Printed Circuit Board (PCB)

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A printed circuit board, or PCB, is a self-contained module of interconnected electronic components found in devices ranging from common beepers, or pagers, and radios to sophisticated radar and computer systems. The circuits are formed by a thin layer of conducting material deposited, or “printed,” on the surface of an insulating board known as the substrate. Individual electronic components are placed on the surface of the substrate and soldered to the interconnecting circuits. Contact fingers along one or more edges of the substrate act as connectors to other PCBs or to external electrical devices such as on-off switches. A printed circuit board may have circuits that perform a single function, such as a signal amplifier, or multiple functions.

There are three major types of printed circuit board construction: single-sided, double-sided, and multi-layered. Single-sided boards have the components on one side of the substrate. When the number of components becomes too much for a single-sided board, a double-sided board may be used. Electrical connections between the circuits on each side are made by drilling holes through the substrate in appropriate locations and plating the inside of the holes with a conducting material. The third type, a multi-layered board, has a substrate made up of layers of printed circuits separated by layers of insulation. The components on the surface connect through plated holes drilled down to the appropriate circuit layer. This greatly simplifies the circuit pattern.

Components on a printed circuit board are electrically connected to the circuits by two different methods: the older “through hole technology” and the newer “surface mount technology.” With through hole technology, each component has thin wires, or leads, which are pushed through small holes in the substrate and soldered to connection pads in the circuits on the opposite side. Gravity and friction between the leads and the sides of the holes keeps the components in place until they are soldered. With surface mount technology, stubby J-shaped or L-shaped legs on each component contact the printed circuits directly. A solder paste consisting of glue, flux, and solder are applied at the point of contact to hold the components in place until the solder is melted, or “reflowed,” in an oven to make the final connection. Although surface mount technology requires greater care in the placement of the components, it eliminates the time-consuming drilling process and the space-consuming connection pads inherent with through hole technology. Both technologies are used today.

Two other types of circuit assemblies are related to the printed circuit board. An integrated circuit, sometimes called an IC or microchip, performs similar functions to a printed circuit board except the IC contains many more circuits and components that are electrochemically “grown” in place on the surface of a very small chip of silicon. A hybrid circuit, as the name implies, looks like a printed circuit board, but contains some components that are grown onto the surface of the substrate rather than being placed on the surface and soldered.

Design

There is no such thing as a standard printed circuit board. Each board has a unique function for a particular product and must be designed to perform that function in the space allotted. Board designers use computer-aided design systems with special software to layout the circuit pattern on the board. The spaces between electrical conducting paths are often 0.04 inches (1.0 mm) or smaller. The location of the holes for component leads or contact points are also laid out, and this information is translated into instructions for a computer numerical controlled drilling machine or for the automatic solder paster used in the manufacturing process.

Once the circuit pattern is laid out, a negative image, or mask, is printed out at exact size on a clear plastic sheet. With a negative image, the areas that are not part of the circuit pattern are shown in black and the circuit pattern is shown as clear.

The substrate most commonly used in printed circuit boards is a glass fiber reinforced (fiberglass) epoxy resin with a copper foil bonded on to one or both sides. PCBs made from paper reinforced phenolic resin with a bonded copper foil are less expensive and are often used in household electrical devices.

The printed circuits are made of copper, which is either plated or etched away on the surface of the substrate to leave the pattern desired. (See “additive” and “subtractive” processes described in step 3 under The Manufacturing Process). The copper circuits are coated with a layer of tin-lead to prevent oxidation. Contact fingers are plated with tin-lead, then nickel, and finally gold for excellent conductivity.

Purchased components include resistors, capacitors, transistors, diodes, integrated circuit chips, and others.