What is a printed circuit board and why do we need one?
Do you know that your smartphone has over 100 meters of copper wire stuffed inside it? These 100 meters of wire are the connecting link between every electric peripheral in your phone. So, a device that fits in your palm has wires that can cover a football field, but where are all these wires?
This is where we come to understand the importance, utility, and authenticity of a printed circuit board or a PCB.
In almost every modern device, a printed circuit board is the foundational block that can also be referenced to as a multi-layered labyrinth of multiple copper wires. The purpose of a PCB is to act as a structure and the organizational head for all the components that are mounted on the surface of the board.
PCBs are useful in every device and system that we come across in our daily lives. Be it a garage door opener, or a mobile phone, electric cars, automatic machines, microwaves, refrigerators, complex mechanical equipment, machinery, missiles, and even supercomputers.
As the complexity and the functionality of the device increases, the density of the PCB also amplifies. In a garage door opener, you will find a PCB single-layer board and in a supercomputer, you will see very high density with 60 layered boards.
In PCB manufacturing and assembly, we come across terms like semiconductors, radio devices, diodes, resistors, connectors, and whatnot. These small yet efficient peripherals are the ones that talk to each other and relay the commands or messages sent by the end-user.
One of the most important things to understand is the names you see above (resistors, connectors, etc.), they are the components. PCB manufacturing is done separately, and these components are attached or joined to the board at a later stage. The PCB is separate from these modules and they are connected to a PCB.
When both are connected or joined, you get a motherboard. So, a PCB is a simple board with open wired connections that are ready to be mounted with bespoke components depending on the device in which the PCB will be installed.
Fig 1: The X-Ray Image of a PCB
This is an x-ray image of a PCB.
Notice the dark black lines webbed across the board. These are the wires that make connections for the components. The other material that is not shining or highlighted, is the non-conductive material of the PCB which is made of a material called FR4.
Rigid and Flexible PCB Manufacturer
There are two main types of boards present in the market made by pcb manufacturers, rigid and flexible. Out of them, the former has the largest market share and usage (around 90%), while the rest of the market share is taken by the flexible PCBs.
As the name implies, the rigid PCBs have a fixed shape, and we cannot bend or mold them to conform to the device’s shape. This is something that we achieve with flexible PCBs.
However, with the flexible PCBs, there is a risk of wires breaking in the flexible PCBs, but it also depends on their potential to handle flex cycles. And a flexible PCB can survive through thousands of flex cycles before they need repair or replacement.
Apart from the rigid and flexible PCBs, we can also use rigid-flex circuits and printed electronics where both these types of PCBs have their unique abilities to enhance connectivity and help create communication channels in sophisticated devices. Their usage is not as popular as the rigid and flexible PCBs.
Why so we need PCBs?
Today we use PCBs in almost every electronic device. Because every device needs to relay messages amongst the components and a PCB makes it possible in a minimalist configuration.
Because they are small and lightweight, their usage and the demand of pcb manufacturing has only increased with time. As we move ahead in the technological world, PCBs are going to get more sophisticated and boast a better utility.
There are ongoing research and experiments with Cameras, 3D Printed electronics where the electrical connections are made and laid down with ink that has conductivity.
Recently, Hacksmith Industries has bagged a Guinness world record for creating a real-life lightsaber prototype. And, to control the eruption and retraction of the flame, they used a circuit board to control this sequence with the click of a button.
Here are some industries that are soaring high in terms of scalability and advancement because they have access to a PCBs.
1. Medical Industry
Within the medical industry, the coming of PCBs has allowed the development of several machines and computers that aid diagnosis, reporting, analysis, and medication.
MRI machines, imaging systems, and several other types of equipment that make the work simpler, easier, and more efficient require a PCB. We see that the size of the machines and equipment is getting smaller.
Compare the x-ray machine that was used 10 years before and the one that is used today, you will not only see an increase in its ability to perform but also reduced size.
Compact machines and equipment may cost more, but they amplify the efficiency of the task. Added to this, with smaller machines it is possible to automate the processes, in turn, reducing the need to deal with cables and connectors.
2. Usage of PCB in Military Applications
From communications to firearms and other non-military equipment, PCBs have redefined the way military personnel use these machines. Here the PCBs are made to be extra durable, and reliable as they have to face extreme conditions and a heavy workforce.
Within communication, the PCBs are used in radio communications equipment and other secure communications devices. Added to this, we have advanced missile and firearms systems along with the detection systems that use PCBs.
3. Automotive Functions and Requirements
Can you imagine a world without PCB? Well, it existed before Paul Eisler created the first PCB for a radio. With time, the circuit board got smaller as its functions were enhanced.
Similarly, in the automotive industry, the use of a PCBs became important when the vehicles used electronic systems inside. Be it a circuit to toggle the lights or to creating a mechanism for self-driving cars, a PCB is rather essential today.
There are entertainment systems, controls, in-car diagnostics, sensors, along with many more systems that we see in a car today. Listening to music while driving and also obtaining real-time information about the car happens because of a circuit board.
4. Consumer Electronics
Can you count the number of consumer devices that are working in your home at present? Start from the bigger ones like refrigerators and move towards the smaller ones, like smartwatches.
Communication, computers, laptops, entertainment systems, and other home appliances, there are a lot of devices that have a PCB integrated inside them and, in turn, they make our life easier.
Within this aspect, the PCBs need to show uniformity and better quality. This is because these products are manufactured in bulk. So, besides ensuring the top-notch quality of these systems, it is also essential to secure high-quality PCBs.
5. Industrial and Commercial
Industries thrive on innovation and discovery. The moment when assembly lines came into the production process, things moved fast, which ultimately reduced the overall cost.
Similarly, PCBs have become the part and parcel of almost every industry. Be it supply chain management or installing automated machines or robots to manufacture. Not only this, even in terms of information sharing and distribution channels, there are multiple use cases of a PCB in all the factories and workshops. PCBs add to the overall production efficiency and help amplify the functionality of the entire process.
To sum it up
We can say that PCBs help to develop and implement new technologies. As the prototype PCB gets compact and helps power new machines and devices, the users get to engage with more efficient and advanced devices.
Printed circuit boards help save cost, time, wires, and they are very easy to repair. These boards are immune to movement and also emit lower levels of electronic noise. With the internal developments and advancements in the circuit boards, we can expect to see much better systems and reliability.