Printed circuit boards (PCBs) are made of non-conductive substrates coated in conductive laminate copper sheets. The copper serves as the base material from which pathways connecting electronic components are carved, and the non-conductive substrate anchors the whole device. As a unit, a PCB board is relatively tough and can withstand a fair amount of handling. Because it can support a range of electrical components and layouts, it’s found at the heart of numerous technological products, including computers.
Because of the complex systems PCBs ultimately manage and serve, they have to be carefully built and tested. Part of this process includes the manufacture of a PCB prototype—a model that can be tested as a stand-in for the eventual product—that is used to look for design, mechanical, and electrical flaws. Although PCB prototypes are used in testing, there are differences in the way they are manufactured, the purposes they serve, and the materials used.
Plastic PCB Prototyping Techniques
Many industrial manufacturers include prototyping machines as part of their production line, but before a prototyping machine can be incorporated it’s critical to examine the process and what kind of material best suits an application. Several different materials and processes are available for PCB prototyping. Plastic is a commonly used material because it is easily cut and manipulated in ways the prototyping process demands.
When plastic is used, the prototyping process can employ rapid prototyping processes. Rapid prototyping processes create individual parts based on a computer generated model, and then layer each part to produce the final component. Common techniques include stereolithography, deposition modeling, laser sintering, and three dimensional printing.
Rapid prototyping is beneficial to manufacturers because it generates a prototype printed circuit board in a short amount of time, enabling the production process to progress at a fast pace. Once the plastic prototype is created, it can then be used to test for strength, durability, and aesthetics, and can also withstand drop testing and sterilization. Because rapid prototyping means a new model can be made quickly, any changes to the prototype can be reincorporated into the design and a new prototype can be generated.
Although plastic prototyping starts off as a cost effective option, production costs may increase with each set of improvements to the new model. In some cases, metal molds can be used with rapid injection molding, which can create sturdy plastic components from an array of resins. The parts themselves can withstand the same kind of testing as a rapid prototyping formed component.
PCB Prototyping Machine Factors PCB prototyping machines are especially useful when a large number of PCBs need to be manufactured. By making several copies of the final prototype using a PCB milling machine, the prototypes can be checked for design accuracy before the actual PCB production run is started.
PCB milling machines don’t use any chemicals, rather create prototypes using a subtractive method to etch and remove material, in effect carving out the circuit board. All aspects of formation, such as milling and routing, can be handled by a highly mechanical PCB prototyping machine. To ensure that the process is carried out properly, an operator oversees software programming and cutting device movement. Once one PCB board is formed, the machine can be set to repeat the prototype as many times as desired.