What is the Automatic Test Equipment PCB?

Targeted towards verification of the functionality of a specific semiconductor chip, all major test activities use an automatic test equipment printed circuit board (ATE PCB) or simply a test board. Testing semiconductor chips with advanced functionality is necessary for manufacturers to ensure their reliability and functionality to OEM customers, and establish they operate according to their specifications.

In simple terms, the ATE PCB serves as an interface between the specific semiconductor chip and a large test system. The design and assembly of ATE PCBs allows testing an array of a large variety of semiconductor chips that includes field-programmable arrays, system-on-a-chip, memory chips, microprocessors, micro-controllers, and many more. As semiconductor chips are complex, the design and assembly of one ATE PCB makes it capable of testing only one particular type of chip set at a time.

Chipmakers employ a group of experienced project and program managers, along with highly trained engineering personnel for designing and assembling ATE PCBs to achieve the unique chip-testing quality. For this, conventional PCB assembly knowledge and experience is not adequate, and requires enhanced assembly line technical expertise along with highly disciplined administration management. Any misstep towards a successful completion of an ATE PCB can result in considerable loss of time-to-market along with a huge monetary loss.

Compared to conventional commercial and industrial PCBs, ATE PCBs are considerably different, and chipmakers usually differentiate them in three main ways—their larger size, number of layers, and the extra processes necessary. ATE PCBs are highly reliable and extremely robust, and their fabricators take special care to free them of assembly process residues and debris.

As the ATE PCB is so different, it is also difficult to make. This requires program managers associated with ATE PCB projects to have knowledge beyond that required for conventional PCBs, including all the nuances associated with ATE PCBs. They need to understand unconventional illustrations and diagrams, as these are the hallmark of projects involving ATE PCBs.

At the same time, technical personnel associated with the assembly of an ATE PCB need high-level knowledge and skill-set. This includes relevant hardware, tester orientation and configuration, stiffeners, cables, and other paraphernalia related to the ATE PCB. Both the assembly engineers and program managers must thoroughly understand the electronic format input required for designing a custom ATE PCB.

Unlike the netlist format conventional PCBs use, the input for ATE PCBs is usually in the form of map drawings, bitmaps, and ball maps. That means assembly engineers and program managers must be fully capable of creating the appropriate netlist after translating the original data from these unconventional methodologies.

As the ATE PCBs are large, typically measuring 12 x 10 inches or 14 x 14 inches, the pick-and-place systems for assembling these PCBs are also unlike those for populating conventional PCBs. They are capable of handling and populating large footprint boards, such as 20 x 24 inches to 26 x 30 inches.

These pick-and-place machines are extremely precise and highly accurate. Some of the latest machines can easily populate a board with 32 thousand components per hour at 21-µm fine-pitch repeatability. Such advanced machines also have the capability of selective or spot soldering.