A circuit board showing its traces, vias, electronic components, solder mask and more.
Circuit boards, also known as printed circuit boards (PCBs), are the backbone of virtually all modern electronic devices. From smartphones and computers to advanced medical equipment and electric vehicles, circuit boards play a crucial role in the functionality of these devices.
A circuit board is a physical piece of technology that allows for the creation of complex electronic circuits. It’s the foundation upon which electronic components such as resistors, capacitors, and integrated circuits (ICs) are mounted and electrically connected.
But what are circuit boards made of? The board is typically made from a flat, rigid, non-conductive material or substrate, often fiberglass or plastic, to ensure proper performance. This substrate is then coated with a thin layer of conductive material, usually copper, which is etched away to create the circuit pathways that ensure electrical connectivity among circuit components.
Circuit boards are perhaps the most critical part of modern electrical and electronic systems. They provide the means for electrical signals to be routed between physical devices. Without circuit boards, building the complex electronic devices we rely on in our daily lives would be virtually impossible
In this article, we will understand the composition of circuit boards to figure out what are circuit boards made of.
They allow for high functionality and complexity to be packed into a small, manageable form factor. This has enabled the miniaturization of electronics, leading to the development of compact, portable devices that have revolutionized various industries and aspects of society.
A circuit board comprises several key components, each serving a specific function in the overall operation of the electronic device. These components include conductive pathways, substrate material, solder mask, and silkscreen.
Conductive pathways, often called traces, are thin lines of conductive material, typically copper, that are etched onto the surface of the circuit board. These are highly conductive tracks etched on the circuit board to serve as wiring, allowing electrical signals to travel between the various components mounted on the board.
A circuit board consists of a copper layer with a fixed thickness. Depending on the current carrying requirements, the trace width is the only parameter designers can control. Hence, wider traces are used for higher current paths.
Generally, the thickness of the copper layer used to create these pathways is typically measured in ounces per square foot, with a standard thickness of 1 ounce of copper per square foot of the board, equating to a thickness of approximately 1.37 mils (thousandths of an inch) or 35 micrometers. In designer slang, it’s referred to as 1oz Copper. The following table shows copper thickness in commonly preferred units:
Copper is the material of choice for these pathways due to its excellent electrical conductivity, which is surpassed only by silver. It’s also relatively easy to etch, making it suitable for the manufacturing process of circuit boards.
However, since bare copper is prone to oxidation, it can degrade its conductivity over time. Therefore, copper traces are usually coated with a thin layer of solder, gold, or a nickel-gold alloy, which protects the copper from oxidation while providing a solderable surface for mounting electronic components.
The substrate, often referred to as the base material, is the solid, non-conductive foundation upon which the other components of a circuit board are built. It provides mechanical strength to the board and acts as an electrical insulator between the layers of conductive material.
The most commonly used substrate for circuit boards is a glass-reinforced epoxy laminate known as FR-4 (Flame Retardant type 4). This material is chosen for its desirable properties:
Good strength-to-weight ratio
Excellent electrical insulation.
The "FR" in FR-4 indicates that the material is flame retardant, a critical safety feature for electronic devices.
These materials can be used for circuits for up to 7GHz. The preferred substrate materials for higher frequencies are Polyamide, Ceramics, and Metal-core substrates.
Polyimide is often used in flexible circuit boards due to its flexibility and heat resistance.
Due to their superior electrical and thermal properties, ceramic substrates are used in high-frequency and high-power applications.
Metal-core substrates typically consist of an aluminium core with a non-conductive dielectric layer. They are used in LED lighting applications for their excellent heat dissipation capabilities.
PCB substrate specifications platy a pivotal role in their selection. Typically, the substrate is chosen according to the following physical specs.
Thickness and Rigidity - The thicker the substrate, the less it will bend. The standard thickness is 1.57 mm, but thinner and thicker options are available.
