More and more designers are facing the need to reduce size and cost of the products they design, while increasing density and simplifying assembly. Rigid-Flex circuits (those which incorporate flexible portions between separate rigid sections) are becoming a more common solution. This blog is the beginning of a short series which discusses the materials, fabrication, and design methods for using rigid-flex technology.
As the title of this blog suggests, I’ve been thinking a lot lately about Rigid-Flex circuit boards. Rigid-Flex can have many benefits, and many designers are at least considering it today who previously did not have to. It seems that more designers are facing higher pressures to build ever more densely populated electronics, and with that also comes pressure to reduce costs and time in manufacturing. Well, this is really nothing new of course. It’s just that the scope of engineers and designers having to respond to these pressures is continuously broadening.
But there are aspects of rigid-flex which could be pot-holes in the road for newcomers to the technology. So it’s wise to first understand how flex circuits and rigid-flex boards are actually made. From there we can look at the design issues and find a clear path forward. For now, let us consider what basic materials go into these boards.
Substrate and Coverlay Films
Start by thinking of a normal rigid PCB - the base material is typically fibreglass and epoxy resin. It’s actually a fabric, and although we term these “rigid” if you take a single laminate layer they have a reasonable amount of elasticity. It’s the cured epoxy which makes the board more rigid. This is not flexible enough for many applications though for simple assemblies where there’s not going to be constant movement it is suitable.
For the majority of applications, more flexible plastic than the usual network epoxy resin is needed. The most common choice is polyimide, because its very flexible, very tough (you can’t tear or noticeably stretch it by hand, making it tolerant in product assembly), and also incredibly heat resistant. This makes it highly tolerant of multiple reflow cycles and reasonably stable in expansion and contraction due to temperature fluctuations.
Polyester (PET) is another commonly used flex-circuit material, but it’s not tolerant of high temps and less dimensionally sound that Polyimide (PI) films. I have seen this used in very low cost electronics where the flexible part had printed conductors (where the PET could not handle the heat of lamination), and needless to say nothing was soldered to it - rather, contact was made by crude pressure. I seem to remember that the display in this product (a clock radio) in question never really worked too well due to the low quality of the flex circuit connection. So for rigid-flex we’ll assume we’re sticking to the PI film. (Other materials are available but not often used).
PI and PET films, as well as thin epoxy and glass fibre cores, form common substrates for flex circuits. The circuits must then use additional films (usually PI or PET, sometimes flexible solder mask ink) for coverlay. Coverlay insulates the outer surface conductors and protects from corrosion and damage, in the same way solder mask does on the rigid board. Thicknesses of PI and PET films range from ⅓ mil to 3 mils, with 1 or 2 mils being typical. Glass fibre and epoxy substrates are sensibly thicker, ranging from 2 mils to 4 mils.
While the above-mentioned el-cheapo electronics may use printed conductors - usually some kind of carbon film or silver based ink - copper is the most typical conductor of choice. Depending upon the application different forms of copper need to be considered. If you are simply using the flexible part of the circuit to reduce manufacturing time and costs by removing cabling and connectors, then the usual laminated copper foil (Electro-Deposited, or ED) for rigid board use is fine. This may also be used where heavier copper weights are desired to keep high-current carrying conductors to the minimum viable width, as in planar inductors.
But copper is also infamous for work-hardening and fatigue. If your final application involves repeated creasing or movement of the flex circuit you need to consider higher-grade Rolled Annealed (RA) foils. Obviously the added step of annealing the foil adds to the cost considerably. But the annealed copper is able to stretch more before fatigue cracking occurs, and is springier in the Z deflection direction - exactly what you want for a flex circuit that will be bending or rolling all the time. This is because the rolling annealing process elongates the grain structure in the planar direction.
Figure 2: Exaggerated illustration of the annealing process, obviously not to scale. The copper foil passes between high-pressure rollers which elongate the grain structure in a planar orientation, making the copper much more flexible and springy in the z-deflection.
Examples of such an application would be gantry connections to a CNC router head, or laser pickup for a Blu-Ray drive (as shown below).
Figure 3: Flex-circuit used to link the laser pickup to the main board assembly in a Blu-Ray mechanism. Notice that the PCB on the laser head has the flexible portion bent at right angles, and an adhesive bead has been added for strengthening the flex circuit at the join.
Traditionally, adhesives are required for bonding the copper foil to PI (or other) films, because unlike a typical FR-4 rigid board, there’s less “tooth” in the annealed copper, and heat & pressure alone are not enough to form a reliable bond. Manufacturers such as DuPont offer pre-laminated single- and double-sided copper clad films for flexible circuit etching, using acrylic or epoxy based adhesives with typical thicknesses of ½ and 1 mil. The adhesives are specially developed for flexibility.
“Adhesiveless” laminates are becoming more prevalent due to newer processes that involve copper plating or deposition directly onto the PI film. These films are chosen when finer pitches and smaller vias are needed as in HDI circuits.
Silicones, hot-melt glues, and epoxy resins are also used when protective beads are added to the flex-to-rigid joins or interfaces (i.e. where the flexible part of the layer stack leaves the rigid part). These offer mechanical reinforcement to the fulcrum of the flex-to-rigid join which otherwise would rapidly fatigue and crack or tear in repeated use. An example of this is shown in Figure 3 above.
Figure 4: Typical single-layer Flex Circuit stack-up.
It’s important to be aware of the materials used in flexible and rigid-flex circuits. Even though you may generally allow the fabricator freedom to select the materials based on your application, ignorance will not protect you from field-failures of the final product. A really good resource which contains far more detail than my brief introduction here is Coombs, C. F. (Editor, 2008) The Printed Circuits Handbook, 6th Ed. 2008 McGraw Hill, pp 61.3 0 - 61.24.
Knowing the material properties will also help in the mechanical design, evaluation and test of your product. If you are working on automotive products for instance; heat, moisture, chemicals, shock & vibe - all need to be modelled with accurate material properties to determine the product’s reliability, and minimum allowed bending radius. The irony is that the driving needs that cause you to choose flexible and rigid-flex are often tied to harsh environments. For example, low-cost consumer personal electronic devices are often subjected to vibrations, dropping, sweat and worse.
In the next installment of this blog, we’ll look at the fabrication steps in rigid flex circuits, which will lead to better understanding of the design considerations, to be explored in a subsequent post.
About the Author
Ben is a Computer Systems and PCB Engineer with over 20 years of experience in embedded systems, FPGA, and PCB design. He is an avid tinkerer and is passionate about the creation of electronic devices of all kinds. Ben holds a Bachelor of Engineering (CompSysEng) with First Class Honors from the University of Southern Queensland and is currently Director of Community Tools and Content.More Content by Ben Jordan