Connect the Dots: Examining the Benefits of Laser Direct Imaging

Trina_Taylor.jpgOne of the most amazing advances in PCB manufacturing technology has been the advent and usage of laser direct imaging (LDI) technology. For PCB manufacturers, this technology has been a game changer, helping to reduce costs, speed production, and improve quality.

Though the LDI revolution began more than 20 years ago and usage of film for image transfer has reduced by half in that time, there’s still room for more PCB manufacturers to invest in this powerful tool. As an image department team leader and ISO process owner, I have seen firsthand the benefits of laser direct imaging for both my team and our customers.

Imaging is a key production step where the PCB design is transferred from its original digital format onto the physical manufacturing panel. This process ultimately defines all the copper features on a given layer, everything from pads to traces and plane areas.

As the name implies, LDI transfers the digital design data directly to the manufacturing panel without the use of an intermediary. The result is sharper and more precise features, with better registration and the ability to place smaller features more effectively.

We make higher quality, more reproducible boards with LDI. The higher resolution transfer makes the final board closer to the digital design. Figure 1 compares the LDI imaging process with that of a traditional approach. As we can see, Figure 1a illustrates that LDI uses a photo-based method to transfer the image to the panel, much like the traditional imaging processes. Figure 1b demonstrates that the LDI imaging process does not require a phototool as an intermediary during the exposure step.

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Eliminating the photo tool and mylar or glass layer from the exposure process allows the light source to expose the photoresist more directly. This reduces interference and limits opportunity for the creation of air gaps in either of those two extra layers. By eliminating the mylar layer, the quality of the image process improves. The thickness of the clear mylar layer being present does two things: scatters light source (as it transfers between multiple different types of layers) and increases the effective distance between the light source and its ultimate destination (the photoresist). By eliminating this layer, it gives a more direct path from the light to create a sharp and defined image.

Air gaps cause issues with the quality of the exposure and can cause defects by allowing exposure in areas where it is unwanted. LDI eliminates the part of the process that can cause air gaps, generating a sharper and truer representation of the data being transferred.

In traditional photo-based methods, the alignment of the image with the panel can be a very tedious, and in some cases, impossible task. The LDI process better aligns the image with the panel than with traditional methods. The LDI process uses aligning targets called fiducials to calculate any movement that has occurred in the panel and correct for it. We can also calculate and adjust for any stretch, shrinkage, or skew that has occurred during the previous manufacturing steps. The copper image is, for practical purposes, perfectly aligned with the drilled holes.

The LDI imaging process makes my team better at our jobs. We have realized improvement in numerous areas because we adopted this method for imaging. Most importantly, we have improved the quality of our output and that reverberates throughout the PCB manufacturing process. The result is better boards.

The boards are not just higher resolution, they take less time to produce. We don’t spend time plotting, cleaning, and punching image films. What was once a two-hour process now takes 30 minutes, and we’re not going through 150 films a day, which results in cost savings.

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LDI eliminates much of the error potential present using traditional methods. We’re not handling film, moving it from place to place and potentially damaging it, so there is less scrap. Inspection and quality assurance take less time because there are fewer defects to find.

Since less production time is spent on imaging, other production teams are less apt to be rushed and they have more time to focus on quality and process improvement. This has made LDI a critical component of our continuous improvement efforts and Lean manufacturing adoption.

Improving just one of the hundreds of processes in our PCB manufacturing facility pays dividends. Yes, my team can produce better results more efficiently, and this is great for our customers. The process improvements created by LDI also offer everyone on the team more opportunities for professional development. With less time spent on tedious traditional imaging efforts, we can focus on learning new skills that can lead to career advancement.

Technology advancements like the ones created by LDI have opened doors and helped me grow professionally. I started as a part-time chip coordinator and now I’m the image department team leader. When measuring the value of tools like LDI, we tend to focus on improving the quality of the boards produced and increasing customer satisfaction.

These tools also improve the quality of our working lives and increase satisfaction with our professional development.

Trina Taylor is team lead, image department, at Sunstone.

This column originally appeared in the September 2022 issue of Design007 Magazine.

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2022

Connect the Dots: Examining the Benefits of Laser Direct Imaging

09-22-2022

One of the most amazing advances in PCB manufacturing technology has been the advent and usage of laser direct imaging (LDI) technology. For PCB manufacturers, this technology has been a game changer, helping to reduce costs, speed production, and improve quality. Though the LDI revolution began more than 20 years ago and usage of film for image transfer has reduced by half in that time, there’s still room for more PCB manufacturers to invest in this powerful tool. As an image department team leader and ISO process owner, Trina Taylor has seen firsthand the benefits of laser direct imaging for both my team and our customers.

