Martin CottonOur retiring columnist reflects on five decades in the PCB industry.

The importance of the PCB as a highly technical component in advanced electronic products is often underestimated. In terms of sheer cubic volume, it’s usually the largest single component in the bill of materials (BoM).

On the other hand, we should acknowledge the PCB is an assembly comprising various sub-components and materials. All have an associated environmental impact, so we need to know their composition. Doing this for every board could take enormous resources, but the IPC-1782 traceability specification has now arrived to help the industry deal with this efficiently. It creates a standardized framework for providing the appropriate information to meet the needs of sectors like medical, telecom, aerospace or automotive. It’s a fairly new standard, about two years old, but companies should start to consider bringing it into systems such as ERP.

Tight control over the supply chain is, of course, vital to keep out noncompliant or untraceable materials. Owning the entire supply chain from end-to-end is arguably the most effective way to ensure the provenance of all materials and parts. There’s more to the puzzle, however. Over a half-century in this industry, I’ve seen just how widely the quality of the design and engineering applied to circuit boards can vary. At its best, the PCB can be a finely engineered piece. Its role is predominantly mechanical, but, of course, major electrical effects largely arise from the interactions between each of the constituent parts. In my experience, RF and radar boards often exhibit the greatest attention to detail, often close to perfection, with finely optimized surface finish and trace edges.

The teams responsible for these boards clearly understand PCB design very well, and the low-volume, high-value nature of the boards is well suited to manual optimization. Engineers designing boards for fast-moving, high-volume products may have less time, or less experience, and can struggle to achieve the best performance. In this situation, it’s easy to become over-reliant on CAD tools, but this, too, can be a fast route to an inferior result. If left to call the shots, software can produce inconsistent results. Handling fan-outs, or preventing slivers of unconnected metal, are two examples that spring to mind, where some tools can come up with a different solution each time. The only answer is for the designer to take control and apply human expertise to ensure the board will behave as expected in every way.

Getting the board design spot-on can be even more important when seeking high performance from a high-volume product – as with the latest smartphones. Designing to meet minimum tolerances can be acceptable when only a few boards are being made, but if thousands or millions are to be produced, then tuning
the design to ensure the characteristics are well within limits is mandatory. I’ve seen a lot of cases where designers don’t want to accept this and are keen to offload the project to the fabricator as soon as possible. I said in my previous column there is not enough dialogue between designers and fabricators. It’s a diminishing problem, although the old notion of “throwing the design over the wall” to the PCB shop remains surprisingly common. The higher the value of the program, the more important it is for designer and fabricator to understand each other and be sure the board is both properly designed and properly made.

This is easy to talk about, but deep design expertise can be hard to find, given the pressures within the industry today. The demise of large OEMs over the past few generations has taken away many of the industry’s PCB gurus and blue-sky thinkers. No one has time to try things purely to see if they work, yet doing so is necessary to understand the way forward. Things are done a little differently in China, where Ventec has its headquarters. The experience that comes with age wins a great deal of respect.  I’ve benefited from this personally, having joined Ventec in my mid-fifties – an age where finding a new position with a typical Western company might be more difficult.

Those of us who still retain our energy and drive to make things better can apply the wisdom that comes with our years effectively. I’m grateful to Ventec for giving me the opportunity to show that, and I hope I’ve given good value in the time I’ve been with the company.

By now, you may have detected a valedictory tone to this column. Indeed, it will be my last, as I’m retiring from Ventec and from the PCB business. After my 50-plus years in the industry, I’m looking forward to spending more time with my family, and traveling in a more leisurely style, having been flying mostly long-haul every couple of weeks or so for the past 10 years. And I’m planning to spend some time developing a few patents I own in the RFID field. I’ve still got a head full of ideas and the energy to get them out there. It’s important to stay engaged.

I hope you’ve enjoyed reading this column over the past few months, and I hope I’ve managed to share my enthusiasm for design and ingenuity, and the value of engineering experience, as we all keep pushing to overcome the technical barriers we face. At the substrate level, where Ventec concentrates its attention, the solutions lie in the materials, as well as how they are combined and applied. The way forward is to work together.

Ed.: On behalf of UP Media and the industry, we thank Martin for his decades of selfless dedication to advancing the PCB industry and wish him the best in his “retirement.”

Martin Cotton is director OEM projects at Ventec International Group (; This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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