Understanding the Importance of a Top-Quality PCB
This article details why the PCB has become one of the most sought-after electrical components of the current time. It may very well be one of the smallest components used in electronics and digital devices, but for many in the industry it is one of the most important components that drives innovation and change. The idea herein will be to detail what exactly a PCB is and how they work, and then to discuss why this tiny piece of tech or hardware has become one of the most principal pieces of electrical engineering tech that there is. The article is presented in the simplest language possible to be able to create the best understanding for those of all levels of technical knowhow and design prowess.
What is a PCB
At its most basic a PC board is a non-conductive board that has conductive lines printed or etched on its surface connecting all the electrical control components together to create a working circuit or assembly. They can be single layer or multilayered and sandwiched together with insulated barriers between them. The PCB is used to connect electrical components together in a controlled and organized fashion. Every electronic device will have one and though they may be quite simple in application, they are essential for safety, power management and continued communication between electrical components in the overall system.
Types of PCB
There are number of different types of PCB and these are determined by the end use. During the design and conceptualization process it is determined what type of PCB will both work best for the task at hand and what shape will fit best in the electrical device being designed. Generally, they come in a single layer, double layer, multilayer PCB, high density and high frequency variants. Again, the specific type of PCB chosen will specifically depend on the complexity of the connection required between components and how many tasks the PCB will control.
There are a number of specific uses for PCBs and although it was mainly the automotive sector that reported on their experience of the chip and PCB shortage. All electronic production sectors were challenged to their core, as the most basic and yet most universally needed components were simply not available in the numbers that were required. Below are the main sectors that use PCBs and those that will be most affected by a continued downturn in the PCB sector.
- Medical devices
A printed circuit board assembly is used in medical devices (mainly in implantable medical devices) such as pacemakers and ear implants. The PCBA is essentially a PCB that has had additional components assembled and added to it, so that the implant is as small as possible and yet remains electronically efficient and effective. PCBs are also used in the more modern medical assessment and smart wearable medical tech such as smart heart rate monitors and smart watches.
The increase in PCBs used in medical monitoring and reporting is both a welcome technological advancement, but also presents as quite a high risk. Risky in the sense that any fault in the PCB or poor manufacturing methods could very easily result in the death of a patient. The medical PCB must also be as small as possible, of a high density and incredibly reliable.
- Consumer electronics
Pretty much every consumer electronic product that you can think of has a PCB controlling the sequence of electronic processes that are required to make the device work as it should. Residential and LED lighting is a prime example of where the PCB is essential for power management and connectivity. However, the main use for the PCB in the consumer electronics sector has to be their use in mobile phones and computers. One of the main challenges in this regard is to make the PCB as cost effectively as possible so that the cost of the end product is also kept affordable. Another issue for consumer electronics is to ensure the durability or sustainability of the PCB, so that the mobile phone or laptop can last as long as possible without experiencing electrical faults and short circuits.
- Industrial equipment
Most of the equipment in manufacturing and distribution are powered by electronic components. Manufacturing tools, measurement and robotics are all built on the PCB as a main switch or component connection. These PCBs need to be strong enough to handle harsh conditions, corrosive chemicals and vibrating machinery. Thus, the industrial version of the PCB, may be designed and built on a metal base and is less flexible than those used in other applications. As robotics and the Internet Of Things comes to the fore in industry there will be a need for PCBs with more connections and higher density as well as those that are hardier, stronger and smaller.
- Automotive components
It was in the automotive sector that the shortage of PCB components first raised its head. As the increase in other consumer electronics grew there was a fall in automotive products and vehicles as the microchips required for their PCBs were simply not available in the quality that was required. Vital safety and driving sensors are all controlled and run using PCBs as well as the windscreen wipers, entertainment and navigation and even the control systems such as fuel regulations. They are thus an essential component of any vehicle and go a long way to making driving and transport both safer and more controlled.
- Aerospace and maritime
All power supply, monitoring and communication between devices, machines and vehicles used in Aerospace and maritime applications need to have a PCB to function. Navigation units, weapons control and firing mechanisms are all run on a PCB as the main means of communication from the CPU to the various component parts.
The Current State of Play
The recent prolonged shortage of chips and semiconductors which are the main components of the PCB has meant that circuit board design has become one of the most important design jobs in the world. All manner of industries with specific reference to the automotive and aerospace sectors have begun to design and develop their own PCB components and PCBs.
