Preparing for Manufacturing with PCB Panelization Software

Created: February 11, 2019
Updated: December 28, 2020

Worker assembling components on a green PCB

If you work in manufacturing or you plan to produce a new product, productivity is the name of the game. Ever since the Industrial Revolution, the focus has been producing more widgets per man hour, and PCBs are no different. When you’re bringing a new product to market, why pay more for your order than you need to?

One way to improve productivity in a PCB manufacturing process is to use the proper panelization scheme. If you have the right PCB design software, panelization becomes a relatively simple process that decreases your cost per board. Instead of using an external CAD program for panelization or just using a default rectangular arrangement, a great CAD package that is specialized for PCB manufacturing can help you get the most out of each panel.

Preparing for Manufacturing with Panelization

Panelization is a process of arranging multiple boards in an array on a single panel with a standard size. Think of it as building copies of your board on one large PCB substrate. Running a single panel through assembly and separation machines represents a more or less fixed cost, and fabricators usually quote PCB prices on a per-panel basis. Your goal should be to arrange the maximum number of possible boards on a single panel while still satisfying tooling constraints.

One way you’ll need to prepare your panelized boards for manufacturing, separation, and assembly is to place fiducial markers on your panelized PCBs and one the PCBs themselves. These markers are also called pattern recognition markers, and they are used by pick-and-place machines to verify the orientation of your board and measure distances between different locations on the board or to reject a board that does not meet specified tolerances.

Fiducial markers should generally be placed at opposite corners of a board and at opposite corners of a panel for measurement. A third fiducial marker can be placed at another corner in order to verify orientation. This allows a pick-and-place machine or other assembly machinery to determine if the panel was loaded in the correct orientation, and automatic assembly machinery can use these markers to mount components in the correct location and orientation.

Automated CNC processing machine

Automated CNC processing machine

Standardized tooling equipment can also place a size constraint on each panel and will constrain the spacing between boards. Once you’ve planned out your panel arrangement, you’ll need to account for separation processes and include space for separation tools between your boards. The exact tooling process that is used for your board depends primarily on its thickness and the substrate material.

If you’re working with very thin boards that can’t withstand a large amount of mechanical stress, a laser cutter or a router bit with a CNC machine can be used to easily cut out each panel. When the panels are very thin and wide, router bits generally operate slower to reduce stress near the center of the board, which can actually decrease throughput.

As boards get thicker or a sturdier material is used for the substrate, manual or automated cutting processes with saws can be used to separate boards from a panel. One popular method is to place V-shaped grooves around each board in a panel, and a saw that resembles a pizza-slicer can be used to separate boards by cutting along these grooves.

No matter which method will be used to separate your board, you’ll need a PCB design software package that allows you to easily place fiducial markers and provide space for tooling in your board. It is best to contact your manufacturer when drawing up your panelization scheme in order to verify how boards will be separated and the clearances required on the panel.

Panelizing with Your ECAD Software

Some software packages separate your CAD, panelization, manufacturer deliverable, and design verification tools into different programs or modules. This forces you to design your board in one program, panelize in another program, and then define fiducial markers and tooling specifications in your design program. Talk about a waste of time...

When your design software is separate from your bill of materials and panelization features, you lose time switching between programs. Moving your design between programs leaves open the possibility of errors as your layout is imported into your panelization software. Worse yet, you might even have to draw your panels out manually, leaving ambiguity in panel orientation if you do not include the correct details.

If you are working with curved boards or you want to place different boards in the same panel, drawing and optimizing your panels manually takes even more time. Passing data between a panelization utility and your PCB software leaves you prone to incompatibility errors and wastes time. Instead, you need a PCB design package with these tools built-in. Your panelization design tool should allow you to specify how your boards are arranged and separated by your fabricator.

Finished green PCBs arranged in rows

Arrange your panelized PCBs when done and bask in the satisfaction

The only PCB design software package that integrates design, manufacturer deliverable generation, simulation, and supply chain management tools in a single package is Altium Designer®. You’ll be able to panelize your boards, including boards with odd or curved shapes, using built-in tools. Moving through the entire production process is painless when you use the best PCB design software.

Talk to an Altium expert today to learn more about Altium Designer and its deliverable generation features.

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