Clive Ashmore

Reconfigurable with dedicated-like support.

As board complexity has increased with decreasing pitches, thicknesses and component sizes, ensuring support for thin, high-density substrates – essential to cost-effective, pinpoint accuracy stencil printing – continues to pose challenges. Using vacuum to secure miniaturized assemblies is, for the most part, a successful technique but requires the use of dedicated tooling plates, which can be costly. Considering the quantities of dedicated tooling blocks needed in a high-volume manufacturing environment, finding a suitable, lower-cost alternative has been a longstanding ambition. And, while commercialized automatic pin-based tooling systems are a good option for some applications, they are not as effective for high-density, thin boards.

How, then, do we bridge the gap and provide similar quality substrate support without requiring a dedicated tooling plate for each product and each SMT line? One solution lies in a high-flow vacuum system that supports the PCB – no matter how densely populated – through an almost counterintuitive use of airflow, low-pressure vacuum and reconfigurable metal plates (FIGURE 1). The plates – which are tooling height, approximately 2.0mm thick and constructed of different lengths – can be configured and overlapped to form a box, the top of which is constructed slightly smaller than the PCB perimeter so the edges of the substrate sit on the frame. The rising table contains a vent, and support pins are placed for stability. Once positioned, the tooling cube creates a semi-sealed environment where the vacuum pulls air through the table vent to create substrate stability during the print cycle. Unlike a conventional vacuum connected to a tooling plate, which uses a sealed technique to generate incredible pull (trust me, don’t get your finger anywhere near the vacuum pipe!), this new approach floods the area with tremendous amounts of air, allows for leakage (unlike dedicated plates) and securely holds the PCB with low vacuum. While there is upfront time to set the plates in the desired location, this system provides the support needed for thin, high-density, heavily routed PCBs without the expense of dedicated plates, and it can be reconfigured for an infinite number of board sizes.

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