If you’ve ever seen the innards of an electronic device, you will no doubt have noticed the circuit board. Sometimes these boards will have components attached to them; in other cases they just resemble bits of plastics with metal lines all over them. Have you ever wondered exactly what these boards are and how they get made?
In the case of a computer motherboard that has components placed on it, there are a number of processes involved in producing the components and attaching them together. However, it is remarkably easy to make the other kind of circuit board using today’s technology. These are known as printed circuit boards (PCB).
Put simply, a printed circuit board is a circuit board whose components are contained within the structure itself. A combination of heat sinks, conductive plains, copper traces and pads are used to conduct heat and electricity across the board. By layering insulating material between layers of conductive material, it is possible to ‘print’ these circuit boards out using specialised machines.
When it is being printed, the circuit board is made by alternating layers of insulation material, which is non-conductive, with layers of copper, which is conductive. As the board is being printed, the machine etches the interior layers of copper so they can connect to components within the circuit.
Computer aided design and manufacture (CAD and CAM) have been becoming more common over the last few decades. Using CAD and CAM, we have been able to design and manufacture pieces that would have been difficult or impossible to make by hand. You can read this article by Altium if you would like to learn more about printed circuit board designing.
PCBs can be found in just about everything. If you were to take your smartphone apart, you would find a PCB at its core. If you take your TV apart, you will find the same thing. In fact, you would be hard-pressed to find an electronic device in the home that doesn’t have a PCB at its center.
As well as powering our smartphones, tablet and laptops, PCBs are a vital component of portable electronics. This extends to handheld GPS devices, digital alarm clocks, and anything else that requires a circuit to act as a brain.
If you own a digital camera, that will also have a PCB at its heart. If you play guitar for a band, your amplifier and effects pedals also utilize PCBs.
There is a reason that PCBs are used everywhere. For one thing, we can produce small circuit boards that would be impossible to build by hand, PCBs tend to be lighter and smaller than other circuit boards. Maybe the best thing about PCBs, however, is their versatility.
Printed circuit boards are at the heart of all the electronic devices that we use in our day to day lives. You have almost certainly seen a PCB before, even if you didn’t identify it as such. Whether you are a hobbyist or a professional engineer, learning about PCBs is essential for anyone who designs electronics.