A few weeks back, I was having a chat with a national PCB broker who has a unique and broad perspective of the printed circuit board and electronics industry. We were waxing nostalgic about the “old days” and philosophizing about the days to come.
When she asked about our company, Transline Technology, I told her that we manufacture a wide variety of boards, but that our strength and focus lay in RF and microwave products, which account for about 60% of our business. I was bragging about our work and our customer base when she abruptly interrupted, “You know, Judy, not all board suppliers who say they can make RF boards really can.”
I was caught off guard and asked her to elaborate. She recounted several horror stories whereby she had placed RF/MW PCB orders for her customers and the suppliers failed, in one form or another, leaving her embarrassed and in search of a more qualified supplier.
This puzzled me. Although I have been in this industry for over 17 years, only this past year has involved RF/MW PCBs. Transline is a relatively small shop, and we are very successful with RF, so I assumed most others were as well. I wondered why, in some cases, much larger, far more well-recognized suppliers were failing? I tucked this question away for later consideration.
A week or so later, I was talking to the owner of a RF/MW design firm, a new prospect, who tends to take on very complex RF boards. It was like déjà vu. I was bragging … then interrupted … and the tales of woe poured out like an overdue confession on Sunday morning. This time I dug deeper. By the end of the conversation I had a new friend and customer.
Same week … different RF engineer … same story. Déjà vu, squared.
By the end, of these exchanges I was left with this conclusion: Not all PCB suppliers that say they can build RF/MW PCBs can!
So what makes RF/MW boards uniquely challenging to build? Why do some otherwise excellent board suppliers, have trouble with RF/MW PCBs?
I sat down with the owners of Transline, Larry Padmani and Chris Savalia, and asked them to share some of the inherent challenges in manufacturing RF/MW PCBs. They looked at me with cocked heads and compassionate smiles, as if a wee toddler just stumbled into their offices and asked them where babies come from. Clearly, these were loaded questions.
Their patient answers came and I soon experienced the proverbial sensation of “drinking from a fire hose.” It soon became clear that the answers were many and complex. I soon understood that there existed a chasm between most RF/MW engineers and their board suppliers that sorely need to be filled. It was then, I decided, I wanted to somehow help fill this gap … for a couple of reasons. Altruistically, I wanted to spare RF/MW engineers from needless suffering, before they found a well qualified PCB supplier. More selfishly, I knew if I could adequately inform the RF/MW community, they could more easily discern between a qualified and non-qualified supplier — and I knew it would become clear which camp we fall into.
So, I decided I would write an article for one of the trade magazines.(I may not be able to do complex RF calculations … but I can write!) I began by putting out questions to the RF/Microwave professionals via LinkedIn, asking what they would specifically like to know about RF/MW PCB manufacturing. There came a small flood of questions that continue to flow. I felt suddenly naïve and ill-equipped for the job!
Then two small miracles happened. I met a colleague who spent most of his career working for Rogers and Taconic on a nationwide scale. He offered his help in educating me on material properties and helping understand both the engineering issues and manufacturing challenges. His help, along with patient tutelage of owners of Transline, promise to bring me up to speed.
The second miracle was meeting Pat Hindle from Microwave Journal, who was commenting amidst the mix of my brewing discussions on LinkedIn. He pointed me to helpful resources and, he astutely observed, that this topic may be too broad for one article. In the weeks ahead I will take on the challenge of addressing the broad range of questions and issues surrounding RF/MW PCBs one-by-one. I know I will learn much, and hope to teach a little and help bridge the gap between RF/MW engineers and board manufacturers.
Keep the questions coming, both here and on the LinkedIn RF and Microwave community. I will do my best to address each one!
Ed.: Judy Warner is director of sales and marketing for Transline Technology, Inc., in Anaheim, CA. She has been in the printed circuit board industry for nearly two decades. Her career began with Details, Inc. (later to become DDi). She was a top-producing sales professional for 10 years for Electroetch Circuits (later to become Tyco, then TTM). She also spent several years as an independent sales representative, including time as the owner of her own rep firm, Outsource Solutions.