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PCB Manufacturing and Its Impact on the World

What is a PCB?

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PCB or printed circuit board is a self-contained module of interconnected electronic components found in most of our everyday gadgets from beepers to pagers to radios to radar systems to computer systems. The circuitry is formed by a thin layer of conductive metal that’s deposited or printed on the surface of the insulating board which is known as the substrate. The individual components are then placed on the substrate’s surface and soldered to the interconnecting circuits. The contact fingers located on one or more edges of the substrate are the connectors to the other PCBs or to other external electrical devices like an ON-OFF switch. The PCB will have circuits that perform a single function or multiple function.

When it comes to constructing the printed circuit board, there are three major types namely the single-sided, double-sided, and multi-layered. Single-sided boards are those whose components are just on one side of the substrate. When the numbers of components are too much, the double-sided board is used. The electrical connections in a double-sided board are attached to both sides wherein holes are drilled on the substrate in their approximate locations. The holes are then plated with a conducting material. The third type, which is a multi-layered board, has substrates that are made of layers of different printed circuits that’s separated by insulation. Like a double-sided board, the holes that connect the surface through the components are also plated with conductive material. Despite its complex structure, a multi-layered board has a simplified construct.

The PCB’s components are electrically connected to the circuits with the use of two different methods: “through the hole technology” and “surface mount technology”. The TTH or Through the Hole technology is where the components have thin wires or leads that are pushed through the small holes of the substrate which will lead to the connection pads on the opposite side of the circuit or substrate. With the help of gravity and friction, the components are kept in place between the leads and the sides of the holes until they are soldered. The surface mount technology, which is relatively newer, makes use of J-shaped or L-shaped legs on each component make contact through the printed circuits directly. the solder paste, which is made of glue, flux, and solder, are applied at the point of contact to hold the components in place until the solder is melted to make the final connection. Surface mount technology requires greater care when it comes to the placement of the components because the need to drill through is eliminated and the connection pads that are inherent of “through the hole”. Both technologies are still being employed in PCB manufacturing today.

There are two other types of circuit assemblies that are related to the PCB. An IC or integrated circuit, also called a microchip, will be able to perform similar functions to a printed circuit board except the IC has more circuits and components that “electrochemically” grown in place of the surface of a very small silicon chip. The hybrid circuit looks like a PCB but the components are grown onto the surface of the substrate rather than being soldered in place.

History

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PCBs were the evolution of electrical connection systems designed way back in the 1850s, made entirely of metal strips and rods that acted as connectors to large electric components attached to wooden bases. The metal strips were then replaced by wires connected to screw terminals and the wooden bases were replaced by metal chassis. The smaller and more compact designs were created due to the overwhelming demand of the products that used circuit boards. By 1925, Charles Ducas of the USA submitted a patent application for a method that made use of creating electrical path directly on an insulated surface through stencil and with conductive inks. This patent gave birth to what was first called “printed wiring” or “printed circuit”.

By the year 1943, Paul Eisler from the UK patented a method of etching conducting pattern or circuits on a layer of copper foil that’s bonded to a glass-reinforced non-conductive base. His technique was widely used in the 1950s when the transistor was introduced for commercial use. From that moment on, the size of vacuum tubes and the other components were so large that the usual mounting and wiring methods were all that were needed. When the transistors came in, the components shrank and became very small so manufacturers turned to PCB to reduce the overall size of the electronic package.

The Through the Hole technology and its application on multi-layer PCBs were patented by the US firm called Hazeltyne in 1961. The increasing component density and the closely spaced electrical paths paved the way for a new era in PCB design. ICC or integrated circuit chips were then introduced in the 1970s and were incorporated into the printed circuit board design and manufacturing techniques.

Design

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When you think about it, there’s no such thing as a standard printed circuit board. Every board has a unique function for a single product and that design must be based on the performance or function in the space allotted. The people who design the boards use computer-aided design systems with a special software to layout the circuit patterns on the board. The spaces between the electrical conducting paths are 0.04 inches between one another or smaller. The location of the holes that’s used for component leads or contact points are laid out with the same system and then the information is translated for instructions for a computer numerical controlled drilling machine or for the solder paster that will be used in the manufacturing process.

When the circuit pattern is already laid out, a negative mask or image is printed on a clear plastic sheet with the exact same size. A negative image will show the areas that are not part of the circuit pattern as black and the circuit pattern is clearly shown.

Raw Materials

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Printed circuit boards makes use of a substrate that’s made of reinforced fiberglass epoxy resin with a copper foil bonded on one or both sides. PCBS made from paper reinforced phenolic resin with bonded copper foil are cheaper and they are found in household appliances and electrical devices.

