What changes in board level-assembly made the biggest impact in 2013?

Gijs Werner, Strategic Marketing Manager, TE Industrial

Machine assembly technology for all size orders (especially small sizes) and related advances in stencil printing capability significantly impacted board level assembly in 2013. 

The auto assembly field has benefited tremendously from this progress. A major driver for these auto assembly changes came from advances in board packaging from active components like semiconductors — which we know have decreased in size significantly over the years, and which are being applied extensively now — meaning board packaging became smaller  and required advances in auto-processing.

Furthermore, advances in stencil printing capability allowed for smaller packages to be properly processed. With these developments process engineering became more important at the design stages, so a bit earlier than normal, which yielded great results.

From the beginning, auto assembly was aimed at high-volume production. However major advances have been made in efficient machines being able to handle low-volume production, which represents the majority of the high-mix, low-volume Industrial Market. 

This has thus uncapped significant potential for second and third-tier OEMs who wanted to keep up with cost reductions, Time to Market, and higher density parts that are more accurate. This is supported by data from showing a steady increase in small runs and higher demand for smaller quantities in PCB assembly. Furthermore, auto assembly is now extensively being used for prototypes and very low-volume pcbs, which is essential to win in current business environment.

So products and parts are getting smaller and more efficient, which is maximizing the potential of today’s OEMs and their ability to develop more sophisticated boards. By extension, this improves margins in the Industrial market. This can be attributed in large part to improvements in the manufacturing process, which has improved quality, reduced production costs and, by extension, improved the playing field and position for many smaller firms in the industrial world.

Cliff Ortmeyer, Technical Marketing Manager, Newark element14

I believe one of the major advances made in the realm of board level assembly in 2013 has been in the promotion and accessibility of PCB assembly services available to the lower order tier segment. For instance, many of us started making through-hole boards using blank copper boards with some etching solution and drilling our own holes. From there we progressed to surface mount components and the world of 0603 capacitors and resistors. As the packages have become smaller and leadless, the ability to spin our own boards has been increasingly more difficult and expensive.

On the other hand, I have seen more schematic/layout packages incorporate features that make the board fabrication and assembly processes more streamlined. As many of these packages are low or no cost, this has once again opened up the market for makers, hobbyists or engineers to begin making boards again on an individual basis. 

The remaining hurdle has been cost and ease of fabrication and assembly. Many assembly houses now have lines dedicated to one-off or low-volume assembly. As a result, the cost of these services has come down to where the market for assembled boards has opened up dramatically. As such, designers interested in making their own boards or putting them out to market has been opened up — specifically in the last year — by crowdfunding sites. There, users can post their ideas, get others to join in and help fund the assembly, and in turn, get circuits that are not currently available from any of the mainstream board/ development kit sources. Even semiconductor suppliers have begun promoting the self-made design and assembled boards. For instance, and initiative by Texas Instruments termed Build Your Own BoosterPack encourages people to submit their design ideas and make their own assembled boards. They have even gone as far as to partner with element14 ( and other suppliers to showcase a step by step process where users can discuss their ideas, get their designs costed out, generate crowd sourced funding, and get boards built — spreading the cost out among a group. This model seems to have legs judging by the number of designs and web-based outlets that have grown over the last year.

Valerie Rothermel-Nelson, Honeywell Sensing and Control

One trend that has gained traction among OEM manufacturers in medical and industrial manufacturing sectors is the use of pre-integrated sensor solutions that provide a cost-effective alternative to conventional discrete designs. A pre-integrated sensor package may combine one or more sensors, as well as the needed signal processing and intelligence, into a single package with options for a wide range of inputs and outputs, package size and shape, power options, etc. Pre-integration can provide a variety of benefits, including accelerated certification of medical equipment, industrial controls and other mission-critical products. Similar savings can be realized for product upgrades or new designs which use the same sensor elements.

Another important aspect of providing integrated, value-added assemblies is the ability to provide ongoing technical support to help ensure that new and updated designs can be brought to the market quickly. When standard products are not available, value-added engineers can collaborate with the manufacturer’s design engineers to create a custom solution.  

Working closely with a component suppliers’ technical support helps design engineers navigate the oftentimes complex selection processes more easily, giving them more control over timing and the overall design. As an expert in the sensors field, the component supplier can offer specialized packaging and assembly expertise to meet stringent requirements and standards more easily than a manufacturer might be able to do. This approach also enables increased vendor rationalization by eliminating the need for extraneous sub-contractors.

Design engineers should work closely with component experts to simplify manufacturing and test requirements, streamline material logistics, and enable supply chain rationalization which can dramatically reduce total solution costs for their board level assembly product development projects.