific results predicted for performance.

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Testing Todd: Quality Management and the Hidden 'I' in Team

05-24-2016

Today, businesses of all types are jumping on the quality bandwagon. The more critical the product, the more the consumer/customer wishes the highest possible quality in the goods or services requested.

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Quality Management and the Hidden 'I' in Team

05-06-2016

Today, businesses of all types are jumping on the quality bandwagon. The more critical the product, the more the consumer/customer wishes the highest possible quality in the goods or services requested. Customers send surveys with buzzwords like ISO, QMS, and AVL for their suppliers to complete so they have confidence that what they receive is of the highest quality.

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Testing Todd: Process Management: Doing It Right

04-27-2016

Simply put, process management is the idea of figuring out how to do something, documenting it and then monitoring the effectiveness of the steps you created for the end result. Simple, right? Unfortunately, many who take on this endeavor fall short due to missing some key attributes to creating and maintaining a robust process. This article features eight steps in building and maintaining a robust process.

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2015

Flex and Rigid-Flex Circuit Testing: Challenges & Solutions

06-24-2015

Although flex circuits are nothing new in today’s technology roadmap, the testing of unpopulated flexible circuits can be challenging. In this article, columnist Todd Kolmodin writes about the different methods available to test these circuits.

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Electrical Test: Surface Finish vs. Water Marks

05-20-2015

New finishes have come to market; some allow better conductivity, while others reduce the overall cost of precious materials. Regardless of the finish, electrical test must be performed on these circuits. With that comes the caveat of how much of a witness mark can be left on any given landing pad and still be acceptable to the CM or the final OEM user. Todd Kolmodin explains.

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Challenges of Electrical Test

01-28-2015

In our arena today, we can solve pitch and density with flying probe machines, and volume with our grid testers, but the catalyst that is in the mix is that pesky soldermask! Here's why I bring up that necessary process as a problem for electrical test.

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2014

What is 4-Wire Kelvin?

12-05-2014

"I've been asked many times, 'What is 4-Wire Kelvin?' So, this month I will explain the 4-Wire Kelvin Test and how it can help uncover defects that normally would go undetected in standard electrical test methodology," writes Columnist Todd Kolmodin.

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Where Do We Go From Here?

12-01-2014

In this installment of "Testing Todd," Gardien's resident expert Todd Kolmodin answers questions from Dan Beaulieu concerning the future of electrical test. His focus is on the future of testing technologies, testing equipment, and E-test.

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Testing Todd: Where Do We Go From Here?

12-01-2014

In this installment of "Testing Todd," Gardien's resident expert Todd Kolmodin answers questions from Dan Beaulieu concerning the future of electrical test. His focus is on the future of testing technologies, testing equipment, and E-test.

View Story

Flying Probe - Indirect Testing vs. Military

08-19-2014

The use of flying probe testers has become increasingly popular in recent times, mainly due to the affordability of the equipment and also the reduced cost of testing, as no dedicated or "bed of nails" fixture is required. When using flying probes to test military product, one must be diligent to make sure the test method is allowable.

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Testing Todd: Flying Probe - Indirect Testing vs. Military

08-19-2014

The use of flying probe testers has become increasingly popular in recent times, mainly due to the affordability of the equipment and also the reduced cost of testing, as no dedicated or "bed of nails" fixture is required. When using flying probes to test military product, one must be diligent to make sure the test method is allowable.

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Everything You Wanted to Know, But Were Afraid to Ask

07-30-2014

This month, "Testing Todd" author Todd Kolmodin of Gardien Services USA presents readers' questions about the basics of electrical test, including the different types of testing available today.

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Testing Todd: Everything You Wanted to Know, But Were Afraid to Ask

07-30-2014

This month, "Testing Todd" author Todd Kolmodin of Gardien Services USA presents readers' questions about the basics of electrical test, including the different types of testing available today.

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Seven Tips for Choosing the Right Test Service

06-12-2014

Do you need to go outside your company for your testing service? Maybe you have capacity issues, maybe your equipment is down, or maybe you just want an established back-up plan? Whatever the reason, it is very important to choose the right outside testing service because, ultimately, you're not just choosing an objective service provider; you're choosing a partner.

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A Summary of Various Test Requirements

06-03-2014

The PCB industry has advanced significantly in the recent millennium. OEM specifications and requirements have also advanced due to the maturing of technologies, which has caused the requirements of electrical test of these higher technology products to advance and increase in intensity.

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Testing Todd: A Summary of Various Test Requirements

06-03-2014

The PCB industry has advanced significantly in the recent millennium. OEM specifications and requirements have also advanced due to the maturing of technologies, which has caused the requirements of electrical test of these higher technology products to advance and increase in intensity.

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