The power of the panel

The next episode in our series on getting the best value out of your surface mount assembler is panelising. The surface mount assembly process involves three main steps for each board (or panel):

  1. solder pasting
  2. placing surface mount components on the board using the pick and place machine
  3. melting the solder in a reflow oven

Each of these stages is faster if you have the maximum number of boards possible within a single panel. Suppose it is possible to have ten boards in a single panel. That can make solder pasting ten times faster.

Some gains are also possible with the pick and place machine stage, if a board takes less than a minute to populate, there could be a delay between putting it into the machine and moving to the reflow stage. The pick and place machine itself will place components more efficiently if populating an entire panel of boards instead of individual boards, since there will be fewer nozzle changes needed.

Depending on the reflow set-up, panelisation can make things much faster or just a little. If the reflow oven is automated, taking boards that exit the pick and place machine, the speed increase may be a multiple of one dimension of the panelised board. For ovens with manual input, panelisation will greatly reduce the handling required. Imagine the relative effort of carefully placing 10 boards in an oven versus one. The operator needs to be careful to avoid touching the solder paste, as well as making sure that the board is level and not jerked about, or components will be dislodged. It’s a bit like a waiter bringing a full bowl of soup to a diner.

Panelising may also provide savings at later stages, for example, if the boards need to be cleaned, then this will be faster if an entire panel can be cleaned at once.

In some cases, a board must be panelised, for example, if it is too small to be populated by the machine. The Europlacer XPii requires the board to be at least 50mm by 50mm. It must also have two parallel sides with 5mm clearance to allow it to be held by the machine.

Not all manufacturers work the same way. The degree of automation will differ. Pick and place machines vary in their capabilities. So the exact savings will differ. But as a very rough guide, if  your board is very small, has an unusual shape, or you need at least 40 boards and can fit at least 4 boards in a panel, it is likely to be worth panelising.

Why is Cut Tape such a Bad Idea?

Cut tape wastes an assembler’s time and may cost you more money than you save on parts

When getting your short run of PCB assembly for your design you may be tempted to just buy cut tape for your parts, since full reels have thousands of components on them and may cost more. However, consider what happens when you provide cut tape to your assembler.

Cut tape mounted in feeder elements 1 and 4. All other feeders contain reels of components.

For each cut tape, the assembler needs to mount it on a feeder, so parts can be automatically fed into the machine for placement.

Peeled back tape
The end of the cut tape has been peeled back to allow a leader tape to be attached using some joiner tape. Components need to be removed from the exposed pockets.

Each feeder needs a couple of feet of blank leader tape, attached with special tape to your piece of cut tape. The first 3 or 4 components worth of cut tape will need to be peeled back to attach the leader tape.  Those 3-4 components need to be repocketed at a later time in the cut tape, which leads to extra manual handling and can be a source of error and lost parts.

Attaching joiner tape

If you also supply only the exact number of parts required for your boards, the assembler may need to spend extra time dealing with misfeeds, or possibly not do a complete run for you due to dropped components. If you do choose to use cut tape, supply at least 5 additional components, to allow efficient handling.

Let’s look at some costs associated with an example run. Suppose you have 20 pieces of cut tape for your job. For each tape, there is ~$1 of joiner tape needed, plus about 10 minutes of extra time per type of component. At average engineer rates of ~$50 per hour this adds about $200 to your job. If you are only doing 20 boards, that’s $10 per board. Figures will differ for different manufacturers, and some machines may be better or worse at handling cut tape, but as a rough estimate, assume that your job costs $10 more per cut tape and that you will fail to get a complete run unless you supply extra components.

Leader tape secured with joiner tape

A further thing to be aware of is that there is no guarantee that you will get a single piece of cut tape for each part when you buy your components as cut tape. You may end up with several pieces, and each of these needs to be mounted separately. The extra pieces of cut tape will either stop production as they need to be mounted when the previous pieces have been consumed, or they will take up extra feeder slots. The number of components lost in production is proportional to the number of pieces of cut tape for the part. Since it is known that components provided as cut tape can be in multiple pieces of tape, assemblers will either have to assume the worst when they give you a quote, wait until they see the components before giving a quote, or just give an estimate before the job.

Pick regions for cut tape and normal tape. Note the length of the leader tape in each case.








There are various solutions to the curse of cut tape.

  • Buy a full reel
  • Buy your small number of components and get them put on a reel for manufacture by the supplier (eg. ~$7 reeling fee for a “digireel” from Digikey)
  • For standard components such as passives, you might be able to cheaply use the assembler’s reels. We like to encourage the use of our stock of standard passives, and may even provide these for free for your job, as it saves us time and hassle.
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