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The History and Evolution of PCBs

Printed Circuit Boards (PCBs) are like atoms and molecules – most of us never see them, but they are the fundamental unit of pretty much everything around us. If you can understand how PCBs are evolving, you can have a fair idea about how the industries directly dependent on PCBs are developing. And this can plug into a series of critical decisions – making investments, ideating products, selecting projects, planning for expansion in key segments, mitigating risks of getting replaced by an alternative product, and so on.

Projecting the growth of the global PCB market is the easier task – it is forecasted to grow at a CAGR of 4% between 2019 and 2024 to touch a value of $90 billion by the end of the projection period. But understanding where the printed circuit board market is headed is a more creative, exploratory, fascinating, and complex task. You are essentially trying to establish dependencies between PCBs and the industries that use them and then trying to extrapolate the evolution of PCBs towards the industries you are targeting. Such bottom-up thinking gives answers in broad-strokes, but it helps you make decisions in the right direction.

Now comes the million-dollar question – how do you understand where the PCBs headed for the near future? Most of the forward-looking demand is coming from communication, connected devices, and automotive industries. But, that is a narrowed approach. To understand the future at a fundamental level would help study the historical evolution of the PCBs.

As Mark Twain said, "History doesn't repeat itself, but it often rhymes"; it makes logical sense to dive into the history & evolution of PCBs. Let’s get started!

PCB 101: What are Printed Circuit Boards?

Take a little detour to be on the same page with the forthcoming sections - PCBs constitute the platform used for hosting microelectronic components. It also plays an electric connector for these components with its tracks & traces carefully engraved on the copper sheet. Generally, PCBs are used in computing equipment, communication devices, controlling tools, and even home entertainment. While this is a broad idea, it will keep you and the historical journey of PCBs on the same page!

Mapping the Evolution of Printed Circuit Boards: A Timeline-Driven Approach

1. 1903: Albert Hanson was the first individual attributed to creating a circuit board. He made the descriptions for a flat-foil conductor laminated on top of an insulated panel. This was done across multiple layers while using through-hole connectivity. While Hanson was a German, the patent was filed in the United Kingdom.

2. 1904: Thomas Edison started running the experiments that brought him closer to the circuit board trajectory. He began with initiating chemical processes to plate conductors on linen-paper. By that time, he had already invented the light bulb. He would later go on inventing the phonograph and the motion-picture camera as well.

3. 1913: During this benchmark year, both the UK and the USA developed better methods. In the UK, Arthur Berry registered for a patent on his print & etch process. Across the USA's pond, the Swedish inventor Max Schoop was awarded a patent for his process of flame-spray metal mounting on a board using a pattern-based mask. The latter got to be known as a more pragmatic way for thermal spraying. Schoop developed a spray gun that could exert flames called a 'pistol' to reach the final stage of development in 1912. A couple of years later, he also received the patent for his twine-wire arc spray gun.

4. 1927: Between 1913 and 1927, the world did not see any major inventions in the circuit board segment. World War I was a considerable reasonable roadblock for innovation. It sets the reminder for future generations that science can empower countries but cannot thrive if these empowered countries go to war. A few years after the wars ended, Charles Durcase got awarded a patent for his electroplating circuit patterns in 1927.

5. 1936 – 1948: After Purchase, the major invention came from Paul Eisler, attributed as the inventor of the modern printed circuit board. He was an Austrian engineer working in the United Kingdom and was developing the PCB as a radio set component.

The PCB innovation cycle that derailed in World War I became an edge in World War II. A few years after Eisler engineered the first PCB, the USA army began using the technology at scale in proximity fuses. While PCBs are not attributed as the key inventions of the war, they were a part of a very small cohort of innovations that led to the war's end result. The USA Army and Navy and the defense base in London used the proximity fuses developed in the USA. These were used in projectiles like bombs and missiles. It is noteworthy to see that Germany did not use them in its weapons despite having developed some proximity fuses.

