A printed circuit board, or PCB, is used to mechanically support and electrically connect electronic components using conductive pathways, or traces, etched from copper sheets laminated onto a non-conductive substrate. It is also referred to as printed wiring board (PWB) or etched wiring board. A PCB populated with electronic components is a printed circuit assembly (PCA), also known as a printed circuit board assembly (PCBA).
PCBs are rugged, inexpensive, and can be highly reliable. They require much more layout effort and higher initial cost than either wire-wrapped or point-to-point constructed circuits, but are much cheaper and faster for high-volume production. Much of the electronics industry's PCB design, assembly, and quality control needs are set by standards that are published by the IPC organization.
There are three common "subtractive" methods (methods that remove copper) used for the production of printed circuit boards:
"Additive" processes also exist. The most common is the "semi-additive" process. In this version, the unpatterned board has a thin layer of copper already on it. A reverse mask is then applied. (Unlike a subtractive process mask, this mask exposes those parts of the substrate that will eventually become the traces.) Additional copper is then plated onto the board in the unmasked areas; copper may be plated to any desired weight. Tin-lead or other surface platings are then applied. The mask is stripped away and a brief etching step removes the now-exposed original copper laminate from the board, isolating the individual traces.
The additive process is commonly used for multi-layer boards as it facilitates the plating-through of the holes (to produce conductive vias) in the circuit board.
When very small vias are required, drilling with mechanical bits is costly because of high rates of wear and breakage. In this case, the vias may be evaporated by lasers. Laser-drilled vias typically have an inferior surface finish inside the hole. These holes are called micro vias.
It is also possible with controlled-depth drilling, laser drilling, or by pre-drilling the individual sheets of the PCB before lamination, to produce holes that connect only some of the copper layers, rather than passing through the entire board. These holes are called blind vias when they connect an internal copper layer to an outer layer, or buried vias when they connect two or more internal copper layers and no outer layers.
The walls of the holes, for boards with 2 or more layers, are plated with copper to form plated-through holes that electrically connect the conducting layers of the PCB. For multilayer boards, those with 4 layers or more, drilling typically produces a smear comprised of the bonding agent in the laminate system. Before the holes can be plated through, this smear must be removed by a chemical de-smear process, or by plasma-etch.
Electrochemical migration (ECM) is the growth of conductive metal filaments on or in a printed circuit board (PCB) under the influence of a DC voltage bias.
Screen print is also known as the silk screen, or, in one sided PCBs, the red print.
Lately some digital printing solutions have been developed to substitute the traditional screen printing process. This technology allows printing variable data onto the PCB, including serialization and barcode information for traceability purposes.
There are a variety of soldering techniques used to attach components to a PCB. High volume production is usually done with machine placement and bulk wave soldering or reflow ovens, but skilled technicians are able to solder very tiny parts (for instance 0201 packages which are 0.02" by 0.01") by hand under a microscope, using tweezers and a fine tip soldering iron for small volume prototypes. Some parts are impossible to solder by hand, such as ball grid array (BGA) packages.
Often, through-hole and surface-mount construction must be combined in a single PCA because some required components are available only in surface-mount packages, while others are available only in through-hole packages. Another reason to use both methods is that through-hole mounting can provide needed strength for components likely to endure physical stress, while components that are expected to go untouched will take up less space using surface-mount techniques.
After the board has been populated it may be tested in a variety of ways:
To facilitate these tests, PCBs may be designed with extra pads to make temporary connections. Sometimes these pads must be isolated with resistors. The in-circuit test may also exercise boundary scan test features of some components. In-circuit test systems may also be used to program nonvolatile memory components on the board.
In boundary scan testing, test circuits integrated into various ICs on the board form temporary connections between the PCB traces to test that the ICs are mounted correctly. Boundary scan testing requires that all the ICs to be tested use a standard test configuration procedure, the most common one being the Joint Test Action Group (JTAG) standard.
Many assembled PCBs are static sensitive, and therefore must be placed in antistatic bags during transport. When handling these boards, the user must be earthed; failure to do this might transmit an accumulated static charge through the board, damaging or destroying it. Even bare boards are sometimes static sensitive. Traces have gotten so fine that it's quite possible to blow an etch off the board (or change its characteristics) with a static charge. This is especially true on non-traditional PCBs such as MCMs and microwave PCBs.
Safety Standard UL 796 covers component safety requirements for printed wiring boards for use as components in devices or appliances. Testing analyzes characteristics such as flammability, maximum operating temperature, electrical tracking, heat deflection, and direct support of live electrical parts.
The boards may use organic or inorganic base materials in a single or multilayer, rigid or flexible form. Circuitry construction may include etched, die stamped, precut, flush press, additive, and plated conductor techniques. Printed-component parts may be used.
The suitability of the pattern parameters, temperature and maximum solder limits shall be determined in accordance with the applicable end-product construction and requirements.
Cordwood construction can give large space-saving advantages and was often used with wire-ended components in applications where space was at a premium (such as missile guidance and telemetry systems). In 'cordwood' construction, two leaded components are mounted axially between two parallel planes. Instead of soldering the components, they were connected to other components by thin nickel tapes welded at right angles onto the component leads. To avoid shorting together of different interconnection layers, thin insulating cards were placed between them. Perforations or holes in the cards would allow component leads to project through to the next interconnection layer. One disadvantage of this system was that special nickel leaded components had to be used to allow the interconnecting welds to be made. Some versions of cordwood construction used single sided PCBs as the interconnection method (as pictured). This meant that normal leaded components could be used.
Before the advent of integrated circuits, this method allowed the highest possible component packing density; because of this, it was used by a number of computer vendors including Control Data Corporation. The cordwood method of construction now appears to have fallen into disuse, probably because high packing densities can be more easily achieved using surface mount techniques and integrated circuits.
Since it was quite easy to stack interconnections (wires) inside the embedding matrix, the approach allowed designers to forget completely about the routing of wires (usually a time-consuming operation of PCB design): Anywhere the designer needs a connection, the machine will draw a wire in straight line from one location/pin to another. This led to very short design times (no complex algorithms to use even for high density designs) as well as reduced crosstalk (which is worse when wires run parallel to each other--which almost never happens in Multiwire), though the cost is too high to compete with cheaper PCB technologies when large quantities are needed.
Surface-mount technology emerged in the 1960s, gained momentum in the early 1980s and became widely used by the mid 1990s. Components were mechanically redesigned to have small metal tabs or end caps that could be soldered directly on to the PCB surface. Components became much smaller and component placement on both sides of the board became more common than with through-hole mounting, allowing much higher circuit densities. Surface mounting lends itself well to a high degree of automation, reducing labour costs and greatly increasing production and quality rates. Surface mount devices (SMDs) can be one-quarter to one-tenth of the size and weight, and passive components can be one-half to one-quarter of the cost of corresponding through-hole parts. However, integrated circuits are often priced the same regardless of the package type, because the chip itself is the most expensive part. As of 2006, some wire-ended components, such as small-signal switch diodes, e.g. 1N4148, are actually significantly cheaper than corresponding SMD versions.