Where to Put Panel Tabs

Many small quantity PCBs are ordered individually cut. They come to us as a set of unconnected boards. For small quantities of reasonable size boards, it makes the most sense to order them this way. However, for really small boards, and larger quantities (50 or more), purchasing boards in a panel (also called an array) is more appropriate. It reduces errors and assembly time.

There are a few additional factors to consider with panelized boards.

  • First, don’t try to create a panel in your CAD software. Just lay it out as a single board and have the fabricator put it in a panel. You’ll get the most efficient use of PCB space that way, and the fabricator will create the files in the format that the assembly shop (Screaming Circuits) needs.
  • Avoid family panels. A family panel is when several different boards are put onto the same panel. The boards in family panels often repeat reference designators, which causes problems at assembly. See this blog article on how to properly assign reference designators on a family panel.
  • If you have overhanging parts, like the increasingly common micro USB connector, make sure that the panel tabs aren’t placed near the overhanging them.

This blog article gives some background on the connectors.

Some components, such as the connector in the link above, have protrusions that will keep them from laying flat on a panel tab. In all cases, even without the protrusions, the operation of separating the panels with a component on the tab can weaken the component solder joints, or even pop it off the board completely.

How not to do it:

Figure 1

Figure 1

Instead, make sure that the tabs don’t end up under your overhanging component. Have the tab moved like this:

Figure 2

Figure 2

You can put this instruction in the document layer of your CAD file, or in a separate document covering fab instructions. In the CAD image below, the overhanging component has a keepout area. The document layer has instructions to keep panel tabs out of the area.

Figure 3

Figure 3

If in doubt, don’t hesitate to contact us or Sunstone Circuits directly to ensure that your instructions are clearly communicated.

Duane Benson
Wood paneling as a wall covering is really out of style


Electronic Swarms — Overhangs

SCFig1 As I’ve stated many times before, we see many, many different jobs go through our shop. In those jobs, we see some of the absolute newest components and packages; some not yet available to the public; some are so R&D that they never will be available outside of a lab. We see the best of the best in terms of design practices and complexity, and we see many that aren’t so much in that arena.

Given that, it would seem logical that the design problems we see would be pretty much scattered all over the map. By some measures they are, but on a day to day basis, they tend to cluster. For a few months we’ll see a lot of QFN footprint issues. In a different few months, we’ll see a lot of via in pad issues, etc. I don’t know why. It just works that way — problems come in swarms, or storms.

The latest swarm relates to panelized boards and components that stick over the edge of the board. We build things like that all the time. The problem comes in when the panel tabs come out right where the component overhangs. If the component overhangs in the cut out area, it’s usually not a problem. However, if the component is on the connection tabs, we can’t place that part without first depaneling.

SCFig2Probably the most common example is the surface mount USB Micro-B receptacle. It over hangs the board by a small amount, and that overhanging part is actually bent down. If it’s at the tab, it won’t even mount flush. Take a close look at the images along the right. That connector won’t mount as it’s sitting on a tab.

So, what do you do about it?

SCFig3 You can have your boards made as individuals. Although if you want short-run production, or if the boards are really small, that might not be possible or practical. You can also talk to your fab house about it. They may be able to place the tabs in a spot that won’t get in the way of the overhanging part, of they might be able to tell you where the tabs will be, allowing you to keep clear in your layout.

Duane Benson
Anyone ever drink Tab Clear?


Cost Reduction in Design — More Advice

If you’re looking for the absolute, cheapest possible assembly service, you’ll need to look outside of North America. If you really need a decent price with good quality and good service, you can keep your gaze West of the Atlantic and East of the Pacific.

Like everything else in the modern world, design decisions can have a pretty big impact on your cost. So, lets take a look at some design decisions that can make your manufacturing more affordable.

  • Accept longer lead times

Lead times are one of the biggest factors in electronics manufacturing. Screaming Circuits can turn a kitted assembly job overnight, but it costs a lot of money to do that. Screaming Circuits also has a 20 day turn-around that is much, much more affordable. Accepting longer lead times on PCB fab will drop your cost as well.

  • Avoid leadless packages like QFNs and BGAs

We build tons of QFN and BGA boards – even down to 0.3mm pitch micro-BGAs. That’s great if you need those packages. However, since all of the leads are underneath, we have to x-ray every part. That adds a bit of cost to the process. If you can, stick with TSSOPs and other parts with visible leads.

  • Use reels, or 12″ or longer continuous strips

We will gladly assemble parts on strips of almost any size. But, to save costs, use full or partial reels or continuous strips of at least 12″ long. It costs us less time to work with reels and continuous strips, and we pass those saving on.

  • Stick with surface mount

These days, through-hole components tend to be hand-soldered. That costs more than machine assembly, so use surface mount wherever possible. Surface mount components tend to be less expensive than through-hole too. If you do need a few through-hole parts, this is an opportunity to put in a little sweat equity by soldering the through-hole yourself and save a bit of money.