Glass Transition Temperature (Tg) - The temperature at which the epoxy impregnated in the fibreglass starts to soften. Higher Tg is essential for high-power circuits as they generate more heat.
Di Electric Constant (Dk) - It measures how well the electric lines of force will travel through the substrate material.
The solder mask is a critical circuit board component that serves multiple functions. It is a thin layer of polymer material applied over the copper traces and vias of the circuit board, leaving only the areas to be soldered exposed. This layer is typically green but can also be in other colours, such as blue, red, or black.
The primary function of the solder mask is to prevent solder bridges from forming between closely spaced solder pads during the soldering process. Solder bridges can create short circuits, which can cause the electronic device to malfunction or even fail. By covering the copper traces and vias, the solder mask ensures that the solder flows only onto the exposed solder pads and not onto the traces.
In addition to preventing solder bridges, the solder mask also protects the copper traces from environmental factors such as moisture and dust, which can cause corrosion and degradation of the copper over time. Furthermore, the solder mask provides electrical insulation, helping prevent short circuits between adjacent traces.
The solder mask is typically applied using a process known as screen printing, where the solder mask material is forced through a stencil or screen that has openings where the solder pads are located.
Recommended Reading: Via Tenting for PCBA Design
The silkscreen provides important information about the board and its components. It is a layer of ink printed onto the circuit board's surface, typically on top of the solder mask. The silkscreen contains various markings, such as component designators, reference designators, logos, and other text or symbols that aid in the electronic device's assembly, testing, and troubleshooting.
Component designators are labels that identify the type of component, such as "R" for resistors, "C" for capacitors, and "Q" for transistors. Reference designators are unique identifiers assigned to each component on the board, allowing for easy identification and location of specific components during assembly and troubleshooting. For example, a resistor might be labelled "R1," while a capacitor might be labelled "C1."
The silkscreen is typically applied using a screen printing process similar to the solder mask. A stencil or screen with the desired pattern is placed over the circuit board, and ink is forced through the openings onto the board's surface.
The ink used for the silkscreen is usually a type of epoxy-based ink that is resistant to heat, moisture, and chemicals, ensuring that the markings remain legible throughout the life of the electronic device.
More advanced techniques, such as inkjet printing and laser marking, have been developed to apply silkscreen. These methods offer higher resolution and greater precision, allowing smaller and more detailed markings to be applied to the circuit board.
The manufacturing process of circuit boards is a complex, multi-step procedure involving various techniques and technologies. The process can be broadly divided into several key stages: designing the circuit board, creating the substrate, applying the copper, imaging the circuit design, etching the copper, drilling holes, applying the solder mask, and applying the silkscreen.
The first step in the manufacturing process is designing the circuit board. This is typically done using Computer-Aided Design (CAD) software, which allows engineers to create a detailed, digital representation of the circuit board.
The design includes the components' layout, the conductive pathways' routing, and the holes' placement for mounting components and creating electrical connections between different board layers.
The design process begins with creating a schematic diagram, a symbolic representation of the electronic circuit. The schematic shows all the circuit components and how they are connected. Once the schematic is complete, it is converted into a layout, a physical representation of the circuit board. The layout shows the board's exact size and shape, the components' location, and the routing of the conductive pathways.
The layout is then checked for errors using a Design Rule Check (DRC) process. The DRC checks for potential issues such as traces that are too close together, components that are too close to the edge of the board, and holes that are too close to traces or other holes. If any errors are found, the layout is adjusted, and the DRC is run again until no errors are found.
Once the layout is finalised, it is converted into a set of manufacturing files known as Gerber files. These files contain all the information needed to manufacture the circuit board, including the size and shape of the board, the location and size of the holes, the layout of the traces, and the placement of the components. The Gerber files are then sent to the circuit board manufacturer, who uses them to create the physical circuit board.
Further Reading: How to Design a PCB Layout: A Comprehensive Guide
Creating the substrate is a crucial step in the manufacturing process of a circuit board. The substrate provides the mechanical support for the circuit and acts as an electrical insulator between the conductive layers.
