I, Circuit Board

 

SamsungDo you know how modern electronics are manufactured, or where they come from? Do you know where their component parts come from? The answers may surprise you. That cellular phone or computer you use to check Ricochet may say, “Made in China” on the backplate, but really it should just say, “Assembled in China, Made Everywhere Else.”

There’s been much talk this election season about “getting tough on China” because of their manufacturing costs, or currency valuations, and there have been solutions proposed that sound like Great Patriotic Trade Wars to rectify the supposed ills of international trade, but unless you have some grasp of everything that goes into manufacturing, you are not likely even to begin to see the glimmer of the spiderweb of international trade that gets your computer into your hands.

No matter what electronic device you are using to read this (unless you printed it out), you are holding an assortment of components, chemicals, and raw materials that might have originated in over 40 nations around the world and passed through many others on their way to your hands. Some individual parts may have gone through three or four nations just during their own sub-assembly processes. You truly have a sample of the whole world in your hands or on your desk. I ought to know, as I am a part owner myself of an electronics manufacturer.

Before we begin looking at component origins, we should have a very basic review of circuitry. This is about as basic a circuit as you can envision:

Basiccircuit

We have an energy source with some voltage and a resistive load. Current flows from one pole of the source, through the resistive load (shedding energy as heat), and to the other pole of the source. You can make this circuit yourself with a battery, some wires, and a light bulb. Of course, you can make your circuit a lot more complicated too, depending what you want it to do:

Zn414-basic-circuit

Each element you see on this circuit is, in an electronics product, a discrete component,with its own part number and manufacturer, that you purchase and insert into what you’re building. What holds them all together? We don’t use discrete wires anymore due to cost and size requirements, but rather Printed Circuit Boards (PCBs), with the “wires” etched into copper layers embedded on fiberglass or films.

The basic circuit board starts its life as a sheet of fiberglass sandwiched between two layers of copper. Fiberglass is, of course, made everywhere. The copper could have come from recycled scrap or been mined from a wide variety of places around the world. A chemical process dissolves the copper where it is not wanted, leaving a maze of traces and pads behind. The process also leaves behind voids where components will be placed and pads to pick up the connection to the parts. Holes are often drilled through the board and plated through to pass signals to traces and parts on the opposite side, or to allow parts to be inserted through the board. PCBs are made the world over.

Looking now at the components themselves, the simplest component is the resistor. Resistors serve a very wide variety of uses, from simple energy dissipation to precision measurement of signals. They can be as basic as bent metal, but most are carbon films encased in plastic. Resistors are made by some suppliers you might know, such as Panasonic, but also by a wide variety of others, and are available throughout the world. Vishay, a supplier I use, manufactures many of its resistors in Israel. There are also original equipment manufacturer in the US, China, Japan, Korea, Germany, and Mexico. The resistors in your electronics might come from any of these places.

Moving up in sophistication we come to the capacitor. Capacitors serve as signal filters, energy banks, dampers, and other things. A capacitor is often represented as two metal plates, separated by distance, with a voltage applied across the plates. What fills the gap and prevents the electricity from flowing plate to plate is called the dielectric material. Some materials are ceramic, paper, or chemical, but here we also get into exotic materials like tantalum (which allows us to make very powerful but quite small capacitors). Tantalum is only mined in a few places in the world, and (according to Wikipedia) Rwanda was the largest source in 2015. The tantalum in your devices could have been mined in Rwanda, smelted elsewhere, then manufactured into capacitors in China, the US, Mexico, Japan, Malaysia, Europe, and elsewhere.

Now we move on to the semi-conductor devices themselves – the diodes, transistors, MOSFETs, regulators, processors, logic gates, and other forms of integrated circuitry. These begin life as a very pure extrusion of silicon, which is then cut into thin slices called wafers. The wafers are doped with sundry elements and have copper traces laid down an etched patterns through lithography processes. A variety of other processes produce the device cores. These very small cores are called dies. A wafer of a certain diameter can be turned into a gridwork of thousands of dies, depending on the part. These dies are extremely delicate, and can be extremely small. The processor core of your computer may have a die only a few square millimeters in size. What makes the parts you see appear larger is that this die is then bonded to wire leads on a frame (called a lead frame, which itself may well have been made somewhere else entirely), or sometimes to heat sinks, then encased in epoxy. Sometimes the dies are bonded to other parts first, and this can be a multistep process.