Once the war was over, the USA released the invention for commercial purposes. During the war, over 100 companies were commissioned to manufacture the fuses and their use-cases. Hence, the manufacturing know-how was already in place, which catalysed the production process optimization in the later years.

6. 1949-1956: Post World War II, despite their extensive use, it took some time for printed circuit boards to go mainstream. Moe Abramson and S. F. Danko developed an auto-assembly method using dip soldering in 1949. Later, the patent for the technique was assigned to the USA Army. Parallel to this, Geoffrey Dummer in the UK was also working on a similar methodology.

The set of scientists and researchers from this period would become a part of the last cohort of individuals attributed to the modern printed circuit board's development. Every major invention hereon in the journey of PCBs came from an institutional platform.

7. 1957: The Institute of Printed Circuits (IPC) was created in Illinois in 1957. It became the first body to provide standard practices and industrial collaboration to advance the research in designing and manufacturing PCBs. In its over 60 years of history, IPC has had 1,000 members and 4,000 member sites across 79 countries.

8. 1960: IBM developed the planar mounting technology that would evolve into Surface-Mounting Technology by the 1980s.

9. 1980: Gerber Scientific created a design format focusing on standardized vector photo-plotters, known as the RS 274-D. It quickly became an industry-standard design file format.

10. 1992: Vapor Computerized Systems engineered and launched the CAM software and the dedicated file format under the name Genesis 2000. The popular ODB++ data file format was released to the public a few years later.

11. 2006: Multek created and launched the high-density PCB type Every Layer Interconnect, popularly known as ELIC.

Takeaways from the 117-Year Journey of PCB Innovation

1. Locate the biggest challenges in the market. World War II provided a dedicated set of resources ready to consume all the PCB market inventions. The next cohort would be the current biggest consumers. Hence, remember the corollary - use-cases direct the innovation.

2. Large budgets may not guarantee successful PCB innovations. Major entities may jump on the innovation wagon, but they may not always get the necessary end-results.

3. PCB Innovation has to be a strategic decision. As an industry, we are way past the stage where an individual researcher or a small team can innovate PCBs. Dedicated research budgets, corporate strategy, and executive sponsorship have to back the innovation efforts.

4. Innovation in the industry has to be followed by systemic adoption and advancement. Standalone innovations in the PCB space would not be enough to forecast future use-cases. Innovation will have to be backed by advancements of equal proportions in the PCB manufacturing methods as well.

5. Ancillary or Tangential industries can be the testing grounds for innovation. IBM derived the idea for planar mounted circuit boards while working on its spacecraft technology projects.

What About the Next 100 Years of PCB Innovation?

Making any projections about the next century in the context of PCBs would be a speculative exercise. Nevertheless, some trends have started shaping up already:

1. Faster and Smaller PCBs with More Comprehensive Functionalities: The PCBs of the near future will be used in IoT and wearable devices, requiring greater connectivity and more efficient designs. As PCBs become omnipresent in healthcare devices and across manufacturing lines, their size would become all the more compact, opening up supply chains of newer and smaller components. With imaging devices already being mounted on the circuit boards, even the PCBs' range of functionalities would widen.

2. More Efficient PCB Manufacturing Processes: PCB innovation cannot scale in isolation. It has to be backed by the manufacturing ecosystem. Methods like additive manufacturing and 3D printing will become more prevalent in the supply chain.

3. Environment-Friendly Materials: So far, the industry has been largely agnostic to the PCBs' environmental impact. Most of the components used in the PCB value chain are not easily decomposable. This will start becoming a significant concern as policy-makers look into systemic shifts for eco-friendly PCB components.

How Will You Navigate the PCB Innovation Lifecycle?

PCBs require precision, expertise, and proven excellence. Even minor deviations in the assembly or fabrication process can render the end-product to be sub-optimal. Hence, as you take the next major step in using a printed circuit board, PCB Power Market can be your unified partner in innovation, giving you PCB Layout, Stencil Fabrication, PCB Manufacturing , Component Sourcing, and PCB Assembly along with Enclosures and Soldering Solutions – all on one platform.

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