Bare PCBs are the foundation of any electronic device. With the increasing role of electronics in everyday life, including mobile phones, self-driving and electric cars, home automation and especially IoT, the need for a professional and reliable PCB supplier is critical. Baishakhi Dutta of the Electronicsforu.com Network spoke with three eminent leaders at the Hyderabad based Sulakshana Circuits Ltd (SCL)—C. Krishna Rao, chairman; Dr V. Venkata Ramani, director, business development; and S. Rambabu, GM – commercial and technical, to find out where the Indian PCB industry is headed and the challenges it faces.
EB: How does the choice of a PCB manufacturer affect IoT and embedded systems projects?
IoT and embedded systems are becoming increasingly important for electronic products and an excellent PCB manufacturer is now more important than ever, for three key reasons.
First, time to market is a critical parameter for success in this quickly changing field, and SCL can help in this area by manufacturing prototypes within three days. We have specialised equipment such as a ₹ 15 million flying probe tester to ensure boards are 100 per cent acceptable on electrical quality tests. The normal bare board tester (BBT) used for volume production delays prototype testing since complex fixtures must first be manufactured. The flying probe tester uses the CAD data directly.
Second, a good PCB manufacturer should carefully check the design rules, and ensure manufacturability of the designs before wasting valuable time building a PCB that does not work as intended. We have a skilled CAM (computer aided manufacturing) department that works with designers to resolve problems before they become too big.
Finally, with the small size of IoT devices, it is critical that the alignment of the board’s routed profile and the electrical circuit are perfect. CNC drilling and routing machines are critical to maintain this alignment.
EB: Do you think India has a strong base of PCB players who can create innovative and value added designs?
Yes, India has grown by leaps and bounds in terms of design. We’ve seen more designers doing innovative things over the last 30 years. About 20 years ago, most designs were from government organisations like ITI, C-DOT, BHEL, ECIL, etc. Very few were from the private sector. In the last few years, the majority of design work is being done in the private sector, and these designers are constantly improving their designs and products. It is quite heartening to see so many young designers doing creative and innovative work.
EB: Can we say that the PCB designing ecosystem is mature right now, or do you think there is a long way to go?
Though the design ecosystem has certainly come a long way, there is still some distance to cover to catch up with the rest of the world. Indian designs are typically simpler than those in the United States – fewer layers, wider lines, etc. There are too few companies operating in this field, since too much of our electronics comes from China. Too many young engineers still prefer careers in software rather than in hardware.
The PCB design ecosystem is not supported adequately with hardware prototyping in India – services covering manufacturability design, box build, testing and parts supply are too few. Often, Indian designs are manufactured in China.
EB: What are the quality considerations you keep in mind while creating your PCBs?
To make sure that the designer does not get bad boards, we triple check the designs before manufacture. We make sure that the designs are manufacturable, i.e., by doing design rule checks such as ensuring the solder mask clearances around holes are adequate, that track-to-track as well as track-to-pad clearances are maintained, etc. However, if there is an issue with the design, then the designer is consulted.
EB: What kind of software do you use for your PCB prototyping processes?
We use CAM software, which can verify manufacturability, and then provide the files for the photo tooling and the drill files needed for PCB manufacture.
EB: Is India mature enough to deploy the dark factory concept or are there certain factors that will make its implementation difficult?
Our industry is not ready for ‘lights out’ manufacturing yet. In India, capital is expensive while labour here is cheaper than the worldwide average. Also, the scale and the inherent complexity of PCB manufacture is not conducive to expensive automation. PCB manufacturing involves 30 separate electrical, mechanical and chemical processes – CNC drilling, electroless copper deposition, transferring the circuit image photographically, electrolytic copper deposition, etc. It would be too expensive to automate all these varied processes and the material transfer between processes to create a dark factory. The day will come but no one in the world has a dark factory for PCB manufacture yet.
EB: What kind of technologies and equipment are you using to bring in quick turnaround capabilities? How much do you reduce time-to-market for your customers?