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Connect the Dots: Controlled Impedance—The Devil is in the (Math) Details

08-16-2022

Controlling impedance is critical to signal integrity and board performance in devices powering everything from high-speed digital applications to telecom and RF communication. It is common practice for designers to include impedance-related notes with their PCB designs and rely on the manufacturer to determine the proper trace parameters. This inherently passive methodology often leads to delay, cost overrun, and even batches of useless boards.

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Connect the Dots: Caution—Yield Ahead

08-11-2022

Manufacturing yield is a key measure of quality in PCB manufacturing. Measured as a percentage of good parts relative to the total produced, achieving 100% yield rates is extremely challenging for anything but the simplest PCB designs. Most PCB manufacturers produce less than a 95% yield, eating the cost of discards and re-designs. PCB manufacturers can take steps to improve yield rates. It is possible to achieve over 98% yield rate by addressing common manufacturing errors, improving safety and quality in tandem, and integrating a Lean approach to all processes.

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Connect the Dots: Bringing PCB Quoting Into the 21st Century

06-21-2022

Here we are in the 21st century, technology abounds across all sectors, and it continues to grow. Advances in wearable technology, vehicles with driver assistance features, and integrated smart home electronic devices continue to drive demand and innovation in the PCB industry. The product development teams tasked with taking these technologies from design into reality are often stuck using procedures from the last century.

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Connect the Dots: The Benefits of a Parts Library

06-02-2022

To be effective at PCB design and layout, individuals need to become proficient with the different tools of the trade. Parts libraries are among of the most important. PCB design and prototyping is a critical component of electronic product development. Being faster to market has always been a competitive advantage and a focus for electronics manufacturers. With persistent marketplace uncertainty and supply chain disruption creating delays, in-house PCB design offers a way to accelerate electronic product development projects.

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Connect the Dots: Leaning into Lean Manufacturing

04-26-2022

The worst part of the global COVID pandemic brought unpredictability and uncertainty to an otherwise stable PCB Industry. Like many in the board business, Sunstone faced increasing demand from essential businesses while also dealing with inconsistent employee availability and social distancing guidelines that slowed the manufacturing process. We knew immediately that even though the status quo had worked to this point, the situation was not temporary, and the operation would have to adapt.

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Connect the Dots: Six Key Considerations for Designers New to PCB Layout

03-31-2022

Demand continues to increase for boards used in consumer electronics, intelligent machines used in manufacturing, and smart devices for health services applications. Our industry needs more smart people designing PCBs to help drive artificial intelligence (AI) initiatives and power the Internet of Things (IoT), which is why we are welcoming new designers into the fold every day.

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Connect the Dots: The PCB Design Secret Sauce for RF Applications

02-24-2022

Design and manufacture of PCBs for radio frequency (RF) technology is a unique animal. RF had been considered a niche, thought of only in terms of television broadcasts, commercial airline phones, and military radar systems. Now, light industrial and consumer applications ranging from remote meter reading to home security systems are just the tip of the RF iceberg.

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Connect the Dots: Everything You Wanted to Know About Electromagnetic Interference

01-20-2022

EMI is another of those TLAs (three letter acronym) that the PCB industry is notorious for. You hear it all the time, referring to electromagnetic interference. The devices we create are, in the context of this conversation, bundles of boards, chips, and cables that produce and are affected by EMI. When current flows through wires, traces, or circuits, some of the energy is propagated through the air in the form of electromagnetic radiation. This also takes place within a closed design—creating disturbance voltages throughout the conductors in your device.

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2021

Connect the Dots: Best Practices for Solder Mask Application

12-16-2021

Today’s PCBs increasingly have to operate in challenging conditions. Whether it’s an iPad hot to the touch after several hours of gaming or a drone slicing through smoke and debris to monitor a wildfire, boards need protection from the elements. That’s where solder mask comes in. Solder mask coats your whole board (apart from the solder pads) so the PCB doesn’t react with the atmosphere and lose chemical properties through oxidation. It also prevents contamination from dust and debris that may settle on the board and create shorts. Solder mask prevents bridging between features during wave reflow assembly, limits external conductive influences and helps ward off voltage spikes.

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Connect the Dots: Diving Into the Chemical Processes of PCB Manufacturing

11-12-2021

I have always been fascinated with chemistry and chemical processes. My first degree was in chemistry and my first job out of college was in the PCB manufacturing shop in the analytical chemistry lab. During my initial tour I was so surprised with just how many chemical processes there were in PCB manufacturing. I discovered that some of the most critical elements of PCB manufacturing involve chemical processes. Chemicals clean the copper in preparation for the coating that prevents oxidation, and again to remove contaminants before solder resist application.

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Connect the Dots: Finding Value in Gerber Files

10-28-2021

Converting to Gerber is one way to perform a double check of your PCB design that can pre-answer questions from your manufacturing partner and pre-solve problems with the boards themselves.

