As the Space Race creates a need for accelerated manufacturing and more innovative design, aerospace engineers are facing growing pressure to quickly create new technology. Morgan Stanley analyst Adam Jonas estimated that by 2040, the market for space-related products and services will reach more than $1 trillion.

Core components driving the projected growth and making new space technologies possible are electronic design innovations. Aerospace printed circuit boards (PCBs) must operate in harsh environments without requiring maintenance and repairs, creating greater emphasis on the manufacturing process. Designing electronics for aerospace technology requires engineers to operate within certain limitations on available components, material types, equipment capabilities, board fabrication, and PCB assembly (PCBA) methods. Avionic engineers rely heavily on iterative prototype manufacturing to perfect designs, but the traditional electronics hardware development process is slow, laborious, and often generates mixed results.

An alternative is software-powered PCBA manufacturing. By working with a smart factory driven by agile hardware and software development processes, avionics engineers save time and resources, gaining valuable insights into the manufacturability of their designs.

Photo courtesy of Tempo Automation

Automating the build process

Software-based PCBA manufacturing in a smart factory relies on automation, robotics, and a digital thread, using end-to-end software automation to expedite the build process extending from the moment a board design is received, through its journey to completion. The flow of information from the engineer’s design to the machines and the people on the connected factory floor are all part of an automated process.

Key benefits include faster board turnarounds and a higher level of quality and design certainty.

Design traceability, visibility

When something goes wrong, engineers need to be able to adjust for improvement, but this can only be done when there’s highly granular traceability – critical because it determines the specific cause for error or defect. For critical systems in high-risk environments, it’s even more essential for engineers to be able to make component or design changes based on real-time data analytics.

Electronics manufacturer Tempo Automation, for example, developed proprietary software that creates a Fabrication Simulation, also known as a board visualizer tool, allowing engineers to see and examine a manufacturing-aware representation of the PCB before they commit to manufacture. The simulation shows a photorealistic view of the outer layers, including silkscreen, soldermask, surface finish, and top or bottom copper. Fabrication Simulation leverages software automation to unify traditionally disparate manufacturing data into an easy-to-understand visual preview. With a software-based approach, specific PCB material layers are simulated, intelligently overlaying the component placement information from the manufacturing bill of materials (BOM).

During prototyping, boards typically go through several iterations. With added traceability, engineers can identify specific issues, often related to the board’s materials or designability, and make changes before the product goes into production.

All parts and components are tracked in Tempo’s database, along with batch, lot, origination, and other material information, so traceability begins even before a CAD is uploaded and parts are ordered. The system tracks manufacturing data and materials used throughout the entire board build process, creating a comprehensive forensics data package that can pinpoint any issue within the board.

In addition to traceability, visibility into the status of a PCB order and into the progress of assembly are also key for ensuring projects stay on track. Today’s PCB manufacturing is a black box to the engineers, denying visibility until they get their board: After an order is placed with a contract manufacturer, engineers will often hear nothing about the build until it’s shipped back to them. This approach to PCB manufacturing keeps engineers in the dark, limiting their ability to plan.

In Tempo’s software-based smart factory, the software includes the Order Tracker which shows the board order in each step of the assembly and build process. From the initial design for manufacturing (DFM) review, to parts and fabrication check-in, assembly, and a final QA check, engineers are kept informed of the build status and are given full transparency into the timeline and expected delivery date, helping ensure their project stays on track.

Software-first landing system

Leveraging this software-based PCBA process, Tempo partnered with NASA in 2018, and worked as a contract manufacturer (CM) for its Mars 2020 Rover Mission. The Jet Propulsion Laboratory (NASA JPL) was developing the Entry, Descent, and Landing (EDL) system responsible for monitoring and controlling the spacecraft’s landing. However, while the descent takes roughly 7 minutes, there’s about a 14-minute delay in transmitting signals from Mars to Earth. Therefore, the Rover must make any necessary corrections or adjustments independently, without help from the controllers on Earth. Unexpected contingencies (such as overheating or slamming into Mars’ surface or another object) could damage the Rover or end the mission.

The development of the electronics systems for the Mars 2020 Rover EDL camera system was a multi-year project. To ensure quality standards were met within the allotted schedule, NASA needed a CM that could build boards fast, respond to and resolve adjustments quickly, and meet IPC 610 Class 3 or J-STD-001 with Space Addendum standards.

Tempo performed several inspections during assembly, using tools such as the Fabrication Simulation, to ensure secure component mounting. A component assembly problem was detected during an automated optical inspection (AOI) and was traced to a problem with the silkscreen design. This discovery and Tempo’s suggested solution led to improved design with minimal impact on the product development schedule. Additional feedback from Tempo also led to minor changes to enhance board quality.

Overall, by leveraging a software-based approach for PCBA, NASA was able to save critical time and expense on the project and make important changes to the design to optimize and improve it.

Tempo Automation

About the author: Ryan Saul is senior director of sales engineering at Tempo Automation. He can be reached at or 415. 320.1261 or

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