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What's Next for PCBs?

What’s Next for PCBs? | PCBCart

Since their invention at the turn of the century and their patenting by Paul Eisler in 1943, printed circuit boards have evolved and advanced far beyond their original functionalities.

PCBs today are tiny, multilayered, complex systems that hardly resemble their earliest ancestors. They're also produced at a much higher and more efficient rate than ever before thanks to sophisticated design software and manufacturing processes. Even 10 years ago, microvias, HDI and FPGAs were only seen in the most expensive designs, yet are now readily available to designers worldwide.

As technology and consumer demand grows and develops, however, so must PCBs. As the basis of all electronic devices, PCBs feel intense pressure for development and growth. With consumers pushing for slimmer and faster devices, and with industries seeking improved functionality, the PCB must continue developing into the future.

PCB Industry Growth | PCBCart

But what exactly will the future of printed circuit boards look like?

Future of PCB

While modern PCBs are produced at incredible rates with astounding complexity, there is always room for development. Whether it's in the shape of the PCB itself or the accessories attached directly to the board, consumers are continuously pushing for new and different PCBs and PCB functions.

There's also plenty of room to grow in the manufacturing process itself as increased PCB complexity introduces new challenges for manufacturing companies. That's why most predictions for the printed circuit board's future focus strongly on the following areas.

1. PCB Board Cameras

Board cameras, alternatively called PCB cameras, are cameras that are mounted directly onto a circuit board. These PCB cameras consist of a lens, aperture and image sensor and are designed to take both digital pictures and videos. In all, the cameras are around the size of a quarter and can be mounted on any size PCB. This means these cameras are small enough to slip into just about any electronic device.

Since their introduction, board cameras have developed quickly, with photo and video imaging and durability being the primary areas of improvement. Now, these small cameras can take high-resolution images and video with ease. In the next few years, board cameras are expected to develop even further, creating powerful solutions for both industry and consumer electronics.

Board Camera Industry Expects Continued Growth | PCBCart

Due to their size, board cameras have several applications across a variety of industries. These include:
Consumer Electronics: Board cameras have found a great deal of utility in consumer electronics, particularly in handheld mobile devices. Today, smartphones, tablets, laptops and other small handheld electronics commonly use board cameras. Consumer electronics companies are constantly pushing for smaller and more powerful cameras.
Medical Instruments: In particular, small board cameras have found a niche in the medical industry for non-invasive and minimally invasive procedures. Pill-sized cameras are now in use that can be swallowed by patients so doctors can take comprehensive videos and images from inside the digestive tract without invasive surgery. Also wearable cameras are gaining traction during surgeries as an instructional tool.
Surveillance Technology: Because PCB cameras are so small in size, they are easy to conceal inside objects, making them an excellent choice for surveillance uses. Many consumers, security companies and organizations use these small cameras to monitor their homes and businesses for intruders. As the technology improves, its surveillance applications continue to grow.

These industries are only a few examples of how board cameras can be used and how trends may continue into the future. As it stands, the board camera industry is moving more toward customizable board cameras that are both high-quality and durable. Improved day/night and low light capabilities are also under development to help improve both medical and surveillance imaging purposes.

2. 3D Printed Electronics

3D printing technology is probably one of the most exciting technological innovations in recent years. From 3D-printed organs to firearms and ammo, 3D printing has accomplished some incredible things in a variety of industries. The PCB industry is no different.

3D printing has proved integral to one of the big PCB innovations in recent years: the 3D PE. 3D-printed electronics, or 3D PEs, are positioned to revolutionize the way electrical systems are designed in the future. These systems create 3D circuits by printing a substrate item layer by layer then adding a liquid ink on top of it that contains electronic functionalities. Surface-mount technologies can then be added to create the final system. The result is a circuit that can take any shape imaginable.

Revolutionary 3D-Printed Electronics | PCBCart

3D PE can potentially provide immense technical and manufacturing benefits for both circuit manufacturing companies and their clients — especially when compared to traditional 2D PCBs. These advantages include:
Novel Designs: By allowing circuits to be printed on top of an existing shape, 3D PE manufacturing techniques enable circuits to take new and incredible shapes that were simply not possible with traditional PCB manufacturing. 3D PEs can be shaped to fit any circuit carrier while still combining electronic, optic and mechanical functions. This enables new product features and optimizations. Not only can 3D PEs be shaped, but they can also be scaled to print on components larger than anything possible using 2D PCB manufacturing methods.
Improved Efficiency: Since 3D PE manufacturing is an additive process that uses digital methods, it is much more conservative in its materials usage than 2D PCB manufacturing. The system only applies as much material as is needed and nothing more, meaning materials are used more efficiently. Additionally, the digital aspect of the production process increases overall accuracy by removing sources of human error. While circuits will still sometimes fail using this method, increased automation reduces the likelihood of failure, improving overall efficiency.
Environmentally Friendly: Since there is no actual limitation on the type of substrate material that can be used in 3D PE manufacturing, PCB Houses can select any material they like. This makes environmentally-friendly production much easier as they can choose low-cost, recyclable materials.

