What is Personal Manufacturing?

There’s a lot of buzz floating around these days, about “Personal Manufacturing.” Screaming Circuits has more than a decade of bringing personal manufacturing to engineers. We pretty much started the category in the electronics industry, so we’re quite familiar – but not everyone knows what personal manufacturing is. I’ll do my best to describe it, and what it can do for you.

The short answer, is that personal manufacturing is building your boards on your terms, not on the terms of some nameless, faceless factory.

The longer answer is probably more useful.

Traditional manufacturing is all about statistics and fractions of a penny. Those factors are important; especially if you’re manufacturing millions. But, when you just need a few boards, or a few hundred boards, those factors can make your job nearly impossible.

With personal manufacturing you can decide when you want or need assembled boards on your workbench. You won’t need to beg for time on a busy volume manufacturing line. In the case of Screaming Circuits, it’s cloud-based manufacturing so you can order online from your desktop, when you’re ready, rather than waiting for someone to pick up a telephone.

With personal manufacturing; you design it, get some prototypes, make a few mods, lather, rinse, repeat. Then, you’ll get a few dozen, few hundred, or few thousand, and start selling. You’ll get what your budget allows and don’t need to commit to minimum volumes, or long-term business. You can polish your design faster, with less hassle, and you can get to market faster, with less hassle. Faster to market and less hassle both mean more time and money for you.

NPI (new product introduction) has never been easier than it is with personal manufacturing. Years ago, I was a product manager at a start-up. The entire NPI process was a nightmare. Our engineers couldn’t get anything built without half a dozen support staff. Someone had to make the documentation usable. Someone had to hunt down sample quantities of parts. Someone had to make sure the board would fit on the volume manufacturers’ assembly line. It went on and on like that, taking up months of the design cycle. We were at the mercy or people who only cared about making their part of the process easier.

Rather than producing the quality product we wanted, our new products would be shipped to customers with mod wires. I recall one board that needed 64 mod operations before it could be shipped. Yes, that was on a released, shipping product.

With personal manufacturing, as Screaming Circuits provides, you can get a few prototypes built right away. If need be, you can modify, and get a few more built at your convenience. When the mode wires are gone, you can build up a hundred and get them out to customers without delay. It’s not about what works best for Screaming Circuits; it’s about what works best for you.

Duane Benson
Right now a personal pan pizza delivered to my desktop would work for me.


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Manufacturability Index in Practice

My prior blog covered the Screaming Circuits Manufacturability Index. It’s something I’ll be using from time to time when discussing new components I run across. I’ve got a few examples to put the numbers into context.

On the low side of the index, we have:

1: Just about anyone could hand solder the part
Examples: Through-hole parts

The SN7400 quad NAND Gate, shown on the right, is a good example. It’s big, it’s through-hole, and if someone has trouble hand soldering it, they really need a few more classes. fig2

Closer to the other end, is a new chip I’ve run across. The Silego GPAK4 is a small FPGA-like mixed signal device. It’s got a number of analog peripherals, a bank of programmable logic, and the ability to configure it up the way you want. Take a look at it below:


This little thing is housed in a 2mm x 3mm QFN package. That’s pretty tiny by the standards of my giant fumble-fingers. I’ve given it a rating of 4.b, on the Screaming Circuits manufacturability index. The number ranking “4” means: “Needs advanced automated assembly technique“, and the letter suffix “b” means: “Typical level of challenge within the number rank.” In other words, right up our alley.

Unless you posses super-human abilities, and maybe lasers in your eyes, you won’t be hand soldering these. You’ll have them assembled by us (or someone with the same technical capabilities as us), where it will be a standard process.

If you do want to put one or more of these in your design, you will want to make (or find) a custom library footprint for your CAD software. Due to the variable length pads, a standard one-size-pad footprint might lead to solder joint reliability issues.

Duane Benson
The chips go marching one by one, hurrah, hurrah
The chips go marching one by one,
The little one stops to suck her thumb
Just to see if the solder is lead-free


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OrCAD: A Look Back

Here’s something fun for a Friday: EMA has put together a video recap of the past 30 years of products designed with OrCAD, in commemoration of the PCB CAD tool’s 30th anniversary.

(We had one of those Polaroids and the Atari, by the way.)


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OMG and MacDermid? OMG!

Not nearly enough attention is being paid to the pending acquisition of OMG’s electronic chemicals business by MacDermid’s parent company.