The most common material used for the substrate is FR-4, a type of glass-reinforced epoxy laminate. The process of creating the substrate begins with preparing the fibreglass cloth. The cloth is cut to the desired size and then impregnated with the epoxy resin.
This is typically done using a process known as prepreg-ging, where the fibreglass cloth is dipped into a bath of the epoxy resin and then passed through heated rollers to remove excess resin and ensure a uniform thickness.
After impregnation, the fibreglass is layered together with sheets of copper foil. The number of layers can vary depending on the complexity of the circuit board, with more complex boards requiring more layers. The layered materials are then placed into a press and subjected to heat and pressure. This causes the epoxy resin to flow and cure, bonding the layers and forming a rigid board.
The thickness of the substrate can vary depending on the requirements of the circuit board. Common thicknesses range from 0.031 inches (0.79 mm) to 0.125 inches (3.18 mm). The thickness is controlled by the number of layers of fibreglass cloth used and the thickness of each layer.
Recommended Reading: PCBs Thickness: Understanding Thickness Variations
Adding the copper layer is pivotal in the circuit board manufacturing process. This layer forms the conductive pathways, or traces, that electrically connect the components of the circuit.
The process begins with applying a thin layer of copper foil to both sides of the substrate using a lamination process. The copper foil and the substrate are passed through heated rollers that apply pressure, causing the copper to bond to the substrate.
After copper foil lamination, the circuit pattern is created via imaging. Here, the board is coated with a layer of photoresist, a light-sensitive material, and then exposed to ultraviolet light through a mask containing the circuit pattern. The areas of the photoresist that are exposed to the light harden, while the unexposed areas remain soft.
Later, the unhardened photoresist is removed, revealing the underlying copper. The board is then etched, removing the exposed copper and leaving behind the copper under the hardened photoresist. This forms the circuit pattern.
The remaining photoresist is stripped away, leaving behind the copper circuit pattern. The board is then cleaned to remove any remaining photoresist or etchant residue. The result is a circuit board with a copper layer that forms the conductive pathways of the circuit.
The solder mask forms a protective layer covering most of the circuit board's surface, leaving only the areas that will be soldered exposed. The process of applying the solder mask begins with the preparation of the solder mask material. This material is typically a type of epoxy resin mixed with a hardener and a pigment, which gives the solder mask its characteristic colour, most commonly green.
The solder mask material is then applied to the circuit board using a process known as screen printing. In this process, a stencil or screen with the desired pattern is placed over the circuit board, and the solder mask material is forced through the openings in the screen onto the board's surface. The thickness of the solder mask layer is typically around 0.025 mm but can vary depending on the requirements of the circuit board.
Once the solder mask material is applied, the board is subjected to a curing process. This typically involves baking the board in an oven at around 150°C for approximately one hour. This causes the solder mask material to harden and adhere to the board's surface.
After the solder mask is cured, the board is inspected to ensure that the solder mask has been correctly applied and that all the necessary areas have been left exposed for soldering. Any necessary corrections are made at this stage before the board proceeds to the next step in the manufacturing process, which is the application of the silkscreen.
The final step in the manufacturing process of a circuit board is the silkscreen application. A stencil or screen with the desired pattern is placed over the circuit board, and ink is forced through the openings onto the board's surface.
The ink used for the silkscreen is usually epoxy-based ink that is resistant to heat, moisture, and chemicals, ensuring that the markings remain legible throughout the life of the electronic device.
Once the silkscreen ink is applied, the board is subjected to a curing process, which typically involves baking the board in an oven at around 150°C for approximately one hour. This causes the ink to harden and adhere to the board's surface.
After the silkscreen is applied and cured, the circuit board is inspected to ensure clear and accurate markings. Any necessary corrections are made before the board is shipped to the assembler for component mounting and soldering.
Circuit boards can be classified into several types based on their design and construction. These types include single-sided boards, double-sided boards, and multi-layer boards.