Because of these benefits, 3D PE production has advanced quickly and is moving towards high-volume mass production. While 3D PE applications are relatively limited at present, keeping mostly to gauges, antennas and sensors, a significant amount of research is going into expanding the manufacturing capabilities of 3D PEs. This includes developing the types of surfaces they can be printed on, the types of SMDs that can be added to them and the manufacturing tools that can be used to print them.

Many industry leaders expect the 3D PE industry to expand quickly as manufacturing companies and consumer industries discover new methods and applications for 3D PE technology.

3D-Printed Electronics Industry Growth | PCBCart

3. PCB Autoplacers

Most PCBs today include an autorouter in their design. This PCB component routes electronic functions throughout a board to model the characteristics of the PCB layout, therefore making the automation process much easier.

However, autorouters are difficult to create and set up, taking a large amount of time and labor. Because of this difficulty, time saved through automation is lost in the setup process. For this reason, many manufacturers and PCB designers are looking into autoplacers as an alternative. Autoplacers make the automation process much faster by attempting to integrate mechanical and electrical CAD systems, simplifying the manufacturing process. As of today, automatic placement tools haven't achieved acceptance in the PCB manufacturing industry at large. The reason lies primarily in the difference between autoplacer and autorouter constraints:

Autoplacers Make the Automation Process Faster | PCBCart

Autorouters: Routing constraints are mainly dictated by the characteristics of the board, which can be easily modeled within the PCB design environment. These properties include the number of layers, the spacing between tracks, connection distances and layer directions.
Autoplacers: The constraints that dictate component placement can be driven by mechanical considerations. These include the shape of the product casing, ergonomic issues like button positioning, heat dissipation and pick-and-place optimization.

The constraints dictating the operation of autoplacers don't necessarily have anything to do with the board design, but rather with the product design. This can mean significantly overhead for designers, as they have to account for much more than the PCB design. While autoplacers can speed up manufacturing processes substantially over autorouters, this will depend primarily on optimizing the autoplacer constraint management. This is where new technology must come into play.

PCB design technology is on the rise recently, and with it the idea of integrated CAD systems. Because autoplacers rely on both electrical and mechanical design aspects, an integrated electrical and mechanical CAD system that applies constraints in both realms is necessary to make autoplacers more efficient.

With the move toward these design software choices, autoplacers are slowly becoming the more effective alternative to autorouters. This switch from autorouters to autoplacers is expected to bring real benefits to the PCB design process.

4. High-Speed Capabilities

Today's world is incredibly fast-paced, demanding that people and technology move quickly as well. As the years pass, we expect things to get even faster - that includes electronics. To allow our devices to keep up with this growing demand for speed, PCB technology will need to adapt accordingly.

High-speed PCBs are a unique subject for designers, mostly because the definition of a high-speed PCB is relatively loose. The generally agreed-upon definition of a high-speed PCB is one where the integrity of the signal is affected by the circuit layout. This can mean different things:
Digital Signal: In digital PCB signals, the intelligence is contained in the digital pulses. Therefore, effects on signal integrity can manifest as delayed or canceled digital signals.
Analog Signal: In a high-speed analog circuit, the intelligence is in the shape of the signal. In these cases, signal integrity problems will appear as altered signal shapes.

In both cases, signal integrity can be adversely affected by several factors, both in and around the PCB. These include the dielectric of the PCB, the length of the tracks, the proximity to other signals and EMI, among other factors. Many high-speed designers know how to adjust designs to mitigate these problems, but new methods are constantly under development as well as new software tools to manage high-speed designs.

For more information about current High-Speed PCB design techniques, visit our PCB Design resources page to read our articles on high-speed layout tips and how to reduce EMI influence in high-speed designs.

As high-speed functionality continues to be in high demand going into the future, printed circuit board innovations focusing on high-speed designs will continue to be in demand. PCB industry insiders expect to see high-speed innovations continue to be a large part of the PCB's future.

5. A Focus on Flexible PCBs

The PCB industry is already a fast-growing industry, with some studies estimating that the market will grow from $63.5 billion in 2016 to $73.8 billion in 2021. However, the fastest-growing segment of the PCB industry is flexible PCBs - projected to grow to $15.2 billion by 2020 and $27 billion by 2022.

Flexible PCB Industry Growth | PCBCart

Between wearable electronics, flexible displays and medical applications, flexible technology is pushing the industry increasingly toward flexible and flex-rigid PCBs. Flexible PCB technology is already outpacing rigid PCBs in terms of sales growth, meaning the future is looking bright.

So why are flexible PCBs so popular? Due to their flexibility, flexible PCBs can handle more stress and bending than rigid PCBs and can even be folded to fit into awkward 3D spaces, making them useful for applications where bending is a regular occurrence. They also tend to be very light and thin, yet remain relatively easy to manufacture in mass quantities.