This deal will throw even more market share to MacDermid, and the big question becomes how will smaller fabs (i.e., the vast majority of the North American and European markets) handle it? Many of them already use one or the other, and will doubtlessly be affected by the merger. I can’t imagine they are looking forward to this.


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Component Manufacturability Index

Screaming Circuits’ Manufacturability Index Ranks the difficulty of assembling a component. Index is one to five, with one being easiest, and five being the most complex

Sub index: a, b, c

a: Not a challenge within the number rank
b: Typical level of challenge within the number rank
c: Fits in the ranking, but likely needs special process, fixtures or attention

1. Just about anyone could hand-solder the part
Examples: Through-hole parts

2. Surface mount. Should be machine placed, but big enough to hand solder
Examples: 0805 or larger surface mount passives, SOIC packages

3. Pretty much any grade of surface mount equipment can handle this component
Examples: TSSOP or larger, 0.8mm pitch BGAs

4. Needs advanced automated assembly techniques
Examples: 0.4mm pitch BGAs or QFNs, CSP (chip scale package) or WSP (wafer scale package) BGAs, 0201 size passives, Package on Package (POP)

5. More or less R&D at this point. Few companies have or will assemble this part
Examples: 0.3mm pitch micro BGA, 1,700+ ball BGAs, 01005 passives

Just about everything 4b, and below are routinely within Screaming Circuits standard (guaranteed) process. 4c, 5a, 5b, 5c, are becoming more common here. These are special process (falling outside of our guarantee), but we can usually do a good job with them. You’ll need to speak with a manufacturing engineer before placing the order.

Duane Benson
A colossal negative space wedgie of great power coming right at us at warp speed
Readings are off the scale, captain


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Alloy Melting


Richard asks:

Dear Dr. Ron,

Recently we had a solderability problem with tin-finished component leads and SAC305 solder paste.  One of our engineers claimed that the problem was that the tin finish melts at too high a temperature (Tm= 232°C) for the SAC305 solder paste (Tm = 219°C) to melt it.

My understanding is that certainly above 232°C both will melt and form a good solder joint, but even if the temperature was less than 232°C, say 225°C, the tin would melt. Can you explain this phenomenon?


Thanks for this question, which can be interpreted two ways. The first would be that, in a reflow oven at temperatures above the melting point of both metals, the one with higher melting temperature prevents the metal with a lower melting temperature from melting it. This is not true, since both metals would come near to the temperature of the air in the reflow oven and melt.

The other perspective would be that the temperature in the reflow oven is above the melting temperature of SAC 305, but below that of tin. So, how can the tin melt?  To consider this situation let’s say the oven is at 228°C. Will the tin on the lead or pad finish melt? The answer is yes. But, let’s try to understand the phenomenon with gold and tin first.

Metals that have extreme melting point differences often dissolve in each other. As you stated, tin melts at 232°C, whereas gold melts at 1064°C.

This phase diagram can be found here.


Figure 1. The gold tin phase diagram

To make a gold-tin solder, all one has to do is have a bath of tin at some moderate temperature, say 350°C. Insert the gold and the gold will melt and flow into the molten tin. This is true even though the gold melts at 1064°C. This effect can be shown experimentally. A similar phenomenon exists with gold and mercury. Mercury reacts with gold at ambient temperatures. The phenomenon can be used to extract tiny gold particles from soil and is commonly used today in artisanal gold mining. Unfortunately this use of mercury is often toxic to the miners and pollutes the environment.

Considering electronics assembly solders again, let’s assume that some liquid tin-lead solder is heated to 200°C. See Figure 2a. As seen in this figure, a ball of tin at 25°C is held above the molten tin-lead solder. The ball of tin is immersed into the molten tin-lead solder in Figure 2b. The tin-lead solder forms a meniscus around the solid tin. Even at room temperature the tin atoms are vibrating, and as a result, some of these atoms on the tin ball will end up flowing into the tin-lead solder. This action will leave a vacancy in the tin ball that may be filled by a lead atom from the tin-lead solder. In the vicinity of the newly arrived lead atom, the melting temperature of this micro spot of tin-lead alloy will be lowered as tin-lead solder has a melting temperature below that of tin. This process will continue until all of the tin will intermix with the tin-lead solder and flow into it as seen in Figures 2c through 2f.

Figure 2a

Figure 2b

Figure 2c

Figure 2d


Figure 2e


Figure 2f


Dr. Ron

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Mark Those Diodes!

