Electronics manufacturing is advancing all the time, but the technology behind printed circuit boards has remained the same for decades — largely thanks to the fact that it works well and is inexpensive to produce. But recent advances are making circuit boards smaller and more flexible, enabling you to do more innovative things with your tech product. In this article, we’ll explore what PCBs have looked like for years, what new innovations have made possible, and what the future holds.
Standard (Base) PCBs
Standard Printed Circuit Boards, or PCBs, have been in use for decades. They make it easy and inexpensive to move electricity from a power source to key components within your product. PCBs are made by sandwiching a conductive material, like copper, in between two layers of non-conductive material, like fiberglass and resin. Electricity travels along the conductive material and flows to the areas where you want it to go, and the non-conductive material keeps the electricity from running amok and creating a safety hazard. PCBs are easy to mass produce and are a much more cost-effective and elegant option than soldering wires between every component of your product.
But there are some downsides to using PCBs, the main one being that standard PCBs are structurally rigid. While they can be made into whatever flat shape you need, they can’t be bent to conform to your product’s shape. Your product will have to accommodate for the space that the PCB takes up. That can be fairly limiting when producing wearable tech, or any product that requires a lot of complicated components on a small scale.
Mass-manufacturing of flexible PCB is newer than standard PCBs, and it opens up more possibilities for end products. Driven by advances in wearable technology, flexible PCB was developed to create alternative circuit board technology that wasn’t restricted to flat geometry.
There are several key benefits of flexible PCBs:
- Flexible: One of the biggest benefits of flexible PCB is in the name: It’s flexible! Because it can bend, it gives you more freedom to decrease the overall mechanical footprint of your product. You can fold the PCB board into a smaller shape and make your product smaller.
- Thin: A typical two-layer flex PCB can range in thickness between 4.4 and 10 mils. Even if you don’t need the PCB board to flex, the thinness of flexible PCB can make it a more appealing and versatile choice.
- Lightweight: A flexible circuit’s polyimide material is lighter than FR4, which is the weight of the fiberglass resin material that comprise standard PCB boards. Those weight savings could come in handy for smaller handheld electronics.
- Heat resistant: Flexible PCB can handle higher temperatures than standard PCBs because they dissipate heat at a faster rate. This quality can potentially let you put chips closer together on the board without worrying about them overheating.
3D-printed circuit boards are still in their infancy, but they’re becoming an increasingly popular and promising option for prototypes. 3D printing has revolutionized the iterative design process in mechanical objects (like enclosure or gears) and enables users to create and build forms quickly and without need for full machine shop. The 3D printed circuit board might become a new revolution in at-home setups, making circuit design and production cheaper and more accessible than ever before.
3D printed PCB methods:
- Surface Mount. Circuit boards are made by extruding a thin layer of conductive material that when cured acts as a typical trace path for the electronic components. This allows for surface mounted components to be added later in the process but is limited to two-sided PCBs.
- Through Hole. Another method 3D prints a plastic board leaving channels and holes where through hole components can be placed and a conductive epoxy is poured on the opposite side to connect the components electrically.
Because many of these methods are becoming easier to do at home, the long-term future for production of printed circuit boards may involve doing them yourself. There are many companies that are working on these processes and even designing ways to print electronic components to reduce the time and barrier of entry for electronics design.
Making the right PCB for your product
Advancements in PCB technology are accelerating and will usher in new opportunities for innovators and creators. But new technology isn’t necessarily better: Standard PCB has endured for a reason, and there’s a good chance that it’s the best — and cheapest — choice for your product.