Flying Probe Testing: Lending PCB Manufacturers an Edge

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With manufacturers under pressure to create even more innovative electronic devices year after year, they are also looking for more ways to significantly improve their processes. This is not only true for their manufacturing procedures—they also want to make their research and development efforts more efficient.

And the key to this R&D drive is automation. In manufacturing, gone are the days when each circuit board is manually made by soldering individual electronic componentson a copper sheet. Nor do companies need to hire armies of workers to assemble hundreds of these boards in a day. By using motorized assembly lines, circuit boards are printed automatically, reducing manufacturing time and reducing the risk of errors.

The same goes in research and development. Instead of hiring a team of professionals to manually test prototype printed circuit boards (PCB), flying probe testing is now implemented. This process helps ensure a thorough QA check for the prototype, helping spot errors before that PCB is green-lighted for mass production.

How Flying Probe Testing Works

Like the manufacturing processes for PCBs in the past, prototype testing efforts were also once fully manual. For example, an engineer would manually check if pieces are soldered correctly, if they’re installed in the right places, and if there are any components missing. However, this can take a lot of time; it is also prone to human error, especially considering the small size of some circuit boards.

That’s where flying probe testing comes in. To use it, simply load up the PCB on a tray and start the process. As the name suggests, instead of a human manually handling a probe to test the PCB, a collection of probes will be lowered on the board and to do that painstaking work instead.

To power these probes, a machine for flying probe testing will have brushless DC motors installed for the task. These motors can be as small as 12.7 mm in diameter, yet can still offer speeds of up to 100,000 rpm. Thanks to the small size of these motors and probes, flying probe testing offers improved access to different parts of the PCB,covering a greater area to check for faults.

This small size is best for testing complex prototype circuit boards for handheld devices, such as the ones used in smartphones or fitness trackers. And of course, the fast-speed of the motor allows more prototypes to be checked in a shorter period of time.

Other Applications

Of course, flying probe testing is not only applicable for trying out prototypes. It is also suitable for low-volume manufacturing applications. Admittedly, there are a few downsides to this testing method, such as the lack of powerup testing. This method is also not suitable for use with bare boards and reverse-engineered ones. However, the advantages of this process easily outweigh it.

Hence, for niche PCB manufacturing requirements or prototype creation, flying probe testing is the way to go. While the investment required to set up this process may be a significant amount, it will definitely pay for itself in the long run.