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The eSmart Factory Comes to PCB Fabrication

Happy Holden
|  Created: January 17, 2020  |  Updated: May 19, 2020

We all talk about the Industrial Revolution. The world has gone through a number of “Industrial Revolutions” since the creation of steam power in England. In fact, we talk about three such revolutions since that first one. In the early 2010s, the German Government proposed a fourth industrial revolution they called INDUSTRU 4.0. Today we also call it “The Smart Factory”! But, to date, there hasn’t been too much reported progress in this program. The one notable exception is in the United States—in fact in New Hampshire—for printed circuit fabrication.

Whelen Engineering Captive PCB Fab

In 2015, a U.S. automotive and aircraft equipment/warnings OEM, Whelen Engineering, of Connecticut, created the first new printed circuit fabrication facility in the world! And it was everything the Germans had proposed as a “Smart Factory”. In many ways, it was more than Industry 4.0, as it was totally automated, with no production workers, and it was GREEN—it recycled all its water and chemicals.

Whelen had always been noted as an OEM that believed in vertical integration, as they produced all their components in-house except for the bare PCBs, which they bought from China. Their owner decided to look into the economics of building their printed circuits themselves. Fortunately, he hired one of the industries leading futuristS, Alex Stepinski, formerly of Sanmina. Alex was one of those experienced printed circuit engineers that keeps up on technology, and convinced Whelen management that he needed to visit and learn from the best around the world. The resulting printed circuit facility turned out to be the world’s most advanced.

Plating made up the core of the manufacturing process. As you can see from Figure 1, the automation centers around metalization, imaging, plating, etching and solder mask. With 4 different final finishes as alternatives. The central plating concept was panel plating with a horizontal-pulse plater with the capability to produce multilayer inner-layers in the same line.

From Station-1, after drilling, it is only 108 minutes to Station-38, after SM and the final finish and then to final fabrication and test.

PCB automated process
FIGURE 1: Whelen layout of core automated processes. (Source: PCB007, June 2016)

New Hampshire Did Not Want A Dirty PCB Shop in Its State

Whelen’s manufacturing campus was in New Hampshire. But N.H. didn’t want to provide a permit for a typical PCB fabricator. Whelen rose to the challenge by proposing a facility that would NOT emit any liquid wastes and only sold scrap suitable for the county landfill. Since this was to be a totally new greenfield site, equipment and processes were selected that could be recycled and regenerated. Figure 2 shows a number of the new machines.

Economic Order Quantity of ONE

To ensure maximum flexibility for expansion, prototypes and developing high-density processes, Alex created a system where the economic order quantity was one panel. Then prototypes and volume production could be easily mixed. Aiding this was the fact that no human would ever touch a panel, therefore many processes could be simplified with the results being sometimes 50% fewer process steps and nearly perfect yields.

The results below speak for themselves. The eSmart Factory is here and ready to be implemented around the world as labor costs and environmental concerns are no longer a hinderance!

  • 2-sided, multilayer, metal backed, flex-rigid
  • no production workers (hence no training-recruiting)
  • zero effluent-100% water, 70% chemical recycling
  • EOQ of one panel-protos identical to production
  • ½ the price of China for high volumes;1/10 for protos
  • 2-day delivery instead of 6-10 weeks-any volume
  • 99.8 % yields—50% fewer mfg. steps
  • less than 3-year payback (56% ROI)

PCB facility automated equipment
FIGURE 2: Some of the automated equipment for the new Whelen PCB facility. (Source: PCB007, Oct. 2015)


The results of Whelen’s first PCB fab was so successful and admired by all who visited them, that management in 2018 decided to do a 5-10 fold expansion and become a World-Class Merchant supplier of State-of-the-Art substrates and multilayers. Thus, GreenSource Fabrication was born. Again, metalization/electroplating and lamination would be the core of the new processes. In fact, five plating processes are now used at GreenSource (see Figure 3).

chart of 5 plating processes
FIGURE 3: The 5 plating processes including mSAP, amSAP, and SAP. (Source: 2018 IPC APEX presentation)

Figure 4 illustrates some of the additional automated machines, drills, and testers installed for GreenSource.

GreenSource Facility Equipment
FIGURE 4: Typical automated equipment and conveyors installed for the new GreenSource facility. (Source: PCB007, March & Oct. 2018)

Key Benefits of Implementing These Technologies

  • Cycle Time
    • ability to build complex 3c3, 4c4 technology in days / vs months
    • warehouse to layup cycle time of 2 hours for innerlayer cores and 105-minute average cycle time for plating copper as examples
  • sustainability
  • scalable operations due to severely reduced regulatory burden; PCB Fab facilities are now even possible in areas without access to water; no labor recruiting/training!
  • traceability/quality
  • RFID and staggered 2D code system in combination provide clear knowledge of happenings for troubleshooting and improvement
  • capability
  • machine Learning loops provide predictive modeling for achieving tighter tolerances and yields
  • improved handling technology allows for processing thinner and larger format materials

To see additional details on the new Whelen facility, watch the video on YouTube of my Keynote talk from AltiumLive in Frankfurt, Germany including the automation ‘fly-by’.

Would you like to find out more about how Altium can help you with your next PCB design? Talk to an expert at Altium or see how your circuit board is made during design with Altium Designer®.

About Author

About Author

Happy Holden is retired from GENTEX Corporation (one of the U.S.'s largest automotive electronics OEM. He was the Chief Technical Officer for the world’s biggest PCB Fabricator-HonHai Precision Industries (Foxconn) in China. Prior to Foxconn, Mr. Holden was the Senior PCB Technologist for Mentor Graphics; he was the Advanced Technology Manager at NanYa/Westwood Associates and Merix Corporations. He retired from Hewlett-Packard after over 28 years. His prior assignments had been as director of PCB R&D and Manufacturing Engineering Manager. While at HP, he managed PCB design, PCB partnerships, and automation software in Taiwan and Hong Kong. Happy has been involved in advanced PCB technologies for over 47 years. He has published chapters on HDI technology in 4 books, as well as his own book, the HDI Handbook, available as a free e-Book at and de recently completed the 7th Edition of McGraw-Hill's PC Handbook with Clyde Coombs.

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