Single-sided boards are the simplest and most basic type of circuit board. As the name suggests, these boards have conductive pathways on only one side of the substrate, making them relatively easy and inexpensive to manufacture, as there is no need for complex processes to create connections between multiple layers.
Single-sided boards are typically used in low-cost, low-complexity electronic devices, such as simple consumer electronics, toys, and basic control systems.
Due to their simplicity, single-sided boards have some limitations regarding routing density and component placement. This means that they are unsuitable for more complex electronic devices requiring a higher level of integration and functionality.
Double-sided boards are a step up in complexity from single-sided boards. These boards have conductive pathways on both sides of the substrate, which allows for a higher density of components and a more complex circuit design.
The key feature of double-sided boards is through holes or vias to connect the conductive pathways on one side of the board to those on the other. Drilling holes in the substrate create these through-holes and then plating them with copper to create a conductive path. The use of through-holes increases the complexity of the manufacturing process, but it also provides greater flexibility in terms of component placement and circuit design.
Double-sided boards are commonly used in various electronic devices, including computers, telecommunications equipment, and industrial control systems. They balance complexity and cost well, making them popular for many applications.
Multi-layer boards represent the pinnacle of complexity in circuit board design. These boards consist of multiple layers of conductive pathways, separated by insulating substrate layers. The number of layers can range from four to over thirty, although four to twelve are most common in general applications.
The primary advantage of multi-layer boards is their high density of interconnections. This allows for complex, high-speed circuit designs that are not feasible with single-sided or double-sided boards.
Multi-layer boards are typically used in high-performance electronic devices such as computers, servers, and telecommunications equipment, where high speed, high capacity, and compact size are critical.
The manufacturing process for multi-layer boards is significantly more complex than for single-sided or double-sided boards. Each layer of copper and substrate is created separately, and the circuit pattern is etched onto each copper layer.
The layers are then stacked together and bonded under heat and pressure in a process known as lamination. After lamination, the board is drilled and plated to create through holes and vias that connect the different layers.
One of the key challenges in designing and manufacturing multi-layer boards is managing the electrical properties of the board. As the number of layers increases, issues such as signal integrity, impedance control, and thermal management become increasingly important. These issues require careful design and precise control of the manufacturing process to ensure that the finished board performs as intended.
Further Reading: What is a Multilayer PCB? (wevolver.com)
Circuit boards are a fundamental component of virtually all electronic devices, and their design and manufacturing process is complex and intricate. Each step requires precision and expertise, from the initial design phase to the final application of the silkscreen. The type of circuit board, whether a single-sided, double-sided, or multi-layer board, also plays a significant role in determining the complexity of the manufacturing process.
The evolution of circuit board technology has been driven by the increasing demand for smaller, more powerful electronic devices. As these trends continue, the complexity of circuit board design and manufacturing is likely to increase, with a greater emphasis on multi-layer boards and advanced manufacturing techniques.
A circuit board is a thin board made of an insulating material onto which conductive pathways are printed or etched. These pathways connect various electronic components, allowing them to work together to perform complex functions.
Circuit boards can be classified into several types based on their design and construction. These include single-sided boards, which have conductive pathways on only one side of the board; double-sided boards, which have pathways on both sides; and multi-layer boards, which have multiple layers of conductive pathways separated by insulating layers.
The solder mask is a protective layer that covers most of the circuit board's surface, leaving only the areas that will be soldered exposed. It serves several important functions, including preventing solder bridges, protecting the copper traces from environmental damage, and providing electrical insulation.
The silkscreen is a layer of ink that contains important information about the board and its components. This can include component designators, reference designators, logos, and other text or symbols that aid in assembly, testing, and troubleshooting.
Through-holes and vias are used on double-sided and multi-layer boards to connect the conductive pathways on one side to those on the other. Drilling holes in the substrate create them and then plating them with copper to create a conductive path.