PCB etching is a subtractive method of making PCB prototypes in which surface material, generally copper, is removed from the surface of a bare board, leaving only the circuit pattern. There are two prevalent PCB etching processes, laser etching and chemical etching.
Laser PCB etching requires a bare board and an in-house laser cutting machine. After importing design schematics into the machine, it will etch the PCB using a high-powered UV or IR laser. The laser ablates the unwanted copper, leaving behind the necessary copper traces for function.
Chemical PCB etching involves the use of ferric chloride, a corrosive chemical compound. After being lined with a chemical resist mask, a board is placed in a bath containing the ferric chloride. Here the chemical eats away at the copper not concealed by the mask, leaving the desired traces behind.
As a method for producing PCB prototypes, etching PCBs with lasers has several advantages over chemical PCB etching.
- Speed. Modern laser systems etch complex, custom PCBs in mere minutes.
- Non-contact PCB etching. By eliminating the corrosive element of the chemical etching process, traces will be free of undercut and other performance hindrances caused by geometric inaccuracies.
- Control. The ability to find errors early in the prototyping process, and thus make revisions on the fly, saves money and reduces time spent waiting on an outside provider.
The advantages of PCB etching with LPKF include:
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- Superior precision. LPKF laser machines etch PCBs with trace/space as small as 2 mil/1 mil (50 μm/25 μm).
- Unmatched repeatability and quality. LPKF laser machines craft production quality prototypes and offer the highest repeatability results possible, surpassing the capabilities of mechanical milling and chemical etching.
- Ease of use. The intuitive interface of LPKF laser machines makes producing PCB prototypes a breeze. In the time it takes to fill out an invoice to have it etched by a board house, a user can instead produce the PCB him/herself.
- Compatibility. LPKF CircuitPro software interprets nearly any circuit design file format, from Gerber to DXF, while the machines can process virtually any circuit board material- from FR4 to PTFE to ceramics such as RO3000.