Just to take as an example a couple of components I use, two power MOSFET devices start life as dies in Europe (Austria and Italy). The completed dies are then sent to multiple plants, depending on the size and shape (the part’s footprint) required by customers. Some go to Morocco, others to Malaysia, others to Taiwan for the die bonding and packaging, then they wend their way back to Europe for quality control, and finally on to the US. One processor I use has its dies made here in the US, but is then sent to Japan for die bonding, whence it is shipped worldwide. The parts are often deemed as originated in the place of final manufacture, but in reality, they have passed through multiple nations. “Made in China” is hardly an accurate depiction of their origin.

This does not touch the other non-electric components of the products I manufacture. The hardware and product enclosures are made right here in Ohio. The silicones I use to insulate and protect the insides are made here, too. The stainless steel lug posts are also forged right here in Ohio. The solder used to connect the parts to the circuit boards is made in the US, and everything is finally assembled at my factory in Ohio. My products say “Made in the USA,” but really, they are made the world over.

This is why some sort of “trade war,” or “getting tough” with foreign competition, won’t save American jobs. Everything you touch, from your car to your computer, from your desk to your shoes, originated in multiple locations throughout the world. The cotton shirt you’re wearing? The cotton may well have been grown in Texas, turned into thread in North Carolina, but actually woven into fabric in Bangladesh. It’s tag may say “Bangladesh,” but can you say in truth that it came entirely from there?

There are reasons why raw materials and semi-finished goods are shipped halfway around the world for additional manufacturing. Sometimes it’s to reduce labor costs, sometimes it’s to utilize local expertise or resources, and sometimes it’s done because that’s where the customers are. The chains of origin are extraordinarily complicated for even simple items like T-shirts, and complex goods’ supply chains engulf our entire planet. Erecting tariffs and trade barriers indiscriminately, just to satisfy political whims, will not suddenly bring all of these processes back home. But it may well spark a trade war for which we will all ultimately pay. The manufacturing world is far more sophisticated and interdependent than you may realize, and country of origin is only a stamp that indicates the most recent place on the assembly line before your goods were shipped to you.

For fun, here is a video of a Samsung SM421i assembling a board. I have one of these in my shop, though this is a video of someone else’s.

This is considered a “slow” machine, for low volume or high-flexibility work, capable of up to 4000 parts per hour.

Here is a turret placer. These can do 80,000 parts an hour (I soooo want one!).

and another

There are 66 comments.

Become a member to join the conversation. Or sign in if you're already a member.
  1. Z in MT Member
    Z in MT
    @ZinMT

    Thanks, Skip!

    I still solder my boards by hand! SOP components aren’t bad (0805) but MSOP components can be difficult.

    • #1
  2. Hank Rhody Contributor
    Hank Rhody
    @HankRhody

    These processes have a fractal nature. Each of those components, each of those steps has many more things happening with it.

    How do you make fiberglass?

    To etch copper, popularly you use a piranha solution, which is half nitric acid and half hydrogen peroxide. Do you know how to make either of those things? Or how to mix them if you got them? (Ask me how my buddy got his own stain on the chem storage floor.)

    How pure does your silicon have to be? How large of a wafer can you make? How exactly do you dope it with which elements to build your transistors?

    And then, when you’ve got your molten silicon crucible and you’re dipping in your slowly rotating stock of pure 111 crystalline silicon to start your pull the electric motor burns out and you’ve gotta replace it. Where did that thing come from? In how many pieces?

    • #2
  3. Gary McVey Contributor
    Gary McVey
    @GaryMcVey

    Skipsul, thanks for giving us a fascinating tour of what really lights up our media-saturated world. You make a tough, serious point about trade that, to be honest, I’d reject coming out of the mouth of Larry Kudlow or Grover Norquist, but from you, it’s authoritative. As a Ricochet member and reader I’ve come to trust your judgment.