For quick turnaround capabilities, we have electronic files which control many of our machines, based on the electronic data our customers provide (Gerber and fabrication files). On receiving the customers’ data (from their EDA or electronic design automation software), we verify their files and develop programs for the CNC drills, CNC routers and the BBT (electrical testing via the Bare Board Tester). In addition, the CAM system produces the files for the photoplotter to create films (about 5 to15 films). All of this pre-production engineering is done digitally. The recent acquisition of an 8-head flying probe tester from Micro Craft (Japan) helps us test prototypes quickly, and enables us to make prototypes within three days.
EB: Do you have any case studies, preferably from India, that showcase the benefits you offer?
We worked closely with an automotive customer making a sensor, to solve the alignment problems between the electrical circuit and the mechanical drilling. The client sent a team to our factory and after experimentation and some innovation, we solved the problems. The product was put into full volume production and is still being manufactured by us every month.
Many customers are surprised by the excellent solderability of our PCBs. Our quality department conducts regular micro-sections, measures copper thickness in each lot, and does much more to make sure the boards manufactured are of high quality. Process controls ensure that copper impurities in the solder are within very tight limits, that chemistry baths are effective, etc. All boards are electrically tested on one of our five BBT machines.
EB: What challenges do you face as an electronics manufacturing business in India?
We are fighting the Chinese competition with one hand tied behind our backs. Some of the challenges are poor water supply, intermittent electricity, poor roads, expensive financing, slow customs and logistics, and a poor duty structure. The supply chains are very long – most materials are imported from Europe, China, Singapore, Taiwan, etc. PCB manufacturers are often squeezed between customers who pay late and the banks which have the LCs (letters of credit) for imported materials – where there is no delay allowed. Late payments from governmental departments are often the major cause of problems for us and our customers.
“Sulakshana Circuits Ltd (SCL) is an established and reputed Indian manufacturer of double-sided and multi-layer printed circuit boards. It manufactures PCBs in both prototype and production volumes, i.e., we can make one customised board or 100,000 PCBs. SCL has ISO 9001:2015 certification from TUV, as well as approvals from UL, C-DOT, LCSO, RDSO and other major Indian establishments. Quality is our primary focus and we buy the best materials from all over the world, process them on sophisticated automated machines, and electrically test all boards at high voltage to ensure a good circuit. We deliver as quickly as three days. Close interaction with the designers when needed is a specialty of SCL.”
—C. Krishna Rao, chairman, Sulakshana Circuits Limited
EB: Has this feedback gone back to the government in order to improve the current situation?
India as a base for manufacturing electronics is slowly improving but there is a long, long way to go. The government has been informed many a time about the need for differential duties on copper clad laminates, bare PCBs, assembled PCBs and the final products to encourage Indian manufacturers. Phased manufacturing programmes to systematically develop specific large verticals such as mobiles, energy meters, set-top boxes, computers, etc, would also be helpful.
We all know the chaos that a power cut causes in the middle of a sophisticated automated machinery’s cycle. Interrupted CNC machine cycles and power surges to delicate foreign equipment is a huge problem. Similarly, buying tankers of water for a process industry is too expensive especially when imported Chinese PCBs are not burdened with these costs. Building roads is the basic function of the government. We are from Canada and set up this plant in an industrial area set aside for NRIs. We paid three times the going rate for the land but got very little infrastructure – certainly not roads.
It should also be mandated that government orders for PCB purchases be sourced from India and not China. Sensitive Indian designs with national security implications are all too often sent to China for manufacture.
EB: Where do you see India’s hardware manufacturing capability today, and how can it be improved?
India’s hardware manufacturing capability is good – we have the technical capabilities but not the scale needed. The PCB industry, for example, is currently sub-optimal at around 2(two) per cent of China’s and so there is considerable room for growth. Hyderabad’s software and pharmaceutical industries are world class and function on a global scale, but the electronics hardware industry is far below the necessary scale. As a result, the full ecosystem does not exist and long supply chains from foreign suppliers are needed. SCL, for example, imports all its copper clad laminates (CCL) from reputed suppliers in the East – there are no CCL manufacturers in India. The dry film, prepreg, copper foil and solder mask are airlifted from MNCs abroad.
