The process of manufacturing the Printed Circuit Board laminate is handled by subcontractors. It is messy, time consuming, needs hundreds of square meters of space and few companies integrate it into their manufacturing process. It is a very interesting process to watch (well, if you enjoy visiting factories...) - we have some photos of an older PCB manufacturing plant. We outline the steps in the process below.
We buy some PCBs in Australia, and have some PCBs made offshore. An Australian company
offers you dependable quality and delivery, and they value your business. To an offshore
manufacturer your order will seem small, but the work will be cheap.
Unfortunately, going offshore is the trend. If you make a list of PCB manufacturers
in Australia, there are only a couple that don't send at least some of their work offshore.
Out of that list, only a handful are real manufacturers and even have the capability
to manufacture in Australia - the rest are sales agents sending the work to China.
It does surprise me a little. It costs $60 an hour to employ the technician that installs, configures or services specialist electronics - and $120 an hour if you want him subcontract, without sick pay etc. Yet for the board inside the product that this guy installs, we send it offshore to gain a difference in price of $1.80 vs $6 a PCB (in volume). It is strategically irrepsonsible, But that is the way things are.
An idea put forward recently is that PCB manufacture will be replaced by 3D printing. My opinion is that the scale of the task is wrong for this to happen in the near future. Right now the price of PCB manufacture for double sided work (offshore) is trending towards about $80 per square metre even in moderately small volumes. That is for a circuit board that has geometries of 8mil x 8 mil or less, thousands of holes, thru-hole vias, routing, soldermask, overlay.
We saw the advent of robotic assembly for surface mount (pick and place), but it is my opinion that traditional plate and etch lines will stay the standard production method for PCBs for some time to come - with the exposure and screen print steps becoming more automated - and so, more flexible. As a side note I would add that existing PCB milling is an alternative way to produce prototypes, although without PTH holes, and it is on the same individual scale as 3D printing - giving it a certain adventurous appeal.