A three-generation legend in PCBs

March 6th, 2017, Published in Articles: EE Publishers, Articles: EngineerIT


In 1956, when HG Verheul manufactured the first printed circuit boards (PCBs) in South Africa, little could he have imagined that 60 years later the company would have grown to a multi-million rand manufacturer run by his three sons; at one time employing over 100 staff. Now it is nearly time to hand over to the third generation – and it is still a family-owned and -run business.

Peter Verheul with the fully automated flying probe PCB tester.

Verheul named the company Bosco, after Saint John Bosco, a 19th century Italian Roman Catholic priest, educator and writer, popularly known as Don Bosco. While working in Turin, where the population suffered many of the effects of industrialisation and urbanisation, Saint John dedicated his life to the betterment and education of disadvantaged youth. Today the company supports three local children’s institutions, Forest Town School Foundation, Little Eden and Girls’ and Boys’ Town.

In 1978 Peter Verheul joined his father and took over the running of the company. His other brothers joined a few years later. They had five employees at the time. He said that during the mid-1970s there were many companies manufacturing PCBs, and as some of them closed shop, Bosco was able to absorb market requirements. Although the company did not really have the capacity, everyone just worked longer hours and weekends to satisfy the market.

In the 1950s and early 1960s PCBs were designed by hand, tracks were laid out using self-adhesive tape and then the unwanted copper edged away in an acid bath. The picture at Bosco looks very different today with its highly automated processes.

The company uses direct laser printing instead of film to expose the image on the boards. To print legends an inkjet machine is used – doing away with troublesome photographic and screening processes. Not only are these methods faster, they are also more efficient and accurate. The inkjet printer allows for identification of each board as well as adding a barcode should customers require this.

The big change in technology came in 2002 when the Chinese entered the PCB market offering products at lower prices and faster turnaround times, affecting the local PCB industry. Verheul said that on the one hand it spurred them on to automate as many processes as possible, but it also had a negative impact on labour relations. With automation, less people were required and the company went through a difficult and disruptive few years with labour issues. They had to supplement the local manufacture with Chinese imports to look after customers.

He said that one does not simply pick the first available or cheapest Chinese manufacturer. They had to go through a rigorous process to assess their ability to manufacture to standards for which the company had become well respected. The Chinese partner has been supplying them since 1998 and the quality is consistently good. Today the Bosco workforce is around 56 and the company supplies from both local and imported manufacture.

Bosco manufactures only double-sided boards: not because it can’t do multi-layer boards – there is just no volume market in South Africa to support too many manufacturers. It simply does not warrant the investment. The company has to remain competitive, supply good quality and have quick turnaround times. Fast turnaround is of particular importance for customers who do prototyping.

According to Verheul, new technology in PCB manufacture is mainly driven by the complexity in the design of equipment, with the trend more and more to surface mount technology which will result in higher component density boards, with more and smaller component pads. He said this will dictate when companies like Bosco will upgrade to newer equipment that can produce boards to meet these new requirements. The expertise and experience is there but much will depend on volumes in the market.

Verheul said the company has to grow with the technology and provide what customers want. Recently they installed a new fully automated flying probe tester to supplement an older semi-automatic tester, and also use jig testing for smaller batches. Statistical process control is carried out through the manufacturing process. This is done to look for problems during the manufacture which greatly reduces the risk of rejection of an entire batch when doing final testing. By testing and recording results throughout the manufacturing process the company can pick up trends and take corrective action where required.

Verheul believes in continuous training which is done in-house. He said it is very important to ensure the manufacturing processes are well documented, clearly setting out every step in the manufacturing process. It is somewhat ironic that it was one of their customers who suggested they apply for ISO9001. The company had in fact gone through all the steps without even considering this standard.

ISO 9001 is one of the standards in the ISO9000 range. Meeting the requirements of this standard provides quality management systems that will be of real benefit to a company to help manage the business effectively and put in place best practice methodology. ISO9001 certification gives an organisation the quality systems that will provide the foundation to ensure better customer satisfaction, staff motivated and continued improvement. Verheul said that when the company looked into the process it appeared that it had already gone through all the steps required for ISO9001, so the process was easy and painless. An ISO 9001 certificate is not a once-and-for-all award, but must be renewed at regular intervals as recommended by the certification body, usually once every three years.

Third generation family members have now joined the company and are being trained for the continuation of the company as a leading PCB manufacturer in South Africa for a long time to come.