    I’m not an expert in discerning to what degree free trade is really free. However, I’m a lifelong printed circuit board groupie. It’s a small part of what made the Fifties the real Wonder Years; a radio “the size of a pack of cigarettes!” Little did they know that a half century later, a device even smaller would be a computer, a camera, a telephone, and a TV set–all because of the endless perfection of ingredients, methods, and assembly. Guys like Skip give capitalism a good name.

    C’mon, eds, Main Feed.

    • #3
  4. Concretevol Thatcher
    Concretevol
    @Concretevol

    Really interesting stuff Skip! Look forward to watching the clips tomorrow on something larger than my multi national phone. :)

    • #4
  5. Judge Mental Member
    Judge Mental
    @JudgeMental

    Gary McVey:

    C’mon, eds, Main Feed.

    Seconded.  Good stuff Skip.

    • #5
  6. Percival Thatcher
    Percival
    @Percival

    This should have been titled “Things Your Hardware Vendor Wants You to Know Before You Throttle Him to Death Bellowing What’s the Delivery Date, Kenneth?

    • #6
  7. Claire Berlinski, Ed. Editor
    Claire Berlinski, Ed.
    @Claire

    Great stuff, Skip.

    Lesson 2: “Freedom of Navigation.”

    — and from this we may derive US foreign policy.

    • #7
  8. I Walton Member
    I Walton
    @IWalton

    I still don’t understand it, glad I don’t have to invent or make it.  While one is contemplating  how to fight a trade war in this kind of world, consider trying to centrally control an economy  with millions of products  like that piece of electronic equipment.   No wonder the Soviet Union collapsed.  Moreover  controlling a modern economy through centralized regulatory regimes  is equally impossible.

    • #8
  9. Jim Chase Member
    Jim Chase
    @JimChase

    Like a trip down memory lane. In the early years of my career, I worked for a telecom equipment manufacturer, mostly modems and the like. Back then, we had lines for both thru-hole and surface mount assembly. Many an hour did I spend hovering over PCBs tapping and testing solder joints as part of basic troubleshooting, especially with new designs and/or changes due to part obsolescence. Of course, as the engineer I also wrote code to run the things. But seeing the machines in action on the floor, bringing designs to life as it were, that was fun. Thanks, Skip.

    • #9
  10. Randy Webster Member
    Randy Webster
    @RandyWebster

    I Walton:I still don’t understand it, glad I don’t have to invent or make it. While one is contemplating how to fight a trade war in this kind of world, consider trying to centrally control an economy with millions of products like that piece of electronic equipment. No wonder the Soviet Union collapsed. Moreover controlling a modern economy through centralized regulatory regimes is equally impossible.

    Just because it’s impossible doesn’t mean there aren’t some out there willing to try.

    • #10
  11. I Walton Member
    I Walton
    @IWalton

    Randy Webster:

    I Walton:I still don’t understand it, glad I don’t have to invent or make it. While one is contemplating how to fight a trade war in this kind of world, consider trying to centrally control an economy with millions of products like that piece of electronic equipment. No wonder the Soviet Union collapsed. Moreover controlling a modern economy through centralized regulatory regimes is equally impossible.

    Just because it’s impossible doesn’t mean there aren’t some out there willing to try.

    Indeed it’s quite profitable for some so we’ve been taught it’s essential and the entire political class wants more of it not less.

    • #11
  12. Sandy Member
    Sandy
    @Sandy

    Thanks, Skip.  Brilliant.

    I am trying, and failing, to imagine the machines that produce the parts that produce the machines.  It seems like a sort of infinity.  When I was in high school in Chicago over 60 years ago, we took field trips to factories. I remember going to Western Electric and watching copper being transformed from very large tubes to fine wires, and then watching women use those wires in assembling telephones.  The whole thing was pretty simple in principle, and I doubt anything came from abroad.

