When we take apart any electronic device, you’re likely to find a few core components within. Apart from wires, semiconductors, and transistors, you will almost always find a PCB. Printed circuit boards, most commonly known by their acronym PCBs, allow individual electronic components to communicate with one another.
Instead of wiring together every component in a connected circuit, a PCB contains traces of conductive copper. This carries an electrical change, providing a way for an array of components to work together. By using a PCB, we’re able to connect components without point-to-point wiring. This was a difficult and tedious practice which often led to short circuits when wire insulation became old and started to wither.
PCBs have revolutionized electronics, allowing manufacturers to construct complex circuits easier than ever before. By saving time and increasing reliability, all within a compact space, PCBs have become a staple of all electronic manufacturing.
Let’s dive into everything you need to know about printed circuit boards.
What Is the History of Printed Circuit Boards?
Before the invention of printed circuit boards, circuits used point-to-point wiring. Most of the time, leads were formed by soldering, or by using crimp connectors. While this was effective, a finished circuit would be heavy, bulky, and too fragile for most electrical devices. That’s not to mention the additional labor process, which caused any produced electronics to be much more expensive than they are now.
Source: Wiring Without PCBs, Via Autodesk
At the start of the 20th century, Albert Hanson, a German inventor, posited laminating flat foil conductors to an insulated board. Over the next 30 years, this initial idea moved through several iterations until Paul Eisler, an Austrian engineer, invented the PCB in 1936. From there, the next 20 years saw the rapid expansion and development of this technology.
By 1960, labor costs had decreased and PCBs were now being mass-produced in many leading territories. As printed circuit boards could reduce the cost of electronic equipment, they were quickly incorporated into all major production processes.
In more recent years, developments in 3D printing have pushed the development of PCBs even further. 3D printing electronics can make PCB even smaller, with much greater control over the components or traces of copper layered in each area.
Nowadays, PCBs are a common part of almost every electrical circuit, acting as one of the leading technological building blocks behind the tech we use on a daily basis.
What Are PCBs Used for?
In almost any electrical device that you use, you’re likely to find at least one – if not many – PCBs. Printed circuit boards are everywhere, from your mobile device and computer to your televisions and kitchen appliances.
That said, PCBs aren’t just a one-size fits all solution. There are actually several different types of PCBs, all of which are used in unique circumstances. For example, you’ll likely to come across different printed circuit boards which have distinct functions:
- Single-Sided PCBs – The simplicity of this structure makes it perfect for anything that needs to be made in large quantities. Smaller electronics like calculators would fall under this category, as would household objects like printers or radios.
- Double-Sided PCBs – With a conductive strip of metal on both sides of this board, double-sided PCBs are perfect for slightly more complex electrical devices. LED lighting, machines with several functions, and remote controls for industrial settings would all use these PCBs.
- Multi-Layer PCBs – With between three and twelve layers, multi-PCBs are perfect for highly complex electronic devices. You’ll find these PCBs in everything from a computer in your house to global satellite systems.
- Flexible PCBs – Flexible PCBs are great for small spaces as their structures can bend slightly. Often, mobile phones, computer hard drives, and automotive electronics will all use flexible PCBs.
- Rigid PCBs – Acting as the direct opposite to flexible PCBs, rigid PCBs are used in electronic systems that have a high lifespan. Once manufactured, these electronics won’t be modified for years at a time. Most commonly, you’ll find them in GPS equipment, X-ray machines, and heart monitors.
As you can see, printed circuit boards come in all shapes and sizes, with their formats covering nearly every electronic device under the sun. There are even composite PCBs that combine different formats, like Rigid-Flex PCBs. With their vast range of compositions, manufacturers are able to find the right circuit board for the job at hand.
Source: Statista Study
Nowadays, the vast majority of the general population uses several devices that have PCBs in them every single day. The vast range of PCBs on the market, combined with their accessibility, is much to blame for the availability and widespread usage of electronic devices.
How Does a PCB Work?
A printed circuit board is a series of layered materials, with the number of layers increasing depending on the required complexity of the electrical device being constructed. Despite the number of layers, there will always be at least one substrate layer, which is often made of fiberglass. This is then laid with a sheet of copper foil, an insulating layer, and a soldered mask. This latter component is why PCBs are green, while the copper foil is the conductive part of the PCB.
Beyond this, a PCB will also have a system of components that help to pass electricity. Typically, you’ll find resistors, transistors, capacitors, inductors, and diodes within a PCB. If the circuit board doesn’t have these additional elements wired into them, it’s referred to as a printed wiring board (PWB).
Printed circuit boards are one of the most vital technological building blocks to come out of the last century of progress. While often overlooked, their utility cannot be understated. By allowing manufacturers to create electronic devices cheaper, faster, and more reliably, PCBs have rapidly expanded this industry.
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