The shortages in components, copper foil, and expertise are expected to continue well into 2023, but there have been some significant positive changes that have been made in this regard.
The Recent Improvements in PCBs
This section looks at the recent improvements and changes in the design and manufacture of PCBs. Changes needed to be made and innovation never stands still, so it was inevitable that we have seen a huge surge in the amounts spent on PCB/Chip and semiconductor research and development.
Better software for PCB design
The software being used to design PCBs has developed in leaps and bounds. You are now able to import CAD design into various PCB software systems. Schematics are now able to be presented in detailed diagrams that are magnified to show all connectivity paths and the various semiconductors and chips. The software is now driven by graphic rather than code and it is possible to test power and circuitry without actually having to make a prototype PCB. PCB and circuit software development has come a long way and it was this software development that made a number of the other changes possible, such as in-house production of PCBs as well as personalized and bespoke PCB creation. One of the key features of the newer PCB design software that is being released is that it is universal in application. It can be used anywhere and shared across the globe. This helps with collaborative design, and has been one of the main reasons PCB design has improved and adapted to deal with both the current electrical requirements and needs, as well as the shortage in supply, raw materials and components.
Based on the shortages of copper coil and the shortage in microchips, many PCB designers and originators have begun to innovate around the materials that are used for PCB components and parts. The PCB was originally constructed on woven glass fabric and plastic resin and copper. Now, as the uses of PCBs changes, they get smaller and hardier, there is an associated need to improve the materials used to change their use and behavioral qualities. Two materials currently being analyzed are Aluminum and Liquid Crystal polymers that will allow for:-
- Higher power frequencies: Boards are being manufactured now with a maximum frequency of over 2GHz – which was unheard of a few years ago. These higher frequency boards are able to provide faster transmission speeds and will be ideal in switches and complex electronic devices.
- Minimize power loss: By using higher voltages and allowing increased power levels that is actually needed by the PCB, modern designers are able to reduce or totally remove any power loss across the connections.
- Provide thermal or heat management: As the aim is to increase power and frequency the PCB is expected to increase in heat and this may be disastrous for the system. The first step has been to use heat cameras to identify the precise areas of the PCB that are gathering and retaining unnecessary heat. Once this is done it is possible to place the heat retaining components in cooler area of the device. Furthermore, there are now smaller colling fans and heat pipes that are used to take heat away from the functioning parts of the electronic device.
PCBs and associated components are now smaller than ever before
The PCB and its component parts are being shrunk and developed as smaller and smaller parts. Primarily so that they can fit into smaller products, implantable medical devices that need to be tiny in their application and military communication, being the drivers of this minification of the PCB. Making the PCB smaller is indeed one of the trickiest aspects of this new wave of PCB design, because as small as they can be made the PCB must still be able to handle the same power, a larger number of components and perform the self-same job.
Smaller batch production
Rather than chips, semiconductors and PCBs being designed and made in their millions, electronics, automotive and aerospace firms have begun to make their own PCBs. The dominant form of production has been in smaller batches and thus this maintains quality, but also provides the opportunity to innovate and positively amend each batch produced. Some of the bigger automotive producers began to make their own PCBs or subcontract smaller newer more innovative firms to do this for them. Even the smaller electrical device firms and games console makers decided that making PCBs that were designed and manufactured specifically for the devices that they make and design all inhouse was a better means to meet their business PCB and microchip demands.
The future of the humble PCB
The PCB will continue to be at the forefront of electrical innovation. The function is essential for all electrical and digital devices and yet the manner in which they are made is proving to place a heavy strain on resources and skills. The best way around the current shortages is to innovate.
Some of the key lessons that are being implemented at the current time are based on long term research of the industry and changes to those resources and materials that are used that are in short supply or regarded as unsustainable. The R&D aspect of the PCB is an aspect where huge amounts are being spent and all in an attempt to ensure that the problems associated with PCB and chop shortages are never felt again.
The PCB industry has been through some major changes in the last 18 months or so: shortages of materials; cowboy producers of poor-quality PCBs; the forced reduction of production; and lastly the loss of jobs. All because of the poor management of the supply and demand of the humble PCB and data chip. This has led to a process of re-evaluation and some bottom-up changes to the manner in which PCBs are viewed, designed, manufactured and sold.
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