Most of our customers think that printed circuit boards (PCBs) are boring materials. When they think of PCBs, they imagine big machines into which fiberglass and copper are poured and from it out pops a shiny 10-layer PCB, customised to their needs. If this is the case, why do we need to manufacture in China? If automation is automation, then we might as well build them here.

The short answer is that your lowly, ubiquitous, uninteresting 10-layer board required about 25 separate steps to produce. Those steps cut across multiple technologies and skill sets.

Let me give you a quick peek behind the curtain. Your received computer-aided design (CAD) files are cleaned up and made usable by our computer-aided manufacturing (CAM) department who sends them to the film department. The film department takes a sheet of copper laminated onto fiberglass and coats the fiberglass with a photosensitive material. With ultraviolet (UV) light exposure and contact printing technology, the layers are one at a time, to the copper. Okay, now even I am bored....

Here is the short list of the steps/skills/technologies involved: CAD; CAM; silver film processing; UV imaging; etching; stacking and laminating; computer numerical control (CNC); drilling; copper plating; more etching; soldermask coating; legend printing; nickel/gold coating; CNC routing; and testing.

The list of required skills is even more daunting: computer; chemistry; CNC operation; skilled technicians to etch, process silver film, plate copper, nickel and gold, apply UV image, apply soldermask, and final test; IPC-certified inspectors; a patient boss… And oh, I left off knowledge of waste treatment and Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) rules regarding disposal of hazardous chemicals. I skipped about ten minor steps to avoid further boredom. However, what I described involved nine separate skill sets and discrete technologies. Further, and this is no small matter, these cannot all be processed in the same room.

So, it is quite true that the better shops are highly automated. The bigger truth and the answer to the first question is, no one has figured out how to mash all of this into one long machine. At least not yet.

The United States now has only about 165 fab shops, down from 3,500 just 15 years ago. Asian factories now dominate, and China is in the lead. They just did what they do best: bring low cost labour, low cost materials, easier regulations, and smart manufacturing thinking to this very convoluted, wildly diverse set of technologies.

I gave up manufacturing domestically three years ago. We decided to put pride aside and service our customers from this installed capacity in Asia. Our customers, above all, desperately wanted (read needed) to lower costs. So, from our China factories, we can now bring them improved margins, a better ability to compete in their markets, and incidentally keep their American workers productive. For now, it is the best solution.

Thomas Smiley is founder and president of Precision PCBS.