How Antipads Affect Signal Integrity in Your Multilayer PCB

Zachariah Peterson
|  Created: November 17, 2020
How Antipads Affect Signal Integrity in Your Multilayer PCB

Antipads on vias and landing pads are a point of contention in modern PCB design, and the debate around the use of these elements in a multilayer PCB is framed as a binary choice. Like thermal reliefs, ground plane splits, and orthogonal routing, the debate around antipads on landing pads and vias is framed as an always/never choice. With today’s modern PCBs, it pays to understand the effects of antipads on signal integrity.

Antipads and Signal Integrity

When it comes to signal integrity, be careful with application notes from component manufacturers, and always validate what you see from well-understood concepts. If you look at some component application notes, they will recommend placing antipads on landing pads without explanation. In addition, different notes will tell you precisely the via antipad diameter you should use, but it is easy to take this out of context. Let’s look closely at these two situations and how the structure of a via/pad + antipad can lead to signal integrity problems.

How to Model a Via and its Antipads

A via antipad is applied automatically by your CAD tools based on your clearance rules anytime you use a plated-through hole to transition through a solid plane. If you’re routing through a plane layer, your options are to completely remove a large section of the plane around the via or encircle the via in the remaining conductor to create an antipad. No matter what happens, there must be some void between the via wall and any planes in order to prevent shorting.

At this point, if you’re routing through a solid plane, the question is not whether you should use a via antipad or cut away the plane around the, but rather how large should the antipad extend past the via pad and any internal nonfunctional pads. Like many potential problems in high speed design, all vias have parasitics:

  • Inductance. A via taken in isolation is basically an inductor, and the inductance of the via depends on the via aspect ratio.
  • Capacitance. The presence of the plane around creates some parasitic capacitance between the via pads and ground.

Each pad at the end of the via and the intervening plane creates two capacitances in parallel. When combined with an inductor, we have a standard pi model describing a via and their antipad, as shown below. Note that the capacitance equation shown below is only an approximation as it does not consider fringing fields. The via inductance equation is also an approximation.

Pi model with antipads
Pi model for a via and its antipads.

What happens next (in terms of electrical behavior) depends on a number of factors. First, just like any pi circuit, the CLC pi model is basically a low-pass filter with the 3 dB cutoff frequency defined above. Suppose you want to extend the bandwidth of your via + antipad arrangement. In that case, you’ll need to reduce the aspect ratio (shorter via or wider barrel diameter), or decrease the pad-plane-pad capacitance (larger antipad).

Here, you have a difficult set of options to balance. Modern designs are getting denser with smaller features, so there is a danger your aspect ratio becomes quite large, the 3 dB frequency would decrease and limit bandwidth. Once you get to the mmWave regime, you’ll have other signal integrity challenges involving routing through vias. Additional parasitics become dominant at these frequencies and contribute to overall insertion loss along an interconnect.

Example Dk-effective Calculation

Just as an example, we can use an example antipad size calculation to determine the time required for a signal to travel along a via. The travel time can then be compared with the travel for the same signal in vacuum to determine an effective dielectric constant along the length of the via.

Let's suppose we have a via passing through a 1.57 mm thick PCB with 10 mil barrel diameter, 20 mil landing pad, and 25 mil antipad. If we calculate the propagation time using the above model with Dk = 4, we get about 43 ps transit time across this via. That gives a Dk-effective value of about 67.51. That means a single via creates a lot of excess propagation delay for signals traveling along the via; if we just use the Dk = 4 value to calculate the propagation delay through the via, we would calculate 22 ps propagation delay. That's a significant difference if we need delay-matched signals (in high-speed design) or phase-matched signals (in RF design).

Antipad Manufacturability

The size of an antipad will also affect manufacturability. The manufacturability issue here concernse drilling a through-hole via through a plane, which will be impacted by drill wander. During fabrication, any wander in the drill hit can cause the hole to be placed in the wrong location and would expose some of the plane's copper through the hole wall. During plating, this would create a short into the plane layer. 

PCB antipad
The antipad here is not large enough to accommodate drill wander. The antipad should be made larger.

To prevent this problem, the antipad needs to be large enough so that any wander in the drill hit does not pierce the plane layer. At minimum, an appropriate approach is to make the antipad at least as large as the pads on each end of the via. However, for Class II products, any breakout in the annualr ring would definitely hit the plane layer, even if accounting for layer-to-layer misregistration (usually about 1 mil).

On this point, a good strategy is to ask your manufacturer what they recommend. One rule of thumb is to size the antipad diameter so that it is 20 mil larger than the drill diameter, or 12 mil larger than the pad size required for IPC-6012 Class II compliance. This would give you plenty of room for Class II or Class III products. This is just a recommendation; you could opt for a smaller expansion value as long as there are no non-functional pads on the internal layers.

For differential pairs, there is a bit of a different consideration as we care more about preventing an impedance discontinuity and determining backdrilling requirements, which will also depend on the antipad size. To learn more about this, take a look at the following video on backdrilling to see how antipads on a pair of differential vias affects via propagation delay. As you'll see in the video, the antipad helps determine the lowest order resonance frequency in the via stub, which will determine when backdrilling is needed.

Summary

In summary, if you want to control via bandwidth and parasitics, you have a few levers you can pull. Antipads on vias give you a simple way to tune the parasitic capacitance to match the inductance for a given via aspect ratio. The dielectric constant (Dk value only) can also be used as a tool for controlling via capacitance.

Regarding antipads on landing pads, you’ll create a small impedance discontinuity, which can create some small insertion loss and return loss at the pad. In high speed channels where bandwidths can extend up to 100 GHz and beyond, every last bit of insertion loss you can avoid is critical. My view is to play it safe and not use any antipads on landing pads unless you absolutely need to do this to set a landing pad’s impedance to some specific value, thereby reducing return loss.

Whenever you need to design an antipad for use in your PCB, you can use the complete set of rules-driven design tools in Altium Designer®. When you need to share your work with your collaborators, you can use the Altium 365® platform to share and manage your design data. We have only scratched the surface of what is possible to do with Altium Designer on Altium 365. You can check the product page for a more in-depth feature description or one of the On-Demand Webinars.

About Author

About Author

Zachariah Peterson has an extensive technical background in academia and industry. He currently provides research, design, and marketing services to companies in the electronics industry. Prior to working in the PCB industry, he taught at Portland State University and conducted research on random laser theