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Completing the Circuit: Towards an Integrated Electronics Manufacturing Process at Chicago’s Digital Manufacturing and Design Innovation Institute
The silicon brains of today’s warfighters are just as complex as their alloy exteriors, requiring engineers like those at Lockheed Martin to have mastery of not only aeronautics and flight, but also advanced computing and electronics.
As one of the United States’ foremost producers of aerospace and defense equipment, Lockheed Martin has developed iconic platforms like the F-16 Falcon fighter jet and SR-71 Blackbird. When one thinks of advanced defense systems, the silhouettes of these famous birds usually come to mind. But what about what’s inside? Powering each plane, rocket and lander is a vast array of custom-designed green and gold printed circuit boards, or PCBs.
While PCBs have seen orders-of-magnitude decreases in size and increases in performance over the last 40 years, not all aspects of the design process have kept pace. In fact, the handoff of PCB fabrication, assembly and test data from original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) like Lockheed Martin to PCB manufacturers has remained relatively unchanged for decades. These outdated techniques for transferring design data between OEMs and board manufacturers are a productivity drain and increase the cost of developing new products.
Last year, Lockheed Martin was awarded a project by Chicago’s Digital Manufacturing and Design Innovation Institute (DMDII) to launch the PCB industry into the digital age.
DMDII is a collaborative innovation center where manufacturers go to forge their digital futures. Because digital engineering and manufacturing processes span multiple organizations, the Institute helps companies like Lockheed Martin pair up with the interdisciplinary, multi-domain teams that are needed to develop and test solutions. In this case, Lockheed Martin partnered with several organizations with touchpoints throughout the PCB lifecycle, including ZukenUSA, Fujitsu, Sanmina, Siemens, IPC and Rochester Institute of Technology to demonstrate how the use of a single compatible file type streamlining the complicated and manual process of information sharing between PCB designers and PCB manufacturers.
Since coming together, the project team has successfully manufactured three new printed circuit boards at various locations all within the guidelines of the new standard, known to industry insiders as IPC-2581.
“DMDII allowed those companies to come together under the DMDII umbrella to push this forward at different assembly sites and walk through the entire production of a printed circuit board using a new, compatible standard,” said Gary Carter, one of the project’s architects.
Historically, companies like Lockheed Martin and Fujitsu design the boards and contract with suppliers like Sanmina to build and test them. Inevitably, issues arise during manufacturing that necessitate back and forth communication and design changes. Lacking a proper standard to facilitate bi-directional information flows, suppliers resort to ad-hoc and often inefficient means such as e-mail and phone calls to relay these design changes. It is the subsequent manual transcription and reentry of this data – and the error-prone nature of the task – that wastes time and money for both the OEMs and the PCB manufacturers.
Carter says the lessons learned from this collaborative process will serve as a lighthouse to guide other DMDII member companies through the organizational churn associated with implementing new standards and processes: “Any organization will stand to benefit by removing old, traditional or manual steps. Once they go through the process of allowing this digital format [IPC-2581] to be utilized, the automation of other PCB development steps will be much faster and have a greater impact on reducing overall cost.”
For Lockheed Martin and its supply chain, this translates to better boards, and ultimately, for the Air Force, better birds.