When it comes to printed-circuit boards (PCBs) and assembly, any engineer who works for a large company has plenty of internal resources to call upon. It can be different for an engineer at a startup—or one who hopes to sell the intellectual property of a product under development. To find out more about what it’s like to “work without a net,” I turned to Dale O’Harra, who I last wrote about back in 2006(see “Antenna-Analyzer Designer Bypasses the Business Bull”).
Dale is, in fact, working on the latest version of that analyzer, but he also has lidar and infrared imaging projects underway on his workbench. All use state-of-the-art technologies that were out of reach for practical projects nine years ago.
When I spoke with Dale, my first surprise was how slowly board-making and assembly technology had evolved compared to the underlying semiconductor technology, at least for his kinds of projects. The reason for that is, once component packaging shrinks beyond a certain scale when working at his level of product development, hand assembly is out of the question. What’s interesting is how far down in scale it’s possible to go if one is clever about using solder wick and dental tools. (In the earlier article, I pointed out that Dale is acutely near-sighted. His eyeglass lenses are ground to a correction of six diopters, so when he needs to see something really tiny, he just takes off his glasses and squints. Engineers handicapped with near-normal vision could always use a jeweler’s loupe, though.)
Be sure to also check out "A Quick Tutorial on PCBs."
I started off the interview by asking Dale to describe his relationship with PCBs and new products over the years:
Dale: Back when I first started, which would have been in the late '70s, or early '80s, I'd hand-draw the schematics, and then, preparing the artwork for creating the PCB would be a tape-up job. I would tape them up large and then photo-reduce them down. The circuit-board fabricators would build me the board from those films.