Electronic component protection is at the core of high-quality electronics, providing the backbone for system safety, product reliability, longevity and compliance.

Ensuring electrical equipment safety is a complex but crucial consideration — especially as companies and customers turn their attention toward electrical waste and sustainability. Coating and protecting electrical components make products more durable, giving them longer lifespans and playing a critical role in helping manufacturers meet net-zero environmental commitments.

As such, though the overall design cycle is getting shorter with growing demand and rapid digitisation, electronics manufacturers must treat component protection as a top priority when developing new products.

So, what are the most common protection methods, and how do manufacturers decide the most suitable type for each project?

Choosing electronic component protection

First-rate electronic component protection is non-negotiable for many new products that rely on electrical circuits and components to function.

For example, electric vehicles (EVs) — the increasingly popular, eco-friendly cars expected to outsell diesel by the end of 2022 — rely on semiconductors and electrical components to function and therefore need robust component protection to guarantee driver safety.

Comprehensive circuit protection is also essential within healthcare technology. Medical devices must be able to work reliably to ensure patient safety and must also facilitate accurate and consistent data transfer. And with experts estimating that the number of wearable devices will reach over a billion this year, manufacturers will need to guarantee intrinsic safety and performance for miniaturised electronics components in a broader range of applications.

Manufacturers employ several techniques to protect components from damage caused by extreme temperature and temperature change, harsh chemicals and physical shock. The correct method for each element is determined according to a component’s end-use and the factors most important to the product’s safety.

Potting and encapsulation

Potting (or back-potting) and encapsulation are common methods of protecting sensitive components such as printed circuit boards (PCBs), automotive or avionic equipment and cable joint assemblies.

These techniques involve the submersion of an electronic component in a resinous material. Once the coating has been set — either by air drying, oven drying or curing with UV light — it protects against potential damage.

The types of compounds used to encapsulate the component depend on risk factors and the required protection level. Manufacturers should also consider whether they need a flexible blend should the coating needs to be removed for any reason.

Silicone coating offers high flexibility and resistance to water, chemicals and UV light damage. For those looking for a less costly protective coating, epoxy is a good choice — harder than silicone and resistant to temperatures up to 200 degrees, yet often brittle at low temperatures.

Urethanes are well suited for low-temperature environments but do not offer the same level of resistance to harsh chemicals and high temperatures provided by silicone and epoxy coatings. This difference in temperature resistance is a critical consideration for some components, as heat-sensitive electronic components could be damaged by compounds that require heat curing.

Additionally, manufacturers should consider the thickness and weight of the coating to ensure the protection does not interfere with any other product specifications. In some cases, manufacturers might opt for conformal coating instead.

Conformal coating

Conformal coating is a lightweight alternative to potting and encapsulation. It presents an ideal solution for electronics products that cannot exceed a particular weight or thickness, such as PCBs, which are responsible for creating electronic connections between connections and therefore require high levels of protection from moisture.

Dipping, brushing or spraying are the main ways manufacturers apply conformal coatings to electronic components and PCBs. Like potting and encapsulation, engineers choose different compounds depending on the product’s scope.

Silicone and acrylic offer good all-around protection and high flexibility at a reasonable price. However, silicone only has moderate humidity resistance, and acrylic has limited chemical resistance. On the other hand, polyurethane coatings are highly flexible and ultra-durable, with excellent resistance to harsh chemicals and environmental conditions.

Still, proper application is more important than the type of coating used. Potting and encapsulation or conformal coatings will not protect electronic components sufficiently if not done to a high standard, running the risk of system damage and failure.

Leave it to the experts

Many businesses employ the help of electronics manufacturing specialists like EC Electronics to ensure they are developing intrinsically safe products.

With nearly 40 years of experience in the electronics industry, we have the knowledge and expertise to support even the most complex electronics projects for clients across the globe.

We have a specialist facility to ensure our potting, encapsulation and conformal coating services for PCBs, connectors and interface box assemblies meet exceptionally high standards, with the suitable compounds and applications for optimum performance.

We provide specialist potting, encapsulation and PCB conformal coating services for various industries and applications. Get in touch by emailing sales@ecelectronics.com or calling +44 (0)1256 461894 to discuss the best approach for your product.