MarcoPOLOLogo5Every now and then, I write about ambiguity with diode marking; like here, here, or here. It’s a pretty important subject to get right, but what does it have to do with Marco Polo, you ask? Well, that depends on whether you’re asking about the person or the game.

In the game, people try to find someone, without sufficient information. One person, designated “Marco” closes their eyes and periodically yells out “Marco.” The other people respond with “Polo”, and the Marco tries to find one of those other people with just the audible cue. For some critters, that’s an easy task, but for the average human it’s not always so easy — especially when the diode doesn’t audibly respond to “Marco.”

If you’re talking about the explorer, Marco Polo; well, he set off on an adventure, got lost, and either saw a bunch of cool stuff, or made up a bunch of cool stuff (depending on whom you ask).

Again, you ask … “What does this have to do with hamburgers in a handbag, or with diodes?”

It has to do with the fact that he didn’t know where he was going, and, that without clear marking, it’s not always possible to know which way to point the diode.

BlackPOLOSo, we’re celebrating Marco Polo month with our Screaming Circuits Marco Diodo Polo shirt.

If you place an order with Screaming Circuits during May, 2015, we’ll send you an email with instructions telling you how to get a free Marco Diodo Polo shirt after your next order (provided the order is placed between May 1, 2015 and on or before June 5, 2015). If you place an order between now and then, and promptly respond to the email, you can get one for free (a shirt. Not an order).

Duane Benson
Fifty-four fourty, or fight!


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CAD Software Pricing Wars Heat Up

Another price/performance battle is heating up in PCB design software, and this time Altium could feel the burn.

Altium has experienced decent growth over the past few years, reaching about $75 million in annual sales. That’s not a huge sum compared to the Big Three of Mentor Graphics, Cadence and Zuken (subsequently referred to as MCZ), but it no doubt is getting the attention of the big boys, given the fairly modest pace of PCB design layout seat growth.

After dropping pricing on its signature Altium Designer tool from $14,000 to about $5,500 in 2008, Altium then raised them more than 30% a year ago this month, with some reports indicating even larger spikes, plus support.

Mentor today fired a big shot across the bow, pricing its newly configured shrink-wrap Pads suite at an entry level  price of $5,000, including a year of support. A mid-range version is priced at $10,000, in line with Designer once support is factored in.

Mentor made its move to target so-called independent users, those who may work for corporations but have the latitude to go outside the enterprise CAD system for their tools. That sector is characterized by engineering generalists who look for lower seat costs and aren’t driven by the particular tool. Will Altium counter move, or will it take a chance that it can wait out its deeper-pocketed competitor, hoping that Mentor lacks the patience to withstand the margin pain?

No matter how this plays out, a company can only grow so large in the shrink-wrap space. Enterprise is where the big bucks come from, and that space is dominated by MCZ. And that next move is Altium’s.




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Wave Soldering is Here to Stay

Patty was just getting ready to leave her office for a bi-weekly luncheon with the Professor, Pete, and Rob. They had regular meetings like this to discuss new technical topics or to review books. It was Patty’s turn to take the lead in discussing the new book, Rust: The Longest War.

As Patty arrived at the faculty dining room, everyone else was already seated. After ordering, she began the discussion.

“I thought that, overall, the book rated 4 out of 5 stars,” Patty stated.

“It had many interesting stories and brought home that fighting rust is the ‘longest war,’” she went on.

“But shouldn’t the book really be called ‘Corrosion’?” Pete interjected.

“I agree. After all, the best story was about the work that was done to refurbish the statue of liberty, and most of that is copper.  By definition, only iron rusts; copper corrodes. We try to be very specific about the differences in our undergraduate materials classes,” Rob chimed in.

“Rob, I remember you telling us that one student wrote a paper that referred to wood corroding,” the Professor said.

At that comment everyone chuckled.

“We can all agree that corrosion is a big challenge to civilization. But, can anyone think of a big downside if iron didn’t rust?” the Professor asked.

Patty, Rob, and Pete looked at each other and then the Professor as they shrugged their shoulders.

“Think biological processes,” the Professor encouraged.

It hit them all at once, but Pete was the first to comment.

Figure 1.  Rust: The Longest War

Figure 1. Rust: The Longest War

“Blood!” he cried out.

“Precisely! Without ‘rust’ we wouldn’t be here.  Iron’s unique ability to combine with oxygen in the hemoglobin of our blood makes ‘rust’ a requirement for human life,” the Professor explained.

