Circuit board manufacturing relies on fast IPC control

DP patterning provides flexible conductive pattern technology by leveraging PC-based control, EtherCAT, and artificial intelligence (AI) to meet high-precision machining requirements.

By Håkan Brandt September 10, 2022
Figure 1: High-performance drive technology and highly time-synchronized process sequences are required for milling fine conductive patterns out of flexible circuit boards. Courtesy: Beckhoff


Learning Objectives

  • Dry phase patterning (DPP) enables production of conductive structures on flexible materials using EtherCAT and PC-based control.
  • DP Patterning is using these technologies and concepts to create printed circuit boards (PCBs) in a mechanical process.
  • With this technology, operators can now control the material removal directly via an integrated HMI software.

PC-Based Control Insights

  • PC-based control and EtherCAT, a type of industrial Ethernet, are designed to help produce items economically as well as precisely.
  • DP Patterning is using these technologies to create printed circuit boards (PCBs) in a mechanical process. Automation such as PC-based control is helping. Artificial intelligence (AI) software may optimize next-generation machine vision.

Printed circuit boards (PCBs) — solid and flexible — are mostly produced by etching. However, the Swedish company DP Patterning has developed a different approach integrating industrial Ethernet, servo drives, human-machine interfaces (HMIs), input/outputs (I/Os), image processing seamlessly, and PC-based software and controllers. Using a patented process, the conductive structures are worked out of flexible circuit boards in a mechanical process. Equal measures of accuracy and speed are needed to achieve this precisely and economically. PC-based control and EtherCAT are the optimal control technologies to accomplish this.

beckhoff pattering figure 1

Figure 1: High-performance drive technology and highly time-synchronized process sequences are required for milling fine conductive patterns out of flexible circuit boards. Courtesy: Beckhoff

DP Patterning was founded by Staffan Nordlinder in 2006 in Norrköping, Sweden. The company has been researching and developing the manufacturing technology known by the same name – dry phase patterning (DPP) – for flexible circuit boards on a continuous basis ever since. The innovation phase began in 2001 when Nordlinder worked as a scientist at the Research Institutes of Sweden (RISE). This has led to intensive collaboration and continuing DPP technology research.

DPP enables production of conductive structures on flexible materials. The functional principle is as simple as punching a hole in a piece of paper or the classic embossing technique. A rotating die with the negative pattern of the eventual finished structure presses the carrier material against a rotating milling wheel. The carrier material is coated with an ultra-thin conductive top layer. The milling machine removes the upper layer mechanically. The lower carrier material remains untouched. This will leave the conductive pattern on the laminate — the flexible circuit board is then available in reel form.

The process works with a variety of different carrier materials, including PET (polyethylene terephthalate), PC (polycarbonate), PI (polyimide) and PEN (polyethylene naphthalate). Al (aluminum), Cu (copper) or CCA (Copper Cladded Aluminum) is suitable as a top layer, depending on the thickness required. DPP can be used for non-electronic and non-conductive applications, too. These may include plastic or paper decorations or functional 3D structures such as microfluid channels or cavities for levelling out electronic components.

The patented process offers immediate benefits for electronic component manufacturers. These include increased cost efficiency, shorter lead times and environmentally friendliness, sustainable production without need for chemicals or hazardous substances. The metal chips also can be recycled. Not to mention the security aspects – integrating it into a company’s production processes means the manufacturer retains all the intellectual property. A special feature of DP Patterning’s machines: They can produce prototypes and large quantities on one line simultaneously. Long lead times and days of testing would make this difficult when using conventional methods.

Speed and precision through integrated automation technology

Due to the very thin base materials and material thicknesses to be removed in the single-digit µm range, the DPP process necessitates high-performance automation technology and the integration of as many components as possible into a continuous system. As a result, DP Patterning has been working with a PC-based automation technology vendor. A CPU was initially used in subsystems for communication with an external system. Since 2016, the company has been relying on fully integrated technology: servo drives, human-machine interfaces (HMIs), input/outputs (I/Os) and image processing integrated into PC-based control. With the user interface, the operator can now control the material removal directly via an integrated HMI software. This improves the level of user-friendliness while making the milling parameters easier to configure.

The metal layer on the foils is about 10 times thinner than a human hair, requiring extreme precision during processing, as well as adjustments in the range of 100 nm. “One of the biggest benefits of this vendor’s products is the impressive speed of the process cycles that we are able to realize,” said Jakob Sagatowski, software engineer at DP Patterning. “The results are impressive when we compare it to other control manufacturers. Our machines can mill approximately 0.5 mm patterns in 1 ms when running at full speed. This is equivalent to 0.5 m/s belt speed and significantly faster than is currently common in practice.”

The capturing and archiving of production data is another key requirement. “Our technology keeps on getting developed further, thus requiring tracking data – the more, the better,” said Nordlinder.

Database connectivity and mass storage are an important key to optimizing the production line configurations. PC-based control contributes significantly to this. DP Patterning can use all programs seamlessly on one industrial PC, simplifying the system’s configuration. It also enables customers to invest in cost-effective standard hardware solutions.

Exciting potential for AI integration

Whenever large amounts of data need to be analyzed, artificial intelligence (AI) or machine learning (ML) is now always a key point of discussion. DP Patterning is constantly on the lookout for the next technical breakthrough.

“This could involve the integration of artificial intelligence, for example further refining predictive maintenance and production optimization with our vendor’s machine learning software,” Sagatowski said.

DP Patterning also is considering the extended use of image processing. Using the integrated vision software and special functions, the Swedes now want to detect and mark interrupted conductor paths so that they can automatically omit them from the subsequent work steps.

beckhoff engineers

Figure 2: The engineers, including CEO Staffan Nordlinder (left) and software engineer Jakob Sagatowski (right), worked very closely with Marcus Aldrin (center), motion product specialist at Beckhoff Sweden, to design optimal automation systems for DPP technology. Courtesy: Beckhoff

Håkan Brandt is managing director, Beckhoff Sweden. Edited by Chris Vavra, web content manager, Control Engineering, CFE Media and Technology,


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Author Bio: Håkan Brandt, managing director, Beckhoff Sweden