Printed Circuit Boards Toughen Up

circuit boards

Over time, electronics break. Smartphone and tablet screens crack. Sometimes a capacitor bursts, or a cooling unit dies. The circuit boards inside, or housing, tend not to fail. A rigorous design process that includes multiple stages of research, selection, schematic drafting, layout, and testing, means consumers and users are getting a product that has experienced rounds of quality control.

The Making of the Board

Circuit boards themselves can be single-layer, double-layer, or multi-layered. Millimeters-thin copper foil is the most common material used for a board’s conductive layer(s). Sandwiching the foil are layers of insulation. Everything is most commonly attached with an epoxy resin. More protective processes – including coats of tin, additional reinforced resin, and thicker insulator substrate being added to woven glass fibers – indicate that there is an inherent durability to PCBs.

circuit boards

Any PCB, though, is not perfect. No component is immune to possible issues. The most common of these regarding PCBs tend to be component failure, trace damage, and physical damage. With component failure, all parts age.

Capacitors, resistors, oscillators, relays, transformers, fuses – the smallest PCB can host a number of different parts, each of which is susceptible to normal aging, overheating, and wear and tear. Trace damage most often occurs due to power surges or contaminants finding their way onto a conductive pathway. Again, this can lead to overheating or general hardware failure. Finally, physical damage can occur when environmental pollutants (dust, grime, etc.) are introduced into the area, or from vibration and movement.

Bulking Up

circuit boards

One of the main goals for PCB designers and manufacturers has been to increase product reliability and durability in tandem with higher performance. As an increasingly technology-centered military begins to redesign and upgrade, that need for rugged and tough components is growing.

The ultra-advanced Lockheed Martin F-35, for example, requires an intimidating number of computers to function. This is a stealth fighter, though, and needs to remain compact. Designers at Lockheed have had to find a way to include greater functionality in a smaller form factor. New avionics and sensors all necessitate new computing power. This has required the use of smaller, but more durable PCBs.

circuit boards

The need for more robust PCBs isn’t limited to barrel-rolling fighter jets. Tablets and wearable technology on foot soldiers holding down the frontlines must also stand up to repeated abuse and harsh conditions. Any PCB that might be laid low by a handful of sand does not belong in a desert.

Beyond invasive environmental offenders, military-grade PCBs need to be able to handle the heat – figuratively and literally. Because water-cooling isn’t always an option in circuitry with lots of kinetic chaos surrounding it, other methods must be employed. Heat dissipation is a key innovation in ruggedizing PCBs for military use in a variety of applications. Many boards now feature heat redistribution capabilities that transfer higher temperatures to areas of the board where it can be safely absorbed.

For now, rugged military-grade PCBs are at the forefront of board innovation and manufacturing. Hopefully – and eventually – these more durable PCBs will simply be the norm.