PCB Depaneling & Depanelers
What is PCB (Printed Circuit Board) Depaneling?
Individual PCBs are generally manufactured and assembled on a larger multi-board panel consisting of multiple PCBs. Placing multiple PCBs onto a larger multi-board panel allows for the production of a high number of PCBs because machines can work on multiple individual PCBs all at once. PCB Depaneling, is the process of separating and removing the multiple, smaller, individual PCBs from the larger multi-board panel during the manufacturing process.
The advancements in technology have been making components smaller and smaller. This reduction in size calls for the use of smaller PCBs which require special depaneling tools to separate them from multi-board panels. Not to mention the fact that every board is different and unique in its own design, made for a specific product, the depaneling process also becomes unique to its own needs.
There are various tools used for the different methods when it comes to the separation process for the PCBs. The different methods are distinguished by different levels of costs, reliability, and quality. The following are some of the commonly used methods for depaneling currently used in the industry:
Hand Break / Manual Tools
Hand break method is suitable for strain-resistant circuits (e.g. without SMD components). The operator simply breaks the PCB with their hands along a tab (also called ‘mouse’ or ‘rat’ bites), or along prepared V-groove lines. A depaneling hand tool may also be used to cut the tabs off of the PCBs, separating the individual pieces from the larger panel.
Pizza Cutter / V-Cut
A pizza cutter is a rotary blade, sometimes rotating using its own motor. The operator moves a pre-scored PCB along a V-groove line, sometimes with the help of a special fixture. This method is often used for cutting larger panels into smaller ones. The equipment is cheap and requires only sharpening of the blade and greasing as maintenance.
Punching is a process where single PCBs are punched out of the panel using a special fixture. It is a two-part fixture, with sharp blades on one part and supports on the other. The production capacity of such a system is high, but fixtures are quite expensive and require regular sharpening.
A Depaneling router is a machine that uses a router bit to mill the material of the PCB. Cutting through the material of the PCB wears down the bit, which must be replaced periodically. Routing machines must be programmed separately for various PCBs.
Routing requires that single boards are connected using tabs in a panel. The bit removes the entire material of the tab. This process produces a lot of PCB dust which must be vacuumed at its source. It is important for the vacuum system to be ESD-safe. The fixtures of the PCB must be precise - usually an aluminum jig or a vacuum holding system is used.
Laser routing is done using computer-controlled processes without the use of blades or mechanical dies. It is used for cutting curves and sharp corners. Moreover, in this method, the cut kerf width is less than 20 microns, which gives it high accuracy.
Overall, Laser cutting might be slightly faster and more precise, but this comes at a much higher cost. Manual depaneling methods such as hand tools, hand breaking, and ‘pizza cutters’ are more cost effective and don’t require any programming, but also add extra stress to the PCB during the process, which can damage the components, especially those closer to the edge of the board.
American Hakko Products, Inc. offers the DPF-300 Depaneling System as a solution. It’s a cost effective, manual router table for depaneling PCBs from a panel or multiblock. A portable depaneling system providing the same performance and quality of a high-end router machine, with no programming required and at a fraction of the cost compared to other machines.
The table is ESD safe and has a built-in vacuum system to remove any PCB dust created straight from the source. The DPF-300 is an alternative to large scale machines or expensive equipment such as laser routing tables, and it does not require the use of special fixtures.
One thing is for sure, as demand for PCBs continues to rise, the need for systems that increase production line speed and reduce costs for manufacturers will also continue to rise.