When I started in the PCB business in 1990, data handling was very different from today. Many customers still came to me with a set of hand-taped artworks and a drill drawing. If we were lucky, all the taped tracks were still sticking to the Mylar sheet. The design was scaled, typically at 4:1. Data preparation in those days consisted of photo-reducing the artwork to a 1:1 film, repairing scratches which would cause open circuits and then copying the film several times to make a production panel.
By today’s standards it was a crude process but it had one advantage: the customer knew exactly what his board would look like, as he made the films himself and was able to check them before handing over to the producer.
By the mid 90s hand-taped artworks had been entirely replaced by digital data. The design and layout of the PCB was carried out by specialist engineers who had mastered one of the complex and expensive PCB design (or CAD) packages available at the time. As specialists, and especially as specialists trained on hand-taping, the engineers were well aware of the rules needed to design a board that was fit for production. For us as PCB producers the biggest challenge was to figure out the exact format of the Gerber files we received, and not to make any typing mistakes while entering the aperture data. Now we had CAM software to make the designs ready for production. This offered many more options for data manipulation with much less effort than copying and retouching films. Even so, at the end of data preparation the customers still asked for a 'check-plot' – a film- or fax-copy of the films to be used in production. Only when this was approved could we start production.
In recent years, CAD packages became yet more powerful and more affordable (sometimes even free). But PCB Design is now mostly done by electronics engineers who are not layout specialists. They rely more on the guidance given by their CAD packages than on their own knowledge of the PCB production process.
As PCB producers we receive data from a wide variety of CAD packages but the designs we get are becoming less and less 'production-ready'. Fortunately our CAM systems have become much more powerful and we can now “productionise” a design almost completely automatically. In effect, the PCB producer has taken over from the designer part of the responsibility for creating a printed circuit board that is fit for production. Customers no longer ask for check-plots before production, partly no doubt due to time constraints, but partly also as they trust the data transfer process and the skill of the producer.
Even so, for electronics engineers who do not order PCB prototypes or small batches very regularly, a feeling of uncertainty can remain. It is easy to check your PCB design in the CAD package, and some packages even create 3D images of the boards. It is harder to check the Extended Gerber-files you will send to the PCB producer. You can use a Gerber viewer, but you still need to take time to learn how to use it and time to load your files. Even then you cannot be sure that the CAM systems used by the PCB producer will interpret your board data in exactly the same way as your CAD package or your Gerber viewer.
At Eurocircuits we always inform you when we think we see issues with your design; we send you what we call an 'Exception report'. But it can take some time (1 or 2 days) before your design is verified. This means that you may not get the report until you are already working on your next design. You then need to delay the new design while you dig back into your earlier design to answer the questions. You lose time on the new PCB you are designing and on the PCB we are producing. So we created PCB Visualizer to:
- 1. Show you your design as our CAM system sees it, even before you place your order with us.
- 2. Pin-point design issues immediately with PCB Checker while the design is still fresh in your mind.
- 3. Give you better insight into critical areas of the production process with Plating Images.
- 4. Compare your design with the board specifications you have requested or with the default specifications of the service you have chosen without waiting for us to raise an exception..
- 5. Show you an image of your board as we will ship it to you before we start production.
- 6. Show you the data modifications we made to get your board ready for production.
From the reactions I get from customers we meet at exhibitions, from the feedback we get on our website and from contacts with our customer service I conclude that PCB Visualizer brings you as an electronics engineer and us as PCB producer closer together – ensuring a smoother process and a more reliable result.
Managing Director Eurocircuits