Soldering on: PCBs and the Economy of Errors
Jing He and Raul Ionel
A Printed Circuit Board (PCB) is an essential component of almost every electronic device and system interacted with on a daily basis, and they have a significant industry presence in Timișoara. Although precision manufacturing and assembly of PCBs are essential for ensuring functionality, they are still manufactured through the error-prone methodology of soldering. For the project ‘Error-driven Economy’, Jing He has artistically reinterpreted Raul Ionel’s research into the types of PCB errors and the economic impact of correcting them.
He is a visual artist from China, currently based in the Netherlands, with a keen interest in the cultural, political, and historical aspects of everyday objects. Ionel is an associate professor in the Measurements and Optical Electronics Department of the Faculty of Electronics, Telecommunications, and Information Technologies at the Politehnica University of Timișoara. His expertise lies in virtual instrumentation, LabVIEW, MATLAB, data acquisition, AOI, boundary scan, and functional testing.
In this interview, He and Ionel reflect on the development of their project, the contrasting artistic and scientific attitudes towards materials and techniques, and the social and cultural exchange they shared through collaborating.
In arts and design, errors are often seen as fundamental to the creative process. Raul, how does the error give shape to your work?
Raul Ionel: In the world of testing, we always try to eliminate errors. But we are happy that we cannot do this completely, because it means we will always have work. As technology evolves, a pile of errors always accompanies this evolution. It’s a continuous battle. But as the title of our project—‘Error-driven Economy’—indicates, the error is what has led to the entire industry of testing, so in a way it also plays a creative role in my industry.
What are the main sources of error in Printed Circuit Board (PCB) soldering today?
RI: There are two categories of error: systematic errors and random errors. Systematic errors have a known cause—for instance, faulty connections due to low-quality soldering material. Knowing the source of the error, you only have to think of how to mitigate it. Random errors, on the other hand, are unpredictable. They can be caused by operator error, for example, or due to defects in the machine caused by imperfect components. These errors often stem from economic considerations—for instance, ‘we will use cheaper resistors because we want to earn extra money for the Christmas party this year’.
Jing He: The tolerance of errors often depends on financial decisions. Some errors are identified but ignored, because they are not considered worth the investment required to fix them. There is a better solution, but it’s not always worth investing in.
RI: It all financially depends on what industry you are acting within. If you are producing vacuum cleaners, it’s not a huge problem if a capacitor blows up; you can always replace it. But if the robot on Mars breaks, then it’s not that easy to replace the components. So, the tolerance for errors is much lower.
To flip the title around, then it’s not just the error-driven economy, but also economy-driven errors. Over the course of your career, has increasing automation led to the increase or decrease of errors?
RI: I can only speak to some cases. The assembly of automotive clusters, for example, has been automated in some factories in the region. It seems that these companies are very satisfied with the automation process. The system does not make many mistakes when repeating the same assembly process over and over again. In this case, the errors have been reduced, but what if the automation is not very accurate? Then automation runs the risk of propagating an error throughout the entire system. So, I would not say that automation necessarily reduces errors, but I would say it can help.
Contrary to the demands of the economy the project is based on amplifying the error: the scaling up of common soldering errors in PCB manufacturing. Why did you pursue this strategy?
JH: By scaling up, I wanted to give an emotional connection to the audience. We use PCB boards every day, but they remain cold and logical, far removed from daily experience. By enlarging some details, they begin to look random and organic, bringing the viewer emotionally closer to the details. Even though they represent mistakes, the forms are not random. The forms were derived from illustrations of common soldering mistakes I found in a booklet of industry standards. The mistakes are so common that they each have their own name.
How did you select the materials and techniques for crafting the objects?
JH: I used only materials that are actually present on PCB boards, like plastic, ceramic, and metal. But of course, not the same type of ceramic and not the same type of plastic. I found it interesting that so many components are made of ceramic; it’s really an industrial material. The production techniques were also derived from the real techniques used in PCB manufacturing, such as 3D printing. To shape the error forms in ceramic, I used my hands. I found it surprising that soldering is still used, although it is quite difficult to control. I wanted to capture this high-tech, low-tech combination in the technique, so I set up a playground for myself to shape the clay.
Raul, what was it like for you to see the details of your research amplified in this way?
RI: I never expected the result; I was totally surprised. The objects that Jing created zoom into our microscopic world of PCB production. I would be very happy to have them, and to present them to our students, because they express exactly some ideas of what’s really happening in the engineering world.
JH: I didn’t expect the work to become an educational tool (laughs).
Jing, your work often attends to the cultural context of objects. Do you see the technical protocols and standards in this project as forms of culture?
JH: Well, like technical standards, culture is also constructed step-by-step, over time: it is not natural. You realise this when you change into another context, and then look back and can recognise what culture you come from. This was my experience growing up in China and moving to the Netherlands. Coming to the Netherlands helped me understand where I come from, and the soft rules and traditions that make up that context. Things that I thought were natural were actually made up by people at certain points in time.
How did the cultural context of Romania in particular give shape to this project?
RI: I have been lucky enough to travel and work in different countries around the world. Returning to Romania, I have seen the country become more attractive in the past ten years for electronic manufacturing companies. Twenty years ago, Romania was not the greatest place to gain experience in electronics because there were too few points on the map where they produced something. Nowadays, Romania is gaining more and more ground in the field of electronics and software. Even so, Romania has great learning opportunities nowadays, and more and more young people are wanting to stay in the country for this reason. We even have people coming from other countries to work here. We did not launch a rocket to Mars, but we can produce for Mercedes, BMW or Porsche.
What factors have contributed to this shift?
RI: I would say a mix of economic policies, institutions, and companies. Economically speaking, let’s not ignore the fact that wages are lower than in other countries. We are still an affordable country. But in my experience, many companies have been surprised by Romanian people. Many younger Romanian people can speak English, which is not that common in the region. This, and the fact that Romanians are very open —nationalism in Romania is quite low—encourages companies to keep on trying to expand their business here. But I don’t know how much longer this will work economically.
JH: I had never been to Romania, but I was always curious about its communist history. Coming from China, I was interested in how a country with a similar political history has evolved in the years since the revolution. The history is very complicated and is not directly related to the project, but it’s something I feel very excited about.
Text by Connor Cook