PCB industry dwindling, but has major potential

March 1st, 2019, Published in Articles: EngineerIT, Featured: EE Publishers

Eighteen years ago, the printed circuit board (PCB) manufacturing industry in South Africa had five large and a dozen or so small PCB manufacturing plants. Today, it has dwindled to two large manufacturers and a hand full of smaller companies.

With that reduction, a large number of job opportunities were lost and also the ability for South Africa to produce PCBs at prices offered by large manufacturers elsewhere in the world. Yet despite this negativity, South Africa still has the expertise to compete on a technical level with the best in the world and, with the right support, has the potential for growth.

Peter Verheul of Bosco Printed Circuits, a family business in Gauteng, said that 18 years ago the company operated three shifts, six days per week, producing around 3500 – 4 000 m2 per month. Today, the company produces a meagre fraction of their earlier production output, with 85% of production being small runs which collectively consume considerably more set-up times, implying less actual active production machine time and much worse utilisation of machine capacity, and therefor increased cost that needs to spread over less items produced. Verheul said that not having manufacturing facilities operating on a continual basis has had a major knock-on effect on pricing. “Working shifts and a continual output minimises shut downs and start-up costs. Today we endure repeated start-ups which have become a major cost factor and creates high electricity demand which further inflates cost.”

Fig. 1: Fully automated (load and unload) CNC drilling at Bosco.

Annually, South Africa produces the same number of PCBs as China manufactures in a few days. Because of their large volume, they are also able to procure raw materials at much lower cost than their South African counterparts.

By not introducing import tariffs for manufactured PCB, Government is doing little to assist while just talking about the importance of expanding the electronics industry. This is a general cry from the electronics manufacturing industry which must compete with duty free Chinese imports while they have to pay import duty on some of the components. On the other side, the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) believes that the industry is fragmented and not represented by a strong industry body. Several years ago, the DTI tried its hand at setting up an industry body but the efforts failed due to sectors of the industry pulling in different directions.

To some extent, the change from the Association of Distributors and manufacturers of Electronic Components (ADEC) to the Association for Representatives for the Electronics Industry (AREI) was an attempt to unite the industry but the success is not at the level of what was expected. The prime objective of AREI is to contribute to the creation of an environment which encourages a dynamic growth of the electronic manufacturing industry, at both component and system level.

Fast pace of technology

Advancement in technology has resulted in more compact PCB designs where multiplayer PCB technology becomes mandatory, necessitating constant substantial investment in new equipment. “While Bosco is primarily a single- and double-layer PCB manufacturing plant, we are not ignoring this development and are already taking steps with procurement of new equipment taking this development into account,” Verheul said.

On the other hand, Trax Interconnect in Cape Town is operating more in a niche market concentrating on complex multilayer boards for the radio frequency (RF) and aerospace industries.

The company made history two years ago with the production of a 16-layer board, designed for the upgrade of the electronics of the ATLAS detector at the European Organisation for Nuclear Research (CERN). This was the most complex PCB ever manufactured in South Africa.

“To manufacture such a complex printed circuit board was a major challenge”, said Daniel Dock, MD of Trax Interconnect. The first challenge was that we had to work with materials that were completely unknown to us. We did not know how they would behave through the manufacturing processes. The material was also very expensive which meant we couldn’t just run test after test. Secondly the track width gap level, in the order of 76 micron track with a 75 micron gap, was never attempted in our factory or in South Africa before.”

A 16-layer board like the one for the ATLAS detector has seven inner cores that have to be sandwiched together. The big headache is that each layer has to line up and reference to each other. As these board go through the manufacturing process, the layers would stretch and shrink in different directions. So as the boards go through the process and they may shrink by 20 microns, during the next process it may have moved in a different way. Then all the layers have to be lined up so that when the holes are drilled it hits every little pad that has to be connected, missing other tracks but making the required connection.

“Manufacturing a board like this is stretching the process and the people to the absolute limits. The tolerances are so tight that the slightest deviation will mean when drilling, a pad can be missed or a track damaged. When a batch fails, the process of finding out why starts in an effort not to repeat the problem with the next batch. It is essential to determine what went wrong and how to compensate to overcome it with next batch. Many a time we jumped into the car and drove to Somerset West to have the boards x-rayed. Our own X-ray machines could not handle the tight tolerances. We had several batches of boards scanned using computed tomography (CT) to look between the various layers to isolate the problems and make adjustments to the process. We gained a lot of experience and paved the way to work with sectors like the Square Kilometre Array (SKA). We manufactured several boards for the Meerkat radio telescope, the precursor to the SKA, and look forward becoming involved when the greater SKA project takes off.”

Fig. 2: Trax Interconnect PCB operative inspecting inner layer core prior to inner layer punching and multi layer bonding.

An interesting development is in the satellite industry, where the focus is on launching a swarm of satellites that will be interconnected. For Trax to deliver in this space, their processes will have to be space qualified. “To this extent the company has already met with the local space industry. We are ready for the challenge”, Dock said.

“We are privileged to have received a grant from the aerospace industry to develop a via resin filling capability. Filling via holes with resin has many advantages, one of the most important is the ability to place via holes in surface-mount technology (SMT) component pads. This then opens up a whole range of possibilities for designers. We have already ordered the equipment which is expected to arrive in July this year.”

Both Verheul and Dock agreed that PCB manufacturers need volume orders. However, we cannot support prototype developments if the follow-up bulk orders are placed overseas. “We need those follow up orders to become more competitive with overseas suppliers,” Verheul said.

In a tender for smart meters, Eskom recently specified that the PCB had to be manufactured locally. But as the local price could not meet the Chinese manufacturers’, the industry approached PCB manufacturers to confirm that they could not comply. It all comes down to the price at which companies can supply from local manufacture. The local price of manufacturing is too high! It will be interesting to see how Eskom responds.

Brent Andreka, MD of Radio Data Communications (RDC), has another take on this. He said: “We are prepared to pay a reasonable premium to support our local guys. Our PCB cost will go up marginally but we achieve other benefits such as freeing up cashflow by doing away with advance shipments from China and it is easier to work with the local guys on product refinements and changes. No delays due to communication barriers. For me the best advantage is the feeling of satisfaction, knowing that we are no longer bemoaning our economy. We are part of the solution.”

If more companies followed RDC’s example, the whole electronics industry will benefit. We have all the expertise, we just need more support to grow volume, and lower price will follow. It is always the chicken and egg situation.

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