Expert Dirk Stans Bridging Gaps in PCB Manufacturing
Judy Warner: Dirk, please give us a brief overview of your career path and history in the electronics industry.
Dirk Stans: As an electronics engineer, I started my career at DISC which became Barco Graphics just one year after I joined the company. From day one I was active in the sales of Computer Aided Manufacturing (CAM) systems for the PCB industry in Europe. It was there that I gained insight into the evolution of the European and global PCB industry starting from 1989. Europe was producing over 40% of the world’s printed circuit boards and local companies were making good money even when they were still focussed on large to medium volume. Yet there was another untapped market in which engineers had a hard time getting their prototypes made. The first large European electronic OEM companies were opening daughter companies in the Far East and China, soon to be followed by many others. One year before the Berlin wall fell and Germany was reunited, other Eastern European countries were freed from the Soviet Union. So markets were on the move and Europe was at a turning point; as a result electronics engineers were not being served well. Out of chaos often comes opportunity and my college friend and still business partner, Luc Smets, and I quit our jobs and started brokering small PCB orders that were made in Eastern Europe and sold to desperate engineers waiting for someone to treat them like valued customers. Our Unique Selling Proposition was born: PCB prototypes and small runs for electronics development engineers. Shortly after going into business brokering boards, we had the opportunity to buy our largest supplier, a state-owned PCB company in Hungary. From the 1st of May 1993, we were a Hungarian PCB manufacturer with our head office in Belgium. From then on we invested all our profit, as we still do today, back into our business. By doing so, we grew to a team of around 400 people working in group locations in Belgium, Hungary, Germany, France, Italy, UK, Switzerland and India. 2017 brought us business from some 12,000 European customers which represented in excess of 20,000 users who placed well over 107,000 orders. Today our business is almost 100% online offering one of the largest service spectra for standard technology PCBs.
Warner: Besides the obvious political and economic climate of the time, what inspired you to create the unique Eurocircuits model and move towards an online footprint?
Stans: Since 1994, we were looking for ways to reduce manufacturing costs and thus prices for PCB prototypes and small runs. We immediately recognized that standardizing the technology offering and being able to pool multiple orders on a single production panel was the key to reduce costs for prototypes and small runs. In the same year, we presented our first offer of standardized technology to the market. As most customers had a past in engineering for volume, standardization was not their first thought and order pooling was not a known strategy for prototypes yet. It took us many more standardized offerings and the market introduction of internet and web sales to shift our thoughts and strategy entirely. In 1999 we built a new business flow: Eurocircuits. A complete e-business flow for PCB prototypes. Going online gave us a new profile that offered a platform where you couldn’t negotiate and demand specials on a website, and customers started to recognize the advantages of standardization and order pooling. The Eurocircuits train left the station, and from that moment on we have put all our money into developing the online sales platform and expanding services. All investments in the factories were in service of that model, making us the best in our field: PCB prototypes and small runs.
Over the years I have written a series of stories on our marketing model, the history of order pooling, etc. You can find them here.
Warner: So, you really created a new business model that has since been widely embraced--congratulations. I can’t help but wonder what DFM issues arise in this high-paced, low-touch model, and what can designers do to prevent them? Furthermore, what does Eurocircuits do to mitigate recurring DFM issues?
Stans: The optimum design flow for boards requires that an engineer is aware from the manufacturing side of what is possible in today’s industrial electronics, and what industry standards are clear and easily accepted around the world, thus enabling the most cost-effective and reliable way to manufacture boards. Starting a layout with this knowledge and by using DRC rules built into the CAD software, we avoid dramatic DFM disasters.
Nevertheless, issues still exist. Below you will find the top DFM issues we face:
- Data being transferred from CAD to CAM is very often not complete, unclear, faulty, etc…
- Contour files are very often not correct or unclear
- Internal milling is often very ambiguous
- Annular rings limitations are not adhered to
- It is often unclear whether a hole is plated or not
In response to these issues, Eurocircuits created the PCB Visualizer which is a free-to-use automated visualization tool for viewing, analysis and correcting of Gerber data by the customer to enable a design to be manufactured in alignment of standard design criteria. All of the above issues are flagged immediately and the tools for correcting the identified items are provided all before spending a single euro cent.
