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|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
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.
Conducting layers are typically made of thin copper foil. Insulating layers dielectric are typically laminated together with epoxy resin
prepreg. The board is typically coated with a solder mask that is green in color. Other colors that are normally available are blue, and red. There are quite a few different dielectrics that can be chosen to provide different insulating values depending on the requirements of the circuit. Some of these dielectrics are
polytetrafluoroethylene, FR-4, FR-1, CEM-1 or CEM-3. Well known prepreg materials used in the PCB industry are FR-2
(Phenolic cotton paper), FR-3 (Cotton paper and epoxy), FR-4 (Woven glass and epoxy), FR-5 (Woven glass and epoxy), FR-6 (Matte glass and polyester), G-10 (Woven glass and epoxy), CEM-1 (Cotton paper and epoxy), CEM-2 (Cotton paper and epoxy), CEM-3 (Woven glass and epoxy), CEM-4 (Woven glass and epoxy), CEM-5 (Woven glass and polyester).
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A PCB as a design on a computer (left) and realized as a board assembly with populated components (right). The board is double sided, with through-hole plating, green solder resist, and white silkscreen printing. Both surface mount and through-hole components have been used.
Typical density of a raw PCB (an average amount of traces, holes, and
via's, with no components) is 2.15g / cm3
The vast majority of printed circuit boards are made by bonding a layer of copper over the entire substrate, sometimes on both sides, (creating a "blank PCB") then removing unwanted copper after applying a temporary mask
(eg. by etching), leaving only the desired copper traces. A few PCBs are made by adding traces to the bare substrate (or a substrate with a very thin layer of copper) usually by a complex process of multiple electroplating steps.
There are three common "subtractive" methods (methods that remove copper) used for the production of printed circuit boards:
1. Silk screen printing uses etch-resistant inks to protect the copper foil. Subsequent etching removes the unwanted copper. Alternatively, the ink may be conductive, printed on a blank (non-conductive) board. The latter technique is also used in the manufacture of hybrid circuits.
2. Photoengraving uses a photomask and chemical etching to remove the copper foil from the substrate. The photomask is usually prepared with a photoplotter from data produced by a technician using CAM, or computer-aided manufacturing software. Laser-printed transparencies are typically employed for
phototools; however, direct laser imaging techniques are being employed to replace phototools for high-resolution requirements.
3. PCB milling uses a two or three-axis mechanical milling system to mill away the copper foil from the substrate. A PCB milling machine (referred to as a 'PCB
Prototyper') operates in a similar way to a plotter, receiving commands from the host software that control the position of the milling head in the
x, y, and (if relevant) z axis. Data to drive the Prototyper is extracted from files generated in PCB design software and stored in HPGL or Gerber file format.
"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.
Originally, every electronic component had wire leads, and the PCB had holes drilled for each wire of each component. The components' leads were then passed through the holes and soldered to the PCB trace. This method of assembly is called through-hole construction. In 1949, Moe Abramson and Stanislaus F. Danko of the United States Army Signal Corps developed the
Auto-Sembly process in which component leads were inserted into a copper foil interconnection pattern and dip soldered. With the development of board lamination and etching techniques, this concept evolved into the standard printed circuit board fabrication process in use today. Soldering could be done automatically by passing the board over a ripple, or wave, of molten solder in a wave-soldering machine. However, the wires and holes are wasteful since drilling holes is expensive and the protruding wires are merely cut off.
In recent years, the use of surface mount parts has gained popularity as the demand for smaller electronics packaging and greater functionality has grown.