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Connect the Dots: Designing PCBs for Electronic Hardware Products

09-23-2021

We asked an expert what factors designers should consider as they lay out their boards.

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Connect the Dots: The Split Planes Challenge

08-11-2021

Losing track of voltage in your PCB design can lead to explosive problems. Your CAM tool will not manage split planes for you.

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Connect the Dots: The Board Thickness Challenge

07-21-2021

Size constraints, functional requirements, and environmental factors can make selecting PCB thickness difficult. Here we will examine best practices for choosing board thickness that results in quality, highly functional PCBs.

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Connect the Dots: There is No ‘Final’ Frontier for PCB Design

06-10-2021

Our ongoing mission: To explore more manufacturable designs, to seek out higher-quality boards and enhanced functionality, to boldly design PCBs that no one has designed before.

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Connect the Dots: A Closer Look at Surface Finish

05-17-2021

The final surface finish of a PCB is an important consideration. This coating between your components and the bare board is applied to ensure solderability and protect any exposed copper circuitry. Selecting the right type of surface finish can be daunting, and for good reasons.

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Connect the Dots: The Power Behind the (PCB) Throne—Power Supply Design Tips

04-13-2021

Delivering the required power to each component on a PCB can be a complex challenge. Designers have to manage converting AC to DC while also delivering the correct voltage and current to each component. A well-designed PCB results when the designer takes power supply seriously—paying close attention to the effects that power delivery can have on surrounding components, such as through heat management or signal interference.

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Connect the Dots: IoT is Changing How We Design PCBs

03-11-2021

Demand growth is fueled by business as well as consumers, with pandemic-accelerated healthcare and industrial machinery applications leading the way. IoT devices of every stripe will continue to improve and add functionality while also becoming smaller, lighter, and faster.

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2020

This Month in Design007 Magazine: Connect the Dots—Is 2020 Really Coming to an End?

12-09-2020

As we approach the end of 2020, we are able to look back on one of the most challenging years that I have ever experienced. Throughout these trying times, Bob Tise and Matt Stevenson were consistent in their desire to share knowledge with everyone. Matt shares a synopsis of the topics they shared from the perspective of a PCB manufacturer.

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Connect the Dots: The New Recipe for Customer Service Success

11-11-2020

How are you holding up these days during the pandemic? Each of us is dealing with life struggles and changes differently. With this in mind, Matt Stevenson asks Al Secchi, global customer support and sales manager, what he has learned professionally from the pandemic and how to serve customers.

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Connect the Dots: Unraveling the Mysterious BGA Routing Mess

10-19-2020

A ball-grid-array (BGA) device can be a daunting component to route, especially in fine-pitch arrays featuring solder ball counts in the hundreds and pitch values as tight as 0.5 millimeters. Bob Tise and Matt Stevenson describe how you can take the mystery out of BGA routing and create a PCB design that can handle all those pesky narrow spaces.

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Connect the Dots: How to Know If a CAD Tool Is Right for You

09-21-2020

The tool that defines PCB designers is our CAD software, and many discover quickly that not all CAD tools are created equally. Bob Tise and Matt Stevenson answer the question, "How can designers find the right CAD tools to fit their particular methodology and needs?"

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Connect the Dots: The Nuts and Bolts of Electrical Testing

08-12-2020

In this column, Bob Tise and Matt Stevenson explore the world of electrical testing. They examine a variety of testing methods, what options to look for in a PCB manufacturer, and how to ensure that you're getting the best value out of the electrical test options available to you.

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Connect the Dots: Reassessing the Risk of Offshore PCB Manufacturing

07-15-2020

Offshore board production has long been considered an effective way to reduce the cost of producing electronic devices here at home, but those savings often demand a higher tolerance for delivery issues and come with lowered expectations for quality. Bob Tise and Matt Stevenson explain.

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Connect the Dots: The Power of Forward Thinking

06-06-2020

Innovation comes in many forms and from more places these days. Bob Tise and Matt Stevenson discuss how innovative electronic devices all contain PCBs, and share pro design tips for bringing new products to the market.

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Connect the Dots: Picking a Prototyping Strategy

05-29-2020

No matter how simple or complicated your electronic project, PCB prototyping is part of its journey from concept to reality. This process of turning the design into something physical can teach you a lot about what needs to be tweaked and improved before your PCB is ready for full production. Bob Tise and Matt Stevenson explain how before you can prototype, you have to design.

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Connect the Dots: Increased Focus on Health and Wellness Transforms the PCB Industry

04-04-2020

Our increased focus on health and wellness drives technology advancement for personal devices and those used in the delivery of healthcare. Bob Tise and Matt Stevenson explain how this trend also drives both PCB production innovation and a long-overdue update of the employer/employee relationship.