Several industries are pushing the trend toward flexible PCBs, including:
LED Lighting: LED lighting is wildly popular as a bright yet energy-efficient alternative to traditional incandescent bulbs. For LED strip lighting, flexibility is key along the length of the strip so customers can bend the strip to suit their needs. Flexible PCBs bring about this necessary functionality.
Wearable Technology: Today, wearable electronic devices are becoming ever more popular, with the global market expected to reach $30.6 billion by 2020. These electronics are often embedded into clothing and flexible accessories such as smart socks, belts and wristbands. Even some sports helmets now incorporate sensors, using PCBs, to monitor shock and speed. Flexible PCBs are necessary for these applications, both for the sake of flexibility and for handling shock and vibration.
Flexible Displays: Flexible displays have enjoyed attention for years but are still relatively rare to find and aren't in general use yet due to the high manufacturing costs. However, once those production costs come down, flexible devices are expected to be the next big thing in mobile technology. Able to handle shocks and stresses better than typical rigid designs, flexible displays will be likely to lead to flexible smartphones and tablets. This will probably require everything else in the device to be bendable as well, including PCBs.
Medical Instrumentation: Medical device innovation has so far focused mostly on two technology trends: miniaturization and flexibility. Flexible PCBs enable medical device designers to accomplish both, by allowing for compact circuitry on a flexible substrate. Flexible PCBs are also favored for their reliability and biocompatibility, as their connections are consistent and their substrates are compatible for contact with human tissues. For these reasons, flexible PCBs have become a mainstay in many medical devices and are used in surgical tools, implantable medical devices, monitors and sensors.

Due to their literal and figurative flexibility, flexible PCBs have found several uses across the industry, making them a high-demand product. People in the PCB industry can expect to see many more flexible PCB designs come into demand in the near future if this trend continues.

6. Biodegradable PCBs

Electronic waste, AKA e-waste, is one of the biggest environmental concerns of the modern era. This type of waste includes electronic items like computers, laptops, TVs, smartphones and household appliances, many of which contain parts that are neither biodegradable nor environmentally-friendly. While e-scrapping has become popular in recent years, e-waste continues to be a problem as people try to find ways to get rid of old electronics.

PCBs are a large part of this issue. Some PCB materials don't degrade very well and often end up in landfills, polluting the surrounding soil. This issue is compounded by the fact that the chemicals used during PCB manufacturing process are often harmful to the environment if not properly disposed of.

Considering how many electronics the average consumer goes through over the course of a decade, along with the industry trend toward short-lived electrical products, this can mean a lot of thrown-out PCBs bringing harm to the environment.

There are many proposed solutions to this problem, from mass junking to organized e-waste collection services. Some players are even supporting the idea of extracting precious metals from e-waste, like palladium, silver, gold, gallium and tantalum, to reuse them by smelting and refining them. This, in turn, would reduce the pressure on mining companies to produce vast amounts of metal for the electronics industry.

When it comes to PCBs specifically, some scientists propose we attack the pollution problem by changing PCB manufacturing processes. This would mean switching out traditional substrates with more environmentally-friendly alternatives. Biodegradable substrates are currently under close examination, as are alternatives that don't require harmful etching chemicals to finish the assembly process.

Biodegradable PCB Substrates | PCBCart

Both would help reduce the environmental impact of the electronics industry overall and could potentially contribute to reducing the costs of assembly and manufacturing.

Other Future Advancements in the PCB Industry

The improvements and innovations in the PCB industry listed above don't stand by themselves. Many other potential innovations lie just beyond the technological horizon.

One of these advancements is the idea of PCBs as active system components. At present, PCBs are used as connecting components in electronics, relaying messages between active components so the device as a whole can work. Engineers are currently working to make the PCBs themselves the active systems, reducing the number of components in the PCB while maintaining functionality.

PCB Active Systems | PCBCart

Other advancements concern the interaction between these innovations. For example, 3D PE manufacturing is expanding the types of materials that can be used for circuits. This makes using flexible and biodegradable substrate materials more feasible. By using combinations of these innovative ideas, PCB designers can accomplish incredible new designs that keep the PCB industry moving forward.

Choose PCBCart for Your Future PCB Projects

PCB technology will continue to advance into the future as our needs and priorities change. As your company works in new designs and invests in new technologies, be on the lookout for changing trends, including those listed above. On top of that, you should partner with a PCB solutions partner who is prepared to handle changing technological needs well into the future. That's where PCBCart can help.

PCBCart is the premier PCB solutions provider, helping companies with everything from parts sourcing to PCB assembly. We'll partner with you and help you every step of the way in your PCB fabrication and assembly process, providing comprehensive expertise from our experienced representatives. Our assembly services meet IPC Class 3, RoHS and ISO 9001:2008 certification standards and are set up to handle even the most complex PCB designs. No matter what you need done, PCBCart can help.

To learn more about PCBCart and how we can help you with your next PCB project, request a free quote from us today for either our standard PCB, PCB prototype or PCB assembly services.

Helpful Resources
Printed Circuit Board Introduction & PCB Types
Application and Use of Printed Circuit Boards
How is Printed Circuit Board Manufactured?
PCB Assembly Process - Soldering Components onto PCBs
How to Evaluate A PCB Manufacturer or A PCB Assembler

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