The printed circuits used are made of copper. They are either plated or etched on the surface of the substrate based on the pattern. The copper circuits are then coated with a tin-lead layer to prevent oxidation or rust. The contact fingers are plated with tin-lead, then plated with nickel, and then gold for maximum conductivity.

Quality Control

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The manufacturing of the PCB or printed circuit boards can be tedious, so it’s important to do quality control through visual and electrical inspections to detect flaws. The flaws are generated by human error or automated machines, and the latter is often the cause for the majority of the flaws. Sometimes, the components are shifted or misplaced on the board before the final soldering process. The other flaws are caused by too much application of the solder paste or bridge (wherein two adjacent printed circuit paths) are connected via a solder paste.

Visual and electrical inspections are made throughout the manufacturing process to detect flaws. Some of these flaws are generated by the automated machines. For example, components are sometimes misplaced on the board or shifted before final soldering. Other flaws are caused by the application of too much solder paste, which can cause excess solder to flow, or bridge, across two adjacent printed circuit paths. Heating the solder too quickly in the final reflow process can cause a “tombstone” effect where one end of a component lifts up off the board and doesn’t make contact.

The completed boards are also tested to ensure that the paths are functioning at their expected limits. For boards that are to be used in outdoor equipment, they are also put under environmental testing to determine how they fare against extreme weather conditions like heat and humidity. They are even put to the test by dropping them.

Toxic Materials and Safety Considerations

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PCB contains some toxic materials. First and foremost, the solder paste used to make the electrical connections contain lead, which is considered a toxic material. The fumes from a solder are also considered a health hazard. This is why soldering operations are done in closed environments and before the fumes are released to the atmosphere, they must be cleaned and extracted.

Electronic devices that contain printed circuit boards usually become obsolete within 12 to 18 months and the landfill is usually filled with a lot of these electronic devices or what we call e-wastes. Several landfills all across the country have already doubled their efforts into recycling these electronic products by reselling them as refurbished products to people who don’t have access to them or by disassembling them and selling their parts for reuse. In other countries like the UK, manufacturers are required by law to buy back their used products and deem them as safe for the environment before disposing of them. Electronic manufacturers are then asked to remove the toxic solder from the PCBs before they are disposed of. This is a very expensive process and has driven researchers to look for new ways to develop non-toxic methods in developing electrical connections. A promising approach makes use of water-soluble and electrically conductive moulded plastic to replace the wires and solder.

The Future

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So what does the future of printed circuit board hold?

The continuing miniaturization of gadgets and electronic devices have pushed the development of printed circuit board manufacturing to smaller yet densely packed boards but with increased capabilities. The advancements found in the boards described in the article include a 3-Dimensional moulded plastic board and the use of integrated circuit chips or ICC. Along with other advancements, it’s predicted that the development will continue to be more dynamic over the years.

But even with the demand, the number of PCB manufacturers has dwindled down from the hundreds that were in operation almost a decade ago. According to Lee Lloyd of Spirit Circuits, he still sees a future for the manufacturing of PCB in the UK.

In a country like the UK, the manufacturing of PCB has gone through some radical changes in the last decade and with most countries, the number of manufacturers have gone down significantly with the higher volume producers have closed down due to the price pressure from low labour cost competitors.

These changes in PCB Manufacturing have also reflected the changes in the electronics industry where volume players have dwindled down but the research and development aspect continue to thrive. The challenge now for PCB manufacturers is to adjust to a new business model wherein a high mix lower volume is involved and where customer service is attended to. In this day and age in the electronics industry, the quote “time is money” has never been more relevant to the market place.

The time to market new products, from mobile phones to laptops, has been critical to a product’s success in the market place. This is why there’s pressure on the lead-time for a new design for PCB, especially because it’s the last item to be released from a Bill of Materials.

Speed is essential if PCB manufacturers are to survive. The ability to provide faster service that cannot be compared to competitors in low cost countries is their key to securing their success and this means that the delivery of products in shorter time frames is critical. Countries like China have been able to produce a standard delivery of PCB in 7 days with small batches delivered between 48 and 72 hours. this poses a challenge for the manufacturers who’re unable to keep up with this speed. When the challenge such as this is recognized, companies in the UK and US are able to improve their production efficiency, as well as their staff’s awareness on the importance of product delivery and the elimination of waste. This will enable UK and US manufacturers to keep up with the competitive nature of low cost manufacturing companies.

Another way to keep up with the success of low cost-based manufacturers is to partner up with them. Chinese companies are now building business relations with UK companies in order to break into the market.

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