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Connect the Dots: The Seven-year Etch

03-16-2020

PCB etching seems like a simple task on the surface, but quite a few things can go wrong during this process. Adhering to best practice and continuous improvement is a must to help avoid issues with your finished board. Bob Tise and Matt Stevenson share their design tips for a better etching process.

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2019

Connect the Dots: A Penny for Your Thoughts on Copper

11-19-2019

You're probably thinking: “Bob can’t possibly write an entire article dedicated to the use of copper in PCBs.” To that, Bob says, “Hold my beer.”

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Connect the Dots: Build Quality Into Your Boards and Processes

11-06-2019

To the procurement clerk, a PCB may seem like it is just a line item on a bill of materials (BOM) or parts list during the production of an electronic device. At Sunstone, we know differently. The PCB is the building block for all of the components and parts in your electrical project.

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Connect the Dots: A Proactive Approach to Controlled Impedance

10-09-2019

You can save time, money, and effort if you are aware of the impedance math when you sit down to design your board. Gain this awareness by using a good impedance calculator, and you can build the right tolerances into your design. Impedance testing becomes a double-check of your work instead of the tool you rely on to tell you if your documentation is correct. Documenting impedance requirements properly is more onerous than most people realize. Though it seems simple, PCB documentation is a details game that often leaves knowledge gaps for your manufacturer.

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Connect the Dots: Managing Global Supply Chain Uncertainty

09-03-2019

We are well into the second year of tariff-centric trade policy, and one thing appears certain—uncertainty is here to stay. Though most of the media focus has been on cars and steel or consumer prices and corporate profits, the enduring challenge for both the electronics and PCB industries has been maintaining reliable global supply chains.

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Connect the Dots: Five Best Practices to Ensure Manufacturability

08-01-2019

When you send your design for manufacturing, your partner does not know what type of device the board will be part of nor the conditions in which it will have to perform. It’s common for harsh environments or exposure to mess up a board’s performance. If you call out materials that will not tolerate the end-product’s operating environment, bad things can happen—such as a smoking board, for example. Be sure your board can tolerate thermal stress or solder joints risk breaking and damaging components.

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Connect the Dots: The Future of PCB Manufacturing Doesn't Belong to Robots, but to the Users

07-09-2019

Is the world ready for the consequences of rapid automation? Will the use of robots displace entire categories of workers? Can artificial intelligence really “think”? How will manufacturing, including PCB manufacturing, be affected by all of these smart robots? These questions actually come from a pamphlet published in 1955: "The Age of Automation: Its Effects on Human Welfare."

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Connect the Dots: Accurate Gerber Files Are Mission-Critical for Smooth PCB Manufacturing

05-30-2019

Gerber files can reveal design issues ahead of the quote process and ensure your manufacturer has everything needed to produce your boards correctly. After consulting with Engineering Support Specialist Eric Haugen, we explored some best practices for making sure that Gerber files are accurate.

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Connect the Dots: Preparing for Tomorrow’s Technology Today

05-16-2019

At a recent Sunstone Circuits planning summit, Matt Stevenson, VP of sales and marketing, and Bob Tise had a wide-ranging discussion about emerging technologies and how they will impact PCB manufacturing. The following is an abridged transcript of this conversation.

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Connect the Dots: MakeHarvard 2019: Bigger and Better!

04-09-2019

Sunstone Circuits was eager to return to MakeHarvard as a sponsor and creator of a competition category this year, also serving as both mentors and competition judges. If you were there, you saw us—we were hard to miss in our bright orange vests. As mentors, we were out and about helping students and answering questions.

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Connect the Dots: Exploding PCBs: Don’t Lose Track of Voltage in Your Design

04-01-2019

Managing split planes? Your CAM tool will not do it for you. We see this almost every day—not exploding PCBs, which pretty rare—but rather problems created by having more than one voltage on a power plane layer. From where we sit, this is one of the more insidious and costly challenges facing PCB designers.

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2018

Connect the Dots: Six Tips to Ensure Parts Fit on Your Board

12-12-2018

One of the most frustrating mismatches with alternative through-hole parts occurs when the land pattern matches, but the pin size is off. If hole sizes are too tight, pins may not fit through the holes, or if they do go into the holes, they may not solder well. Solder will need to flow through the gap between the pin and the hole barrel. If there is not enough space to allow enough solder mass to flow through the hole, the circuit board will absorb heat from the molten solder and cause the solder to solidify partway up the hole. This is called a cold solder joint and can result in a premature failure of your circuit.

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Connect the Dots: New Landing Design to Reduce Thermal Pad Failure

11-16-2018

You’ve finally finished your design. All the traces are correct and the IC landings are to the manufacturer’s specifications. A short run of test boards performs perfectly. For best results, you select a reputable domestic board house for production and a quality assembly shop to do the soldering. When the finished boards arrive, everything looks great. You’re in high spirits and congratulate yourself on a job well done. Then the reports start coming in.

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