None of them recalled seeing this point in the book.

“So, the conclusion is that rust costs the US over $400 billion per year. But, without it we wouldn’t be here,” Pete summarized as he chuckled.

“Patty, I understand that you had to fill in for Professor Croft as he recovers from a broken leg. The course was Everyday Technology as I recall. How did it work out?” the professor asked.

“Well, first of all, Pete agreed to help. And, it was only for the last two weeks of the term.  The final assignment for the students was to perform a teardown analysis on some electronic product, such as a DVD player, blender, hair dryer, etc.  They had to write a report and give a presentation on their findings.  They worked in teams of 2 or 3,” Patty summarized.

“It’s important to remember that the students that take this course are not engineering or science majors.  The course fulfills a technology requirement for non-technical students.  Most of them had never taken anything apart before,” Pete chimed in.

“Hey! Don’t forget that Patty made me sit in on all of the presentations,” Rob added teasingly.

“So, what were your impressions?” the Professor asked.

“I was impressed by how professional their presentations were and what a thorough job they did,” Pete responded.

Their work was especially impressive considering that almost all of them had never done anything like this this before,” Rob added.

“Anything else?” the Professor asked.

“I was surprised that all of the photos that the students took were taken with a smartphone, even macro shots of small components.  I remember photos from smartphones of 6 or 7 years ago were almost unusable. Those that the students took this semester looked high definition to my eyes,” Patty added.

There was a little more discussion and, finally, the Professor had one last question.

“You all had a chance to see many teardowns. How did it impact your understanding of the state of technology?” the Professor asked.

Patty began, “Pete, Rob, and I discussed this topic quite a bit.  We had to admit that the thing that surprised us the most was that, of the 18 devices that the students analyzed, almost all had a wave soldered PCB with through-hole technology.”

“I agree, we noticed that every power supply board was a through-hole wave soldered board.  I think we only saw a PCB or two that was all SMT.  If the boards weren’t pure through hole, they were mixed technology.  Through-hole and wave soldering are here to stay,” Pete added.

Figure 2. A Typical Wave Soldered Through-Hole Power Supply Board

Figure 2. A typical wave-soldered through-hole power supply board.

“We have to consider that most of the devices were lower tech: blenders, toasters, and one hair dryer,” Rob pointed out.

“But, the DVD player struck me the most. It had a mixed technology board in which one side was wave soldered, and a power supply board that was all through hole and wave soldered,” Pete added.

“I think those of us in the electronics assembly field become so enamored with smart phones and other high tech devices that have SMT-only PCBs that we forget that there are billions of lower tech devices that still use wave soldered through-hole boards.  The technology is cheap and it works, so why change?” the Professor summarized.

“So, wave soldering will likely be around for my grandkids!” Patty chuckled.

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Fewer Reports Not in Altium’s Best Interest

Always a company that operates behind a veil of mystique, Altium will take that secrecy to a new level with its latest board decision which pares its quarterly earnings reports to semiannual announcements.

In a statement today, the PCB design software company said the decision came about following an investor roadshow in Sydney and Melbourne in February, where management pitched the notion that the quarterly reports somehow — and I’m reading between the lines here — distorting and negatively affecting the market perception by obscuring the “steady annual growth delivered by Altium” over past years.

“The overwhelming view of the investor community was that Altium has reached a level of maturity that allows it to focus on driving its business and, consistent with market practice, provide full year and half year reporting,” the company said.

OK, then.

The great thing about quarterly reports is that they force a company to be upfront with investors on a regular basis. Dial that back, and investors are going to make decisions based on data that are often less clear. I’ll be surprised if there’s any mass selling, given that many of Altium’s major shareholders are insiders, with current CEO Aram Mirkazemi holding about 9% of the company directly and more than 11% through holding companies, with the board holding more than 20% of the shares overall. But I suspect they will have a more difficult time attracting institutional investors.

Altium has set as a goal $100 million in annual revenue by fiscal 2017. It’s at an annual run rate of about $75 million right now. As companies get bigger, they need to keep in mind that their responsibility to their investors grows as well. We’ve been supporters of Altium’s unconventionality in the past, including the move to Shanghai, which some predicted would be the death-knell of the company. If anything, Altium has been very willing to think out-of-the-box, to its benefit. Reducing its earning reports is an ill-advised decision, however.

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