August 10, 2017

The drama of the PCB

The current NHK Asadora takes place during the 1960s. Mineko, a country girl, ventures from her rural farming village in northern Ibaraki prefecture (the "sticks" at the time, now a one-hour commute by Shinkansen) to Tokyo to help support her family.

During Japan's boom years in the 1960s, recruiters often turned to these outlying areas to supply factories with assembly line workers. The factories provided room and board (and many still do today).

Mineko's first job is "stuffing" or "populating" printed circuit boards (PCBs) for the brand new transistor radios. Women were deemed better suited for the job because of their slender fingers.

The 1964 Olympics was a big, big deal in Japan (even Hollywood got into the act). So much so that it produced an economic bubble, thanks to the accelerated work on the first showcase Shinkansen line and all the people buying the very latest radios and TVs.

The bubble popped when the Olympics ended, producing a short recession before the economic juggernaut got back up to speed again.

During this economic downturn, the company Mineko is working for goes bankrupt. Unsurprisingly. It was basically an overgrown mom & pop operation with factory floor the size of a basketball court and no room to expand.

Not much in the way of productivity gains could be made by hiring more girls to insert electronic components into circuit boards. This labor-intensive production model gave way to larger economies of scale and automation techniques such as wave soldering (patented in 1956).

In the drama, Mineko ends up working at a restaurant. Alas, the Asadora audience isn't as interested in electronics manufacturing as I am.

Populating PCBs is one of those invisible manufacturing processes our lives have grown dependent upon. Over the past half-century, the technology has become astoundingly efficient, not even counting the productivity gains made by replacing most of the components with integrated circuits.

The old way (what Mineko did on her assembly line) is "PCB Assembly Through Hole." The leads of the electronic components are literally fed through holes in the PCB and soldered.

Since the 1980s, "Surface Mount" PCBs have overtaken "Through Hole." With Surface Mount, there's no "threading the needle." The parts are glued onto the surface of the PCB and and then soldered using, for example, pre-soldered contacts and precision hot air guns.

But "Through Hole" remains alive and kicking wherever ruggedness and power transmission are primary concerns. Yeah, AI and humanoid robots are plenty cool, but the machines that populate PCBs never fail to impress me.

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