  • Panelize small boards

We can work with really tiny boards individually, but sticking with a larger size makes the job easier, and, again, we’ll pass those saving on. If your PCB is smaller than 16 square inches, panelize it. We put in less labor and you get a price break.

By following these guidelines, you get a decent price and really good quality and service.

Duane Benson
That would be telling


V-Score Panelization

V-score top view

My last post talked a bit about panelization, in general. Today, I’m taking a look at V-score panelization. V-score is created by running a V-shaped blade across the top and bottom of the panel without cutting all the way through. The board in the mini-image of my prior post is V-scored. Shown above is a closeup of the V-scoring.

(Note that the cross-hatched area is not in the active circuit portion of the panel. It’s in the rails. You’d never want to cut through copper like that in part of the board that will be used. Even here, it would be best not to have copper in the path of the v-scoring blade.)

You’ll note that it’s all straight lines. V-score can only separate rectangular panelized boards. For curves, you’ll need to use a different technique.

V-score edge onThe next image down, on the left, shows an edge-on view of the V-score. You can clearly see what I mean by “without cutting all the way through.” The cut leaves enough material to hold the boards solidly together during processing, but easy to separate.

V-score de paneled edgeBy the way, we generally don’t just snap them apart. We’ve got a special tool – a bit like a pizza cutter in a fixture – specifically designed to separate them without stressing or bending the board. If we feel there’s any risk of over-stressing, we’ll use the tool.

The next image, here on the right, shows a board edge after depanelization. Note that it’s not a smooth, flat edge.

In contrast, the next image down, on the right, shows a flat milled edge. Generally, though, you can’t visually tell the difference without close examination. You can, however, feel it if you run your finger lightly along the edge. Just be careful to not get slivers.

Next time, I’ll examine tab-routing, which will permit non-rectangular shapes.

Milled edgeDuane Benson
I saw two Buffalos, two Buffalos,
Buffaloes on my lawn,
Romping all around and stomping on the ground
And all of my grass was gone.

PCB Panel Routing Technique

Most PCBs we receive are individually routed; i.e., not panelized. That doesn’t mean that, sometimes, sending them in a panel isn’t a good idea, or required. Generally, we don’t require panels (sometimes called a pallet), but there are some cases when we do.

V-score panelIf the individual PCB destined for Full Proto service is smaller than 0.75″ x 0.75″, it needs to be panelized. If a PCB needing Short Run production service is less than 16 sq. in., it needs to be in a panel of at least 16 square inches to qualify for Short Run.

So, you ask, why else might I want to panelize my PCBs? Keep reading and I’ll tell you why.

  • First, if you’ve got a lot of small boards, it’s easier to handle and protect then when they’re in a panel. A few panels can be more safely packed coming and going from our shop here.
  • You may be able to get the through our factory faster. If you have a really large number, and need them super fast, panelizing them may enable that fast turn. With a lot of boards, sometimes, it simply isn’t physically possible to put them all on the machine, run them and take them off, in a short turn time. Panelize them and the machine will be running longer for each board change, which reduces the total run time.
  • It may also cost you less. If you use leadless parts like BGAs, QFNs or LGAs, you can usually reduce your cost a bit by panelizing the boards. Leadless parts cost a little extra because of the X-Ray test needed, but the extra handling is mostly per board, rather than per part. One panel of ten boards with ten BGA, in total, will cost a little less than ten individual boards with one BGA each.

Stay tuned for my next few posts where I’ll cover the pluses and minuses of different panelization techniques.

Duane Benson
I looked outside my window and what do you think I saw?
The strangest sight I’ve ever seen you’ll never guess just what I mean,
I can’t believe it myself

Counting Once, Counting Twice…

Panel single scLet’s say you have two options: First, you could send in your boards for assembly as individuals. Second, you could send them in a panel. That’s all fine and dandy. For a few, send individuals. For a bunch, panels might make more sense. But, when you do go to quote and order, how do you count the parts?

Let’s take this example. As a single, this board has 32 line items on it’s bill of materials. That’s 32 unique parts. Counting all of the individual part placements, there are 56 total parts: 42 SMT and 14 through-hole. So, naturally, if you quoted the assembly of 20 of this board at Screaming Circuits, you would enter your desired board quantity as 20, 32 total unique parts, 42 SMT and 14 through-hole.

But what do you do if you send it in panel form? How do you count? It’s actually not as difficult as it seems. In this example, it’s in a panel of four. There are still only 32 BOM line items, but there are four times as many placements. That means that if you quoted this, as a panel, you would enter 32 total unique parts, 168 SMT and 56 through-hole parts. If you still need 20 of the final boards assembled, you would enter 5 as your desired board quantity.

In the end, you will have 20 assembled boards. In case you are wondering about the cost, there won’t be a difference. As long as the final number of boards (after the panel is broken apart) are the same, your cost will be exactly the same for panel vs. one up. You don’t save any money by sending in singles. However, if your board is panelized and all of your parts on on reels, full or partial, you can save money by ordering Short-Run production.

Duane Benson
50 Years ago today
Robert Rushworth flew the X-15 to Mach 5.03 at 100,400 feet altitude