    • #12
  13. Concretevol Thatcher
    Concretevol
    @Concretevol

    Randy Webster:

    I Walton:I still don’t understand it, glad I don’t have to invent or make it. While one is contemplating how to fight a trade war in this kind of world, consider trying to centrally control an economy with millions of products like that piece of electronic equipment. No wonder the Soviet Union collapsed. Moreover controlling a modern economy through centralized regulatory regimes is equally impossible.

    Just because it’s impossible doesn’t mean there aren’t some out there willing to try.

    Feel the Bern!

    • #13
  14. OldDan Inactive
    OldDan
    @OldDanRhody

    Echo all the above that this is a great post!

    • #14
  15. Liz Member
    Liz
    @Liz

    This is an outstanding post. In fact, this should be made into a campaign video for Crubio.

    • #15
  16. Songwriter Inactive
    Songwriter
    @user_19450

    This begs the question: Who makes the machines that make the circuit boards? And who makes the machines that make THOSE machines?

    • #16
  17. skipsul Inactive
    skipsul
    @skipsul

    Songwriter:This begs the question: Who makes the machines that make the circuit boards? And who makes the machines that make THOSE machines?

    If you are in Vegas next week, go to the APEX show.  You can buy an entire electronics manufacturing line, meet the suppliers and distributors, buy die bonding equipment, see live demos, and meet the industry players.  Lots of used equipment brokers there too, so you can get a used line on the cheap.  There are still SMT machines from the 90s out there in use that are practically given away (good luck getting parts though), but even a line from, say, 2004 won’t cost you much.

    • #17
  18. skipsul Inactive
    skipsul
    @skipsul

    Sandy:Thanks, Skip. Brilliant.

    I am trying, and failing, to imagine the machines that produce the parts that produce the machines. It seems like a sort of infinity. When I was in high school in Chicago over 60 years ago, we took field trips to factories. I remember going to Western Electric and watching copper being transformed from very large tubes to fine wires, and then watching women use those wires in assembling telephones. The whole thing was pretty simple in principle, and I doubt anything came from abroad.

    The copper itself may well have been mined in Africa or South America.  But those phone were pretty simple devices, and most of the internal parts could have been made in stamping houses and machine shops, or even on site in separate machine shops.

    • #18
  19. Pony Convertible Inactive
    Pony Convertible
    @PonyConvertible

    Your post is a rewrite of I, Pencil with a  modern twist.

    http://www.econlib.org/library/Essays/rdPncl1.html

    Songwriter:This begs the question: Who makes the machines that make the circuit boards? And who makes the machines that make THOSE machines?

    I have spent the last 3 decades making machines that make other products.  It has been a good living.

    • #19
  20. PHCheese Inactive
    PHCheese
    @PHCheese

    My oldest son is a supply chain management guru, so we have talked at length about it’s intricacies. Your post was spot on Skip.

    • #20
  21. iWe Coolidge
    iWe
    @iWe

    I get to go on a lot of very cool factory tours, and the machines I see working there are mind-boggling. I know of one plant making complex mechanical assemblies for automotive. They do 8,000 of these critical components each day, with a staff, all up, of 100 people. Every single piece and sub-c0mponent (200 per assembly) is photographed and catalogued, sorted, installed and tested.

    Great post, Skip!

    • #21
  22. skipsul Inactive
    skipsul
    @skipsul

    Pony Convertible:Your post is a rewrite of I, Pencil with a modern twist.

    http://www.econlib.org/library/Essays/rdPncl1.html

    Songwriter:This begs the question: Who makes the machines that make the circuit boards? And who makes the machines that make THOSE machines?

    I have spent the last 3 decades making machines that make other products. It has been a good living.

    My title was chosen deliberately with that older essay in mind.  Also with this in mind, on the NPR Planet Money team’s quest to make a t-shirt:

    http://apps.npr.org/tshirt/#/title

    • #22
  23. skipsul Inactive
    skipsul
    @skipsul

    iWe:I get to go on a lot of very cool factory tours, and the machines I see working there are mind-boggling. I know of one plant making complex mechanical assemblies for automotive. They do 8,000 of these critical components each day, with a staff, all up, of 100 people. Every single piece and sub-c0mponent (200 per assembly) is photographed and catalogued, sorted, installed and tested.

    Great post, Skip!