India has hundreds of PCB manufacturers and PCB manufacturing technology has been well absorbed here. Many companies are exporting PCBs. Indian PCB companies have generally been growing – SCL started 30 years ago with eight CNC spindles and today we have 40 spindles. But the correct government policies would have helped the Indian PCB industry grow to 10X its current size. The corresponding import substitution would have reduced India’s huge outflow of foreign exchange for Chinese electronics. Poor labour laws have meant periodic strikes and labour costs that are higher than in China per unit of production. We were exporting 70 per cent of our production at one time.
EB: So what, according to you, should the government do to improve India’s domestic electronics manufacturing ecosystem?
Slightly higher duties on bare and assembled PCBs, as well as box builds will encourage more manufacturing in India. Better financing rates would ensure more electronic inventories being maintained in India. The industry is at a tipping point and government policies can make all the difference. There will be many more jobs created by encouraging basic PCB manufacture than in chasing expensive chip factories.
We are expecting the duty on imported bare PCB boards to increase, thereby improving the local demand for PCBs. Seventy-five per cent of PCBs are imported from China, especially the high volume orders. There is no good reason for so many imports of PCBs, a basic electronic building block. A healthy manufacturing ecosystem will help designers and OEMs to succeed. as well – faster time to market, better collaboration on technical issues. A healthy hardware ecosystem combined with India’s proven strengths in software and design can be a huge benefit in areas such as IoT and embedded systems and create huge employment opportunities.
EB: What benefits has automation brought to your factory floor?
The PCB industry is moving to increasingly higher levels of automation. Electronic design data from the customer (Gerber and drill data) is fed into the CAM system, and it outputs drill and route programs, test programs, drill programs for BBT fixtures, etc. In the factory, there is increased use of automated machines – CNC drills and routers, loaders and unloaders, automated and conveyorised machines, etc. This ensures quicker manufacture, lower costs and higher quality. Higher volumes would allow us to amortise these capital costs better.
EB: Would you recommend automation to other manufacturers in India, especially SMEs?
Yes. The only way to ensure quality, quicker deliveries and lower costs is to implement as much automation as is affordable.
EB: How do you approach customers—is there any free service that you offer to get them invested in you?
Our approach to customers is to focus on our quality and service – there are hundreds of small Indian PCB manufacturers that outsource most of their work rather than buy expensive machines. Unfortunately, it is not possible to maintain high and consistent quality standards with fragmented processes.
Chinese imports cannot provide the support for designers, or the agility and the security of supplies that an Indian PCB supplier can. Our quality team is usually at a customer’s site the day after help is requested.
EB: Where is your manufacturing unit located?
Our manufacturing unit is in Hyderabad – it is centrally located among the electronics centres in India and has lower costs than most cities.
EB: What kind of cost reduction/ROI in the design and manufacturing process do you propose to your customers who invest in you?
We reduce the total cost of ownership for our customers—100 per cent electrically tested boards mean they avoid rejections later on in their manufacturing process. This is critical since they add components to our PCBs, and that multiplies the cost to more than 10 times the value of the bare PCB.
There are small manufacturers in India who don’t have all the necessary equipment. Even though their price might be a little less, customers’ end up paying more when they take into account the higher rejections in their process, the rework needed to find missed solder joints due to poor solderability of the PCBs, etc.
Our major customers are in the automotive space. The cost pressures, volume requirements and quality demands in the automotive sector are unlike other sectors. We have to demonstrate ROI or they will go to other suppliers in India or abroad.
EB: What are the important quality certifications that designers should ensure their PCB producers have?
The general standards and certifications are:
- IPC standards
- ISO 9001:2015 certification
- UL approved
For defence-related PCBs:
For railway related orders:
EB: What are the three golden rules that all electronics design engineers should follow?
The top three rules will be:
- Carefully complete your designs including all EMI checks, thermal analysis, etc, and do not cover up or ignore problems.
- Do not cut corners on clearances in tight areas to get everything to fit – that is cheating and just pushes your problem onto the PCB manufacturer. We can handle deviations in a few spots on the board to help you out, but if done too often it can result in production problems and delays.
- Show your PCB design early to your PCB manufacturer and parts suppliers, and take their advice on cost reductions – they are your partners!