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Preparing for tomorrow’s technology today

At a recent Sunstone Circuits planning summit, Matt Stevenson, VP of sales & marketing and Bob Tise from PCB technical support led a wide-ranging discussion about emerging technologies and how they’ll impact PCB manufacturing. Following is an abridged transcript of the conversation.

Which industries have the most innovative new technology?

Stevenson: One industry where we are seeing change is in transportation electronics. Battery powered vehicles, autonomous driven vehicles, additional sensors, gadgets, a focus on Bluetooth use; all of that is happening in the transportation industry, more so now than ever. From a PCB manufacturer standpoint that’s pretty exciting.  

Tise: There’s also more complexity, because of the functionality requirements. That makes it all the more important to ensure designs are manufacturable and that the boards will perform as needed in their operating environments.

Stevenson: These electronics are continuously getting to be smaller and faster. Vehicles require circuit boards that can withstand extreme temperatures, vibration, and dirt. After outer space it’s the most demanding environmental category there is. We need to design for big swings in temperature, from Siberia to Dubai. Put a car in the sun in some places in the world, 250 degrees Fahrenheit (approximately 120 degrees Celsius) is not unheard of in the cabin or under the hood.

As more and more electronics are used to operate our cars, the devices in them keep getting smaller. Ensuring the devices do not trade durability for functionality and size is a big challenge for PCB designers and manufacturers. 

How are PCB manufacturers meeting challenges like these?

Stevenson: It is necessary to use materials — laminate, fiberglass, epoxy, thermoplastic — that work at the right speed, at the right temperature, in the right condition. Each material has a specific range of electronic speed and stability in addition to the environmental concerns associated with it. To be a full-service automotive supplier you’ve got to be able to support all those needs at all times to produce robust, lasting boards. 

Are you witnessing similar innovation trends in other industries?

Tise: Use of electronics is exploding in the health services industry as well. Because medical facilities are sterile, electronics used there have to be able to withstand exposure to chemicals needed to keep them clean. Any electronic used in a medical facility has to be completely encapsulated in a hardened plastic case, or it has to be disposable. 

Stevenson: And because of the nature of their use, the devices have to be small, as well as highly functional. There’s a lot of innovation, but there are also challenges unique to the industry. In addition to what we’ve already discussed, it’s important to remember every device used in the medical industry has to go through FDA requirements before it can be implemented, which means a multi-year test and validation process. That’s a lot of iterating. So, if you’re in that space, you depend on trusted partners to help you through that process.

What are you doing to support your customers in the healthcare space?

Tise: We maintain standards of IPC-A-600 and IPC-6012 which are divided further into a Class rank. Class 3 is stringent. A customer wanting to reach Class 3 — to have it be usable in the medical industry, or anywhere else — would need to design a top shelf board. We help them get there. 

Stevenson: It takes multiple spins and revs within the circuit board testing process, as well as expert advice, to be able to catch design flaws and make modifications quickly. It helps to have a seasoned professional at hand to keep customers on track in their testing processes. That’s a value-add service Sunstone provides to engineers.  

Everyone is eager to talk about robotics, so let’s do that.

Stevenson: As robotics become mainstream in every industry, including auto, medical, military, cameras and movie making, pretty much every vertical that you can think of, it gets driven, made more commercial, Plus, it’s really cool stuff!

For the PCB industry, robotics represents both a business opportunity and a path to improving the PCB manufacturing process itself.

Tise: If you’re an engineer responsible for designing and building a robot with a purpose, you know what you need in terms of functionality from a PCB. Designing the board is usually not an area of expertise and that’s where we can help. We coach customers to help them better design for manufacturability, as well as build in features needed for an IPC Class 3 or Class 2 cert.

Circuit boards aren’t that complicated of a device, but there’s complexity in designing them for durability, functionality, and manufacturability. The process of creating a circuit board is well established. It’s the functionality that’s new and exciting. These emerging technologies do things that haven’t been done before, operate in environments new to electronics. When it comes to PCB design for these devices, the devil is in the details. That’s our forte: paying attention to the details and advising customers to design a board we can produce that will work the way they need it to.  

What’s driving all of this innovation?

Stevenson: Millennials and Gen Z are the driving force behind these emerging technologies. They may not be engineers or have classical training in all the disciplines required, but they have an idea to interface hardware and software to solve a problem. They’re getting their questions answered any way they possibly can — through social media, other self-serve channels — and they’re making it happen. And they’re doing it quickly. They think outside of the box. 

We’ve seen this with our work at MakeHarvard. It’s an annual 24-hour hackathon competition open to U.S. undergraduate and graduate students that started in 2018. The students we’ve worked have come in with ideas to improve the world and the desire to learn how even if they don’t have all the classical skills to begin with. 

The Makers Event is a perfect place to find talent for that reason. These are the hires that may not have a resume or a job history yet, but they’ve been working in these fields and these industries for years and they are doing some cool things. They aren’t constrained by corporate rules and regulations. They’re passionate.  

Tise: In the coming years, it will be interesting to see how this new blood will change the R&D departments at established companies. They are so procedurally oriented and often focused on a product’s potential profitability as much as anything else.  

Stevenson: Making profit is different than making innovation. We’re seeing some customers focus on that profit, but innovation is necessary to keep up in these industries with so much new technology.  


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