Fresh PCB Concepts: UL Certification for the Safety of PCBs

NCAB-JeffBeauchamp.jpgSecurity is essential in the electronics industry. It is vital that users can rely on the finished products when considering factors such as fire and electrical safety, which means that both the PCB and the materials they contain must measure up to the highest standards. To ensure that the boards do conform, it has become common practice to UL-certify the constituent materials or the PCB itself. In this column I am going to discuss UL certification, what’s involved and why you need it.

The acronym UL stands for Underwriter's Laboratories. Founded in 1894, UL is a globally recognized organization headquartered in the United States with locations all over the world . UL describes itself this way: “As the global safety science leader, UL helps companies to demonstrate safety, enhance sustainability, strengthen security, deliver quality, manage risk and achieve regulatory compliance.” It has more than 150 laboratories and 10,000 employees. In relation to PCBs, UL has almost 60 years of experience testing and approving materials to make a board as well as the board itself. This includes electrical and fire safety, and mechanical durability.

Having UL recognition ensures the end customer of a PCB will not have to spend extra time and resources on their own tests while also sending a strong message that your company cares about safety and sustainability. It’s also important to note that processes can affect safety. Simply because all the materials used in PCB production are UL-approved, materials can be influenced by the manufacturing or the design—say if two different materials are combined with one another.

Customers from around the world demand factories that can achieve UL recognition. Having UL recognition is very important for PCB factories to produce secure boards and be able to access the international market. Specifically in China, there are more than 1,200 PCB factories with UL recognition. All NCAB factories, for example, must have UL recognition for any given configuration they are approved to manufacture. This is one of the first steps in sourcing a new factory as a partner. Although it is still important to continuously evaluate this as PCB technology, it increases and changes exponentially. As a new technology emerges, we need to make sure a factory is approved for that material and/or process. Also of note, UL does not mean the quality of the board is certified exclusively. For NCAB Group, it is just one of several factors we implement to determine quality of delivery.

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UL recognition can also be required by law when exporting to some countries. The big challenge with UL is that for a PCB factory it is both costly and time consuming to obtain UL recognition for all the base laminates, prepregs, solder masks, and so on, in various combinations of builds. There is a great temptation for PCB factories—even those in the USA and Europe—to take shortcuts with their recognition. The consequences can be disastrous for someone who supplies products without UL recognition or with incorrect marking. In the worst case, they would be forced to do a general product recall from the market—leading to huge costs and perhaps even bankruptcy. As a purchaser and user of PCBs, you risk falling into many traps regarding UL recognition. It is vital to thoroughly check that the factories’ certifications really apply to the products you are buying.

When purchasing PCBs with safety in mind, I recommend always buying from a reputable source, and to inspect the UL marking on PCBs. All boards must be labeled in a specific way, to enable you to track where they were manufactured. UL has an online directory of certifications and a database for PCBs, laminates, and surface materials. When in doubt, contact your trusted PCB supplier. If they are unable to support you in this matter, beware.

Jeffrey Beauchamp is a field application engineer at NCAB Group.

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2021

Fresh PCB Concepts: UL Certification for the Safety of PCBs

02-18-2021

Security is essential in the electronics industry. It is vital that users can rely on the finished products when considering factors such as fire and electrical safety, which means that both the PCB and the materials they contain must measure up to the highest standards. To ensure that the boards do conform, it has become common practice to UL certify the constituent materials or the PCB itself. In this column I am going to discuss UL certification, what’s involved and why you need it.

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Fresh PCB Concepts: RF PCB Designs–Challenges, Solutions and Tips

01-14-2021

Today, RF circuitry is crammed into a large variety of commercial products. Most of these are handheld wireless devices for medical, industrial, and communications applications. There are also applications in a variety of fields that are migrating from desktop models to become portable communications units.

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2020

Fresh PCB Concepts: How 5G is Influencing PCB Technology Trends

12-17-2020

We have all heard about the Internet of Things (IoT) and artificial intelligence (AI). In combination with the increased data transfer rates available through 5G, they can open up a whole new level of connectivity and communication between devices and things.

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Fresh PCB Concepts: Finding and Qualifying a Long-Term Partner

11-05-2020

Finding the right factories is not an easy task. Anyone can take customers’ files and send them to whichever factory is available. But what guarantees does the customer have that the factory used is reliable in producing the design? Ruben Contreras details how to find and qualify a long-term partner.

