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A printed circuit board, or PCB, is used to mechanically support and electrically connect electronic components using conductive pathways, tracks or signal 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. Printed circuit boards are used in virtually all but the simplest commercially produced electronic devices.
A PCB populated with electronic components is called a printed circuit assembly (PCA), printed circuit board assembly or PCB Assembly (PCBA). In informal use the term “PCB” is used both for bare and assembled boards, the context clarifying the meaning.
Circuit properties of the PCB
Each trace consists of a flat, narrow part of the copper foil that remains after etching. The resistance, determined by width and thickness, of the traces must be sufficiently low for the current the conductor will carry. Power and ground traces may need to be wider than signal traces. In a multi-layer board one entire layer may be mostly solid copper to act as a ground plane for shielding and power return.
For microwave circuits, transmission lines can be laid out in the form of stripline and microstrip with carefully controlled dimensions to assure a consistent impedance. In radio-frequency and fast switching circuits the inductance and capacitance of the printed circuit board conductors become significant circuit elements, usually undesired; but they can be used as a deliberate part of the circuit design, obviating the need for additional discrete components.
Printed circuit assembly
After the printed circuit board (PCB) is completed, electronic components must be attached to form a functional printed circuit assembly,or PCA (sometimes called a “printed circuit board assembly” PCBA). In through-hole construction, component leads are inserted in holes. In surface-mount construction, the components are placed on pads or lands on the outer surfaces of the PCB. In both kinds of construction, component leads are electrically and mechanically fixed to the board with a molten metal solder.
There are a variety of soldering techniques used to attach components to a PCB. High volume production is usually done with SMT placement machine 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 in. by 0.01 in.)by hand under a microscope, using tweezers and a fine tip soldering iron for small volume prototypes. Some parts may be extremely difficult to solder by hand, such as BGA packages.
Often, through-hole and surface-mount construction must be combined in a single assembly 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:
While the power is off, visual inspection, automated optical inspection. JEDEC guidelines for PCB component placement, soldering, and inspection are commonly used to maintain quality control in this stage of PCB manufacturing.
While the power is off, analog signature analysis, power-off testing.
While the power is on, in-circuit test, where physical measurements (i.e. voltage, frequency) can be done.
While the power is on, functional test, just checking if the PCB does what it had been designed to do.
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. The JTAG test architecture provides a means to test interconnects between integrated circuits on a board without using physical test probes. JTAG tool vendors provide various types of stimulus and sophisticated algorithms, not only to detect the failing nets, but also to isolate the faults to specific nets, devices, and pins.
When boards fail the test, technicians may desolder and replace failed components, a task known as rework.
Printed circuit board artwork generation was initially a fully manual process done on clear mylar sheets at a scale of usually 2 or 4 times the desired size. The schematic diagram was first converted into a layout of components pin pads, then traces were routed to provide the required interconnections. Pre-printed non-reproducing mylar grids assisted in layout, and rub-on dry transfers of common arrangements of circuit elements (pads, contact fingers, integrated circuit profiles, and so on) helped standardize the layout. Traces between devices were made with self-adhesive tape. The finished layout “artwork” was then photographically reproduced on the resist layers of the blank coated copper-clad boards.
Modern practice is less labor intensive since computers can automatically perform many of the layout steps. The general progression for a commercial printed circuit board design would include:
Schematic capture through an Electronic design automation tool.
Card dimensions and template are decided based on required circuitry and case of the Determine the fixed components and heat sinks if required.
Deciding stack layers of the PCB. 1 to 12 layers or more depending on design complexity. Ground plane and power plane are decided. Signal planes where signals are routed are in top layer as well as internal layers.
Line impedance determination using dielectric layer thickness, routing copper thickness and trace-width. Trace separation also taken into account in case of differential signals. Microstrip, stripline or dual stripline can be used to route signals.
Placement of the components. Thermal considerations and geometry are taken into account. Vias and lands are marked.
Routing the signal traces. For optimal EMI performance high frequency signals are routed in internal layers between power or ground planes as power planes behave as ground for AC.
Gerber file generation for manufacturing.
Option for dedicating layers to ground
Forms reference planes for signals
Simpler impedance control
Option for dedicating layers to Supply Voltages
Low ESL/ESR power distribution
More routing resources for signals
Electrical Considerations in Selecting Material
Dielectric Constant (permittivity)
The more stable, the better
Lower values may be more suitable for high layer counts
Higher values may be more suitable for some RF structures
The lower, the better
Becomes more of an issue at higher frequencies
The lower, the better
Can effect dielectric constant and loss tangent
The higher, the better
Typically not an issue, except in high voltage applications
The higher, the better
Typically not an issue, except in low leakage applications