Warner: Before you offered PCB Visualizer, how much time loss (on average) resulted from a need to resolve DFM issues and what impact have you seen by the addition of this tool?
Stans: Before we had PCB Visualizer, about 30% of the orders were stopped before production because of one or more data issues, faults or ambiguities. After 5 years of customers using PCB Visualizer, the level of data anomalies dropped to under 3%. Bearing in mind that we have a daily average order intake of over 400 orders, this improvement has reduced the necessity to contact around 120 customers to approximately 12 per day, which is easily manageable and allows us to focus on the quality of these interactions and reduce any unnecessary time delays. We can truly say this is a win-win for our customers.
Warner: Now for a loaded question--what do you wish all designers knew about board fabrication?
Stans: Everything! [laughs] Just joking, Judy, that will never happen. What would be a real step forward is if all designers would understand that just because you can conceptualize your layout, does not necessarily mean that it is producible. PCB manufacturers are tied to real-world physical constraints for manufacturing and the more you push to the outer boundaries of these constraints the further from the standard you get. Apart from that, I would just be very happy if all designers would follow the optimum design flow and keep themselves updated on modern manufacturing techniques before they design a board.
Warner: Speaking of physical constraints and continuing manufacturing innovation, where do you think board fabrication will be 10 years from now?
Stans: I believe that we will all go to 100% direct exposure in PCB production and the number of multilayer boards being made will continue to rise. The big revolution of making electronics smaller and smaller is something we saw in the first 10 years of the millennium. Certainly, in industrial electronics, this is not a real issue anymore. However, we will have to deal with every application being linked to the internet (IoT) and thus the need for high-speed data interfaces at very low cost will continue to increase. This brings a new challenge to board manufacturing and design to find standardized solutions at best costs.
Warner: Dirk, you gave a presentation at AltiumLive 2017 in Munich. Before we close, will you please give us a snapshot of your talk and why you chose that topic?
Stans: From the moment we started with PCB Visualizer and our smart menus in early 2012, I’ve been hitting the same nail very hard. The industry has always been struggling with the gap between CAD and CAM and how to transfer from one to the other. We call that the optimum PCB design flow. The basic idea is not new and 25 years ago we all did it. People designing/layouting PCBs were specialists with a very solid knowledge about PCB manufacturing. They had solid relations with one or more manufacturers, of which there were still many in Europe and they were easily accessible. Manufacturing knowledge was kept up to date on the CAD side. What wasn’t known or understood was asked before starting the layout job.
Over the years, PCB manufacturing in Europe dropped from over 40% to about 5% of the world volume. PCB designers became an endangered species and the gap between CAD and CAM became as wide as the Grand Canyon. Designers today need to renew their commitment to self-educating themselves regarding the current manufacturing processes available before they start designing. They need to understand that starting with standards will help them make a better producible layout and keep costs down. Inform, layout, check, correct--and only after these steps, order. This leads to “right first time” productions offering a win-win between designer and manufacturer. We have made a large number of tools to help in this way. The same philosophy of 25 years ago can be re-introduced through free-to-use online tools to equip designers with a true understanding of manufacturing that will enable “right-first-time” productions--this is our dream.
Recently, we have begun to apply this philosophy to populated boards. We feel that this method will allow us to open up the market for prototype assembly services which are currently not widely offered because of the large costs involved with cleaning the customer data.
It is not enough to be a market enabler, you have to also practice what you preach and create tools to help create success for everyone.
Warner: That is sound and timeless advice, Dirk. Thank you so much for sharing your perspective and experiences.
Stans: Thank you, Judy, for the opportunity!
NOTE: The EIPC is an organization and resource that can help PCB designers learn about current manufacturing best practices. You can visit their website HERE. Or see information about their annual conference that is being held in Lyon, France HERE.