    My best friend is a Q/C engineer at the Jeep plant in Toledo.  In that role he has visited numerous sub contractors, at one point dealing with near simultaneous crises at every supplier of carpet to Jeep.  He now knows more about automotive carpet than you could imagine!

    • #23
  24. skipsul Inactive
    skipsul
    @skipsul

    Z in MT:Thanks, Skip!

    I still solder my boards by hand! SOP components aren’t bad (0805) but MSOP components can be difficult.

    The smallest we use are 0603, and thankfully we stay away from BGAs.  We deal with power, so anything smaller would be crispy in short order, but the 01005 parts are still very very cool.

    BTW, we’re talking about part footprints.  0805 refers to the end-to-end length of a part in Standard of 0.08 inches by 0.05 inches. In Metric it is 2mm.  The smallest standard size part (01005) is 0.2mm, or about 1/10 the size of the 0805.  These look like rectangular grains of sand, and while a good solderer can hand tack parts with the naked eye down to 0402 (barely), you have to work 01005 parts under a scope.  But at 1/10 the size, you can achieve component densities of amazing sophistication.

    See here for details:

    http://www.resistorguide.com/resistor-sizes-and-packages/

    • #24
  25. skipsul Inactive
    skipsul
    @skipsul

    PHCheese:My oldest so is a supply chain management guru, so we have talked at length about it’s intricacies. Your post was spot on Skip.

    I think he would be amused at this little ditty then:

    http://ricochet.com/archives/wasting-away-again-in-conflict-mineralville/

    When it got archived, though, all of the line breaks were hosed.

    • #25
  26. Misthiocracy Member
    Misthiocracy
    @Misthiocracy

    “What kind of chip you got in that, a Dorito?”

    • #26
  27. Eeyore Member
    Eeyore
    @Eeyore

    “samsung smt mounter agent”

    Oh, there are some good ones in there, but… This. Is. Not. The. PIT.

    • #27
  28. Son of Spengler Contributor
    Son of Spengler
    @SonofSpengler

    Songwriter:This begs the question: Who makes the machines that make the circuit boards? And who makes the machines that make THOSE machines?

    I had a summer job in high school at a manufacturer of specialized scientific equipment. (Machines sold for $150-250k IIRC.) Walking across the assembly floor, I had that epiphany. All these parts, down to the screws, must come from other companies like this one… and those companies must have their own parts departments, and must buy their own specialized machines… and those machine parts must also come from some specialized manufacturer… and on and on…. It was mind-blowing to see that unending web of interrelationships in place of the hierarchical food chain I had kinda sorta imagined the economy looked like.

    • #28
  29. skipsul Inactive
    skipsul
    @skipsul

    Son of Spengler:

    Songwriter:This begs the question: Who makes the machines that make the circuit boards? And who makes the machines that make THOSE machines?

    I had a summer job in high school at a manufacturer of specialized scientific equipment. (Machines sold for $150-250k IIRC.) Walking across the assembly floor, I had that epiphany. All these parts, down to the screws, must come from other companies like this one… and those companies must have their own parts departments, and must buy their own specialized machines… and those machine parts must also come from some specialized manufacturer… and on and on…. It was mind-blowing to see that unending web of interrelationships in place of the hierarchical food chain I had kinda sorta imagined the economy looked like.

    It gets more fun when you end up selling your products back to your own suppliers for integration into other things.  I rather enjoyed selling a sensor back to a subcontractor that had actually built about 20% of the thing, so that they could integrate that, in turn, into some else’s sub assembly.  Who really made what at that point?

    • #29
  30. iWe Coolidge
    iWe
    @iWe

    I have a brother who helped develop a software package to calculate all the VAT taxes around the world, to help companies decide where they do which part of manufacture, assembly, packaging, selling, etc.  You can see how it would be helpful to know that adding one rivet in Place A might change the tax burden enormously.

    This was a herculean task. His job was to read every VAT code on the planet, and translate into a language that the software guys could use. The company, as far as I know, does a cracking business.

    • #30

Comments are closed because this post is more than six months old. Please write a new post if you would like to continue this conversation.