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14 The PCB Magazine • May 2016 The Need for Automation Demand trends for virtually all electronic products point to the need for manufacturers to dramatically improve their accuracy in the fab- rication of high-volume electronics. Especially as it relates to their proficiency at processing extremely thin films, flexible glass and other fragile substrate materials. To stay ahead and successfully compete in global markets they must produce precision-quality electronics that incorporate novel materials and nanotechnolo- gy-level accuracy. In this environment, automa- tion isn't a luxury; it's a requirement. Automation can mean different things to people in different manufacturing environments, and numerous material handling technologies are available that address myriad production challenges. In this article, however, we will focus primarily on automation in the context of flex PCB and interconnect material handling. Roll-to-Roll Web Handling Automation The good news in this discussion of produc- tion challenges is that, given the flexible nature of FPCs, the vast majority of flex processing can be performed in roll formats using web han- dling automation technologies. There are nu- merous advantages to keeping roll-to-roll ma- terials in this format through as much of the manufacturing process as possible. These advantages include: • Large-volume rolls of material are easily and safely transported between process machines • Much shorter panel-to-panel move times as compared to swapping individually-cut panels manually or with robotic stack handlers • Material moves between process machines with constant tension and automated precision positioning, both of which can be critical to meeting requirements for fine-line accuracy • Tension and position control for step- and-repeat processes such as laser drilling, testing, blanking, printing, photo lithography, etc. • Tension, positioning, and speed control for continuous processes such as wet process develop, etch, strip, plating, printing, coating, lamination and so on automate to innovate in flex proCessinG Figure 1: Example of turnkey web integration of multiple processes. (Courtesy of Northfield Automation Systems Technology)

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