Why high-def displays are replacing eyepiece lenses for close-up views of PCBs.

The digital revolution has come to visual inspection of printed circuit boards. Traditional optical microscopes used to inspect PCBs for over half a century are being replaced with high-resolution cameras, high-definition monitors and user-friendly interfaces. What’s behind the mainstreaming of digital microscopes on shop floors and laboratories around the world? The biggest drivers are image quality, ease of use and measurement capability.

In addition to the performance gains, digital microscopes are cost-competitive. Acquisition costs of digital equipment are typically lower than those of comparable quality optical microscopes, and they require little, if any, maintenance. There are no eyepieces to get scratched or damaged, no gears to strip, and no opportunities for dust accumulation to detract from picture quality. Factory utilization rates tend to be higher than that of optical models because they are used more frequently and often shared among multiple departments.

Optical microscopes will never go extinct; they will always have their place in electronics inspection. Certain specimens or subjects that require depth perception are better viewed optically, and many optical systems offer an option of digital image capture. For the majority of the microscopy needs on shop floors, however, digital imaging alone is a faster, easier, more cost-effective means of visually inspecting circuits.

If a picture is worth a thousand words, a live high-definition video or high-resolution still is priceless, especially when inspecting small devices, producing documentation or describing problems to multiple viewers simultaneously – even those connected remotely via the Internet. The digital revolution has expanded the role of the traditional microscope in electronics inspection by adding new capabilities and applications. The simplicity and effectiveness of modern digital imaging technology are now enabling better communications among coworkers within departments, companies and supply chains.

Figure 1. A comparison of digital and optical microscopes.

Chrys Shea is founder of Shea Engineering Services (sheaengineering.com); chrys@sheaengineering.com. Kristoffer Tømmergaard is electronics segment project manager for Tagarno (tagarno.com/electronics). Contact Sam Armstrong; sam@tagarnousa.com.

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