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Fresh PCB Concepts: 4 Characteristics to Consider When Selecting PCB Base Materials

10-08-2020

Selecting the correct material is critical if you want your circuit board to survive the assembly process or come out of the assembly process in good condition. Jeffrey Beauchamp explains the four main characteristics from the IPC-4101 material specification that are critical in finding the performance of your base material.

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Fresh PCB Concepts: Advantages of Application-Engineered PCBs

09-17-2020

When working with your PCB supplier, do you have a dedicated engineering resource to help with the design of your PCB before fabrication? How about a resource that has experience and knowledge about the different applications for PCBs? Jeffrey Beauchamp explains how this is one of the most important and valuable factors when producing high-reliability PCBs, as well as what—or who—this resource could be.

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Fresh PCB Concepts: How Do You Calculate Finished Copper?

08-13-2020

How do you calculate finished copper on a PCB? This may sound simple, but Ruben Contreras has seen copper thickness called out either on the drawing or the specification, which can lead to additional EQs and, in some cases, additional costs. In this column, he explains the unintentional results that can come from misunderstanding what was requested.

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Fresh PCB Concepts: Pros and Cons of the 6 Most Common Surface Finishes

07-23-2020

There are only two different types of surface finishes for PCBs: organic and metal. Harry Kennedy describes the pros and cons of the six most common finishes on the market.

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Fresh PCB Concepts: 7 Options for Via Treatment

06-18-2020

In some cases, it's acceptable to have via holes that are completely exposed in a PCB design. But there are many others where the hole should either be covered and/or tented, or in most cases, plugged. Jeffrey Beauchamp shares seven different via hole protection types based on IPC-4761.

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Fresh PCB Concepts: Why Design and Produce PCBs Beyond Industry Specification?

05-07-2020

While questions may be an annoyance, especially when you finally have a board designed and are ready to have it built for a product, Ruben Contreras explains the importance of asking these questions and requiring specifications.

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Fresh PCB Concepts: What You Should Know About Your Board’s Solder Mask

04-09-2020

It’s a weird time we’re all in, and for most designers, work has slowed down or even stopped. While work might have slowed, now is a good time to review some of your past PCB projects to see if you can improve functionality and reduce field failures. Harry Kennedy explains how one of the simplest ways to do that is to start from the top: solder mask.

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Fresh PCB Concepts: The Benefits of Being a PCB Producer Without Owning Any Factories

03-19-2020

With NCAB's infrastructure and factory management team based in China, many customers ask why they don’t own any factories. Jeffrey Beauchamp explains how it's part of the company's long-term strategy and an advantage to our customers that they don’t own any factories. Instead, they “own” what is most important: the relationship with the factory.

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2019

Fresh PCB Concepts: Designing a PCB for Telecom Applications

12-12-2019

Jeff Beauchamp and Harry Kennedy discuss PCBs for telecommunication applications, including key factors to consider, such as design and material considerations. They also recommend involving your PCB supplier at the time of design to help ensure manufacturability at the lowest possible cost.

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Fresh PCB Concepts: The Current Material Situation

11-11-2019

We have all heard about the component crisis in the circuit board industry, and maybe you heard about the CCL shortage, but how many are aware of the bare board material shortage? Ruben Contreras explains the current material situation and tips to address this issue.

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Fresh PCB Concepts: Getting It Right From the Start

10-23-2019

When faced with critical time-to-market situations, it is all too easy to say, “It doesn’t matter because this is just the prototype; we can fix this later.” However, if the design is perfected from the beginning, cost savings can be applied, and manufacturability can be ensured. Perhaps most importantly, the design can be adapted with reliability in mind, leaving a seamless transition from prototype to production. How do we get it right from the start?

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Fresh PCB Concepts: Why Material Selection Matters

10-02-2019

When you’re designing a PCB, it’s standard to call out FR-4 material, but you could be holding yourself back or even exposing your board to risk by not knowing more about PCB materials. Let’s take a small look into why. What Is FR-4, exactly? Harry Kennedy of NCAB explains.

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Fresh PCB Concepts: Qualities of Medically Applied PCBs

08-26-2019

In this inaugural column from NCAB Group, Alifiya Arastu discusses details of PCBs used in medical applications, highlighting some of the differences in terms of demands and how the design must be handled.

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