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All the Moving Parts Involved in the PCB Supply Chain: What You Need to Know

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Printed circuit boards (PCBs) remain a vital technology, single handed facilitating so much of what we expect from the modern world in terms of transport, communication, education, healthcare and everything in between.

As you’d expect, there are many aspects of the supply chain that eventually leads to PCB production, and of course this creates challenges from a management perspective.

To get a sense of just how intricate this is, let’s go over the main elements involved and talk through some of the challenges that come along with each.

Bare Board Materials

A circuit board is a sandwich of several materials, and the production process is intriguing in its own right.

While designs can differ, typically there’s a non-conductive composite underpinning which gives the board its strength and rigidity, with a layer of copper handling the electrical signals and sending them between the different components.

A solder mask sits on the copper to keep it free from atmospheric interference, and silk screening occurs at the end to add information which is useful for both manufacturing and maintenance purposes.

There’s also an important role played by conformal coating in PCBs, with organizations providing Parylene coating services to further improve the resilience and reliability of the finished product.

As you can tell, the bare board materials therefore require a distinct supply chain setup, which encompasses a cavalcade of materials sourced from around the globe, in addition to chemicals which are then processed and applied in sequence.

Sticking Points

The real obstacle here from a supply chain perspective is taking into account the scale of the production run, because of course it’s harder to guarantee availability of so many different resources for larger operations that are anticipated to run for years and result in millions of units being made.

We’ve seen this apply in the case of the ongoing chip shortage, which has hurt industries including gaming and the automotive sector.

Conversely if you’re only producing one or two PCBs for a unique use case, or a smaller production run of specialized equipment, the pressures of the supply chain are less relevant.

Another moving part worth mentioning now is that of raw material availability more generally. PCBs are increasingly reliant on resources and components which are either in finite supply, or go through sporadic cycles of being available depending on many regional and global factors.

This exacerbates the long term planning process, but again it’s mainly larger scale operations which are unbalanced by this.

Board Components

It’s a common feature of the PCB production process that the components which are attached to the bare board are not manufactured on-site, but are instead procured from other manufacturers that have more specialized product line-ups.

For example, there are only a handful of companies which create chipsets, data storage and memory, which is why you’ll find the same names on hardware that serves many different purposes.

Thus PCB brands are beholden not only to their own supply chain for raw materials, but also to the setups and strategies adopted by other organizations.

This is where even small-scale PCB runs can be upended by hold-ups elsewhere, and the relative monopoly that exists over the most integral components becomes a burden rather than a blessing.

Tooling

Combining bare boards with the components that sit on them involves specific tooling to help align components and catalyze the application of solder and other materials needed to build up the product as it moves along the line.

As with many other areas of manufacturing, tooling has steep up-front costs, hence why it’s often better to re-use existing tooling rather than creating something from scratch.

The supply chain here is more contingent on simpler materials like solder, and consumables such as cleaning products which are put to work to ensure each PCB is properly prepped post-manufacture.

Packaging

Before PCBs can be shipped out, they need to be packaged if they are to be sold as-is, or added to an enclosure where relevant so that they can be put to work in whatever context is required.

For standalone PCB products, packaging is one of the less strenuous and complex parts of the supply chain, since the materials used here are consistent across many other product lines. Enclosure materials are more of a bespoke concern, yet not one that’s as susceptible to disruption as you might think.

Wrapping up

In a sense, PCB production is the starting point on the supply chain for all sorts of other areas of manufacturing, which is why the shortages in the past couple of years have had such a profound effect.

Supply chain management and planning in this arena is a process which always involves looking forward, and it’s this foresight from which every organization can take valuable lessons.

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Supply Chain Management (SCM) is the design, planning, execution, control, and monitoring of Supply Chain activities. It also captures the management of the flow of goods and services.

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About Shane Avron

Shane Avron is a freelance writer, specializing in business, general management, enterprise software, and digital technologies. In addition to Flevy, Shane's articles have appeared in Huffington Post, Forbes Magazine, among other business journals.




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