Energy Efficiency

Improve PCBA manufacturing with a software-based approach

Printed circuit board assembly (PCBA) manufacturing is an exacting process that can take months to complete. The manufacturing cycle can be shortened.
By Jesse Koenig, Shashank Samala July 7, 2019
Jesse Koenig, co-founder and VP of technology, Tempo Automation; Shashank Samala, co-founder, VP of product, Tempo Automation. Courtesy: Tempo Automation

Printed circuit board assemblies (PCBA) play a significant role in the development of many new technologies such as autonomous vehicles, space launch systems, and wearable medical devices. While the industries producing these innovations are diverse in their manufacturing approaches, they share one common problem: the long concept-to-market product lifecycle that plagues electrical engineers. To see concepts return as testable prototypes, engineers often have to wait weeks or months for PCBA manufacturers to complete the process.

San Francisco-based startup Tempo Automation is helping these engineers iterate more quickly on prototypes by shortening the PCBA manufacturing cycle from weeks to days.

Control Engineering spoke with two of the three co-founders from Tempo – Jesse Koenig, co-founder and VP of technology, and Shashank Samala, co-founder, VP of product (who started the company in 2013 in a rented-out hallway in SF) to discuss engineering challenges in PCBA manufacturing and how software can help the speed and quality of building boards.

Question: What is a key struggle for electronics manufacturers?

Koenig: Today’s most globally-impactful, high-growth industries, like aerospace, medtech, and industrial, are all heavily reliant on PCBA manufacturing. These projects are all highly specialized and involve complicated designs that require many iterations of testing and re-designing. To do that, manufacturers need to be able to get prototypes back from contract manufacturers (CMs) quickly. These prototypes also need to be produced with the highest possible quality.

A key struggle for many is combining speed with quality.

Many PCBA CMs only can send high complexity prototypes back to a customer within four to six weeks. Manufacturing is intricate: To move the PCB from design to a fabricated and assembled board, project managers and engineers have to work with a fabrication facility to get the bare boards, purchase and co-ordinate hundreds of unique parts per order, and work with a CM to assemble them. Each of these steps can take up to a week, so the customer could be waiting months to a prototype.

This slows the project timeline and that’s not even considering board quality. Figuring out how to combine quality with speed to ensure a speedy timeline for their projects is perhaps the greatest struggle for customers.

Q: What have been some roadblocks in electronics manufacturing processes?

Samala: One big roadblock for manufacturers and engineers – as simple as it sounds – is getting their design to the CM. For example, regarding industries like aerospace and medtech, many designers in these industries have intellectual property and data policies, like restricting the dissemination of original design files, which can lengthen manufacturing.

The ultimate roadblock for many customers is the manufacturing industry has changed little since the 1980s. It’s crazy to think PCBA manufacturing, which is key for such groundbreaking companies developing reusable rockets, cutting-edge satellites, or medical devices, has not been modernized.

One thing that makes PCBA manufacturing antiquated is that a low-volume factory in the U.S. doesn’t run very differently than a high-volume factory in China. Even though projects in aerospace, medtech, and other industrial industries are unique, complex, and highly specialized, they aren’t often treated as such by traditional PCBA manufacturers, which can have an impact on the quality and speed of boards generated.

This lack of specialization and differentiation hurts customers the most because they’re working with manufacturers who aren’t able to adapt to meet the specific needs they require for their industries. Tempo helps customers leverage the same benefits that software did from agile development and apply that to hardware to enable new levels of precision, predictability, and speed.

Q: How would a software-based approach to prototype manufacturing help customers?

Samala: In traditional manufacturing processes, the machines and people are all analog and disconnected – the factories contain isolated islands of technology. This is the root cause of many of these roadblocks as a lack of connectivity leads to slower communications and longer lead times for the customer. Conversely, when the factory operations on the floor are all driven by software, higher-quality, on time, seamless service is available.

Electrical engineers at companies such as those building reusable rockets, satellites, or medical devices, compete to get to the market faster with quality and speed in prototypes.

Running a fully robotic smart factory on software means engineers can write software, deploy it to the factory, and then iterate quickly. Also, having a smart factory that leverages a cloud infrastructure enables manufacturers to fully integrate factory’s components for improved accuracy and speed.

Tempo uses a cloud-based infrastructure that networks all the components of the smart factory together in a bi-directional feedback loop, connecting the machines and people on the factory floor with customers to ensure quality, delivery, speed, and accuracy.

This transparency and communication starts at the beginning of the manufacturing process.

As a first step, customers receive design rules check (DRC) files that allow them to institute design for manufacturing (DFM) guidelines into PCB design software to ensure that designs comply with manufacturing equipment and processes. By applying these DFM best practices, customers can reduce extra steps with other CMs, because they can ensure the design is manufacturable from the start.

Customers then submit designs online via a proprietary drag-and-drop quoting tool. This uses a patented process to review and validate the bill of materials (BOM) and native computer-aided design (CAD) files before the manufacturing process begins.

Customers get a quote back in a couple of hours, compared to a week with most CMs. They also receive verification of the BOM. By leveraging IoT-based robotics and software, manufacturing (including delivering and assembling the boards) is complete in four to five days, the time some other manufacturers take to deliver PCBs. Bringing software automation and IoT to the factory floor helped customers overcome the obstacles of traditional PCBA manufacturing.

Jesse Koenig, co-founder and VP of technology, Tempo Automation; Shashank Samala, co-founder, VP of product, Tempo Automation. Edited by Chris Vavra, production editor, Control Engineering, CFE Media, cvavra@cfemedia.com.

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Keywords: printed circuit board, PCB, printed circuit board assembly

Printed circuit board assembly (PCBA) manufacturing is a time-consuming and exacting process that can take an enormous amount of time.

Tempo Automation has developed a method to cut the production time with software-based automation, which can help get the finished product to customers faster.

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What benefits can software-based automation bring to your manufacturing floor?

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About Tempo Automation

Tempo Automation is an electronics manufacturer for prototyping and low-volume production of printed circuit board assemblies. Tempo is changing the way electronics are developed by optimizing the process of creating prototypes with new levels of speed, precision, and transparency. Tempo’s San Francisco-based connected factory is powered by proprietary automation software that brings agile development practices to traditional hardware processes, from design to delivery, and enables electrical engineers to innovate faster. Tempo’s investors include Point72 Ventures, Dolby Family Ventures, Lockheed Martin, Lux Capital, Uncork Capital, Bolt, Industry Ventures, Golden Seeds, Draper Associates, Cendana, OS Fund, AME, and Incite Ventures. The company was founded in 2013.


Jesse Koenig, Shashank Samala
Author Bio: Jesse Koenig, co-founder and VP of technology, Tempo Automation; Shashank Samala, co-founder, VP of product, Tempo Automation