PCB circuit testing and its automation options

PCB manufacturers must take into account the risk of error or failure. Therefore, they use various PCB quality control methods to detect the problem early. Automation is at the forefront, making the testing process fast, accurate and independent of the presence of employees.

Automate the entire testing process

Quality control is addressed by almost all PCB and electronic equipment manufacturers. They typically use sophisticated ICT or FCT instruments for accurate diagnostics, but leave their operation to physical staff.

Yet it is the field of PCB testing that is crying out for full automation. The robotic workstation takes care of all steps autonomously, whether it is moving the PCB to the test fixturing or the subsequent sorting.

Automation fundamentally speeds up the inspection process

To make the transition to automation easier for production sites, we have developed a comprehensive Test-it-off solution. At the head of the universal robotic workstation is the AUBO collaborative robot, which handles material handling.

The solution includes a complete software suite tailored to the needs of quality control. In line with Industry 4.0 principles, it communicates with other production nodes and receives and transmits information. With support for different types of accessories and test fixtures, it meets the requirements of any production operation.

This makes the integration of the automated system simple and allows almost immediate connection to live operation. The automation of PCB quality control brings speed and quality to the testing process.

Supervision from any location

The Test-it-off solution simultaneously enables remote monitoring and the export of statistics with results. This eliminates the need for an operator to be present at the workstation. Information about the number of products tested or the required manual intervention is easily accessible from another workstation. Test-it-off operation can thus also be entrusted to an employee who is currently less busy, even if he or she is physically located in another production hall.

In addition, the system can operate almost continuously, even during the night and without the presence of workers. In the final sum of the individual steps, it is faster than a human tester operator.

Quality control methods and their automation

Two controlling methods are most commonly used in the output quality control of printed circuit boards: using an ICT or FCT tester and using camera inspection. All can be fully automated.

ICT/FCT testing

The test device can test current draws, voltage values and the functionality of communication protocols (e.g. LIN, CAN or Flexray). It is also used for the evaluation of LED parameters (with the rise of LED headlights important in the automotive industry, among others).

Physical operation: in plants without automated processes, the tester is operated by trained personnel. The PCB is inserted into the test fixturing and starts the test. When the test cycle is complete, the plate is removed and manually moved to the appropriate station based on the measurement results.

Space for automation: the robot grabs the circuit board and inserts it into the tester. After completing the test cycle, it removes it from the fixture and sorts it correctly based on the result. A single robot workstation can also operate multiple ICT/FCT testers and therefore test bulk PCBs in boxes at the same time.

Camera control

A system equipped with an industrial camera takes a detailed picture of the PCB. The inspection uses machine learning and artificial intelligence principles. It can accurately and reliably check the correctness of the mounting of lead components, connectors and other elements. It also verifies the presence of a label or other identification element.

Physical operation: If the optical quality control is not automated, the operation, handling, evaluation and sorting must be carried out by a trained person.

Automated solution: the robot grabs the circuit board and moves it to the industrial camera. It can rotate the inspected board to the most suitable scanning position (for inspecting rugged or double-sided PCBs). After camera testing, it sorts the boards based on set criteria, typically OK and NOK.

Robotic workstation automates all steps

A solution for automating PCB inspection must include all the service steps involved in the testing process. It usually provides:

Gripping - the robotic arm can remove material from any storage. It can handle conveyors, KLT boxes, pallets, feeders and various trays. Thanks to the integrated bin picking system, it can also pick bulk and unsorted products.

Placing it in the tester - the robot identifies the PCB and moves it to the tester (ICT/FCT or to the camera system). It precisely places it in the fixture and sends an instruction to start the test cycle.

Sorting - when testing is complete, the robot grabs the PCB again. It immediately works with the test results and sorts the board according to the set parameters. In addition to OK and NOK sorting, it can sort the boards according to different types of defects.

Reporting - the robotic workstation generates reports on the progress of the entire test as well as partial parts. The data can be backed up, clearly displayed or provided to higher-level systems (MES/ERP).

Cobots can stick labels and read codes

In addition to the inspection process itself, the robotic workstation can perform other related operations. The collaborative robot can, for example, read barcodes or DMX codes and thus accurately identify a specific product. Once testing is complete, it can then apply a production label to OK pieces or visually mark defective boards.

If you are in the PCB manufacturing business and operate testers manually, consider switching to automation. We can also integrate your existing ICT/FCT testers into a robotic system. Test-it-off solution will make your entry into the world of industrial automation fast and with minimal disruption to your existing operations.

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