Since their invention in 1903 and their patenting by Paul Eisler in 1943, printed circuit boards (PCBs) have evolved and advanced far beyond their original functionalities.

What was once assembled by hand has given way to microscopic components that require the precision and efficiency of first-class machinery. Today, PCBs are minuscule, multi-layered and complex systems — in demand in nearly every electronics manufacturing sector.

Used in every computer and almost all electronics, it is no surprise that the PCB market is expected to have a compound annual growth rate of 14.7% between 2023 and 2030. But as technology and consumer demand grow and develop, so must PCBs…

So, how are PCBs evolving — and what can we expect of the crucial components in the near future?

Demand for rigid PCBs

Rigid PCBs are a form of circuit board that is solid and inflexible in its structure. They comprise several different layers, such as a substrate layer, a copper layer, a solder mask layer and a silk screen layer, which are joined together via adhesive and heat.

Since rigid PCBs tend to be more durable than other boards, they are particularly popular in the medical industry.

High reliability is a top priority for medical PCBs, since the failure of a medical device could risk lives. Parts need to withstand the intended operating environment, including temperature fluctuations and humidity levels, to minimise the risk of a malfunction.

Luckily, rigid PCBs can cope with high levels of heat and stress during their lifespan — offering medical equipment manufacturers dependability and reliability. Because of this, we will see the continued use of rigid PCBs in essential apparatuses, such as X-rays, heart monitors, CAT scans, and MRI systems.

Opportunities for flexible PCBs

Unlike rigid printed circuit boards, flexible PCBs are designed to fit the intended device or product. Typically, flexible PCBs are thin, lightweight and work very well in small spaces, contouring their shape to be squeezed or folded into an enclosure.

Flexible PCBs are widely used in the aerospace industry for this reason — with the bonus that they have high resistance to vibrations, shocks, radiation, extreme temperatures and other hazards.

From temperature sensors and control tower instrumentation to navigation and satellite communication systems, this technology will become increasingly common in various essential aerospace equipment.

The dawn of miniaturisation

Gone are the days when bulky gadgets are the norm. Now, consumers prefer portable devices that can easily fit in their pockets — or even be worn on their wrists.

To manufacture these powerful, sophisticated and wearable devices, like smartwatches, fitness trackers and health monitors, electrical engineers are tasked with developing miniaturised PCBs that can fit into smaller and smaller gadgets. No easy feat, but the benefits are impacting almost every industry…

As the size of electronic components decreases, PCB designers can pack more functionality onto smaller boards, providing efficient use of space in devices, improving signal integrity and reducing power consumption.

Plus, miniaturisation makes PCB design and assembly more reliable. As electronic components are closer together on the board, the risk of damage due to vibration, shock or temperature fluctuations is reduced. And with the advancement in surface mount technology (SMT), PCB assemblers can place components directly onto the board’s surface rather than having to drill holes and attach the components to the PCB. This process eliminates the need for holes, which can weaken the board and increase the risk of breakage.

Thanks to these developments, miniaturised PCBs are becoming increasingly popular for products that need to be reliable, robust and non-invasive. For example, medical devices like continuous glucose monitors and electrocardiogram testing devices help patients safely self-manage their conditions.

Prioritising sustainability

As PCB manufacturing continues to develop, the electronics industry is adopting more environmentally friendly practices to curb non-biodegradable waste.

One of the most exciting new developments is the production of paper PCBs, which are made using conductive inks printed onto a paper substrate. Although these boards are still under development, 2024 may see the introduction of Soluboard — Infineon Technologies’ solution to a more environmentally friendly future.

Not only is this PCB made from natural fibres (with a lower carbon footprint than traditional glass-based fibres), but its organic structure is also further enclosed in a non-toxic polymer that dissolves when immersed in hot water. Since this leaves only compostable organic material, the electronic components soldered to the board can be recovered and recycled.

Whilst PCB designers work to innovate the next sustainable solution, there is one thing electronics manufacturers should take forward into 2024: recycling. PCBs use trace amounts of limited-resource elements, like copper and tin, which can be extracted, melted down and reused for other devices. After all, every little helps…

Manufacturing safe and innovative PCBs

From humble beginnings to becoming the pillar of modern electronics, it is safe to say PCBs have undergone remarkable changes over the years.

As the world continues to embrace new frontiers in technology, PCBs will have no choice but to adapt and transform to meet customer demand and ensure quality, accuracy and intrinsic safety. So, EMS providers must be prepared to deal with the complex mechanical, logistical and legislative requirements of developing modern circuit boards.

At EC Electronics, high-quality PCB assembly has been at the heart of our manufacturing operations for almost 40 years. Our state-of-the-art facilities in the UK and Europe are equipped with the latest machines to encompass both surface-mount and through-hole assemblies, allowing us to deliver everything from PCB prototype and assembly to large-scale manufacturing of multi-technology PCBs.

We have embraced automation to optimise product inspection, and our fully trained operators are skilled in assembling a selection of complex boards to the highest industry standards. As a result, we can offer a bespoke service for our customers — from blue chip companies to up-and-coming entrepreneurs.

Are you looking to partner with a trusted, forward-thinking EMS provider for your next electronics project? Discover our PCB assembly services and contact our friendly team of experts at 01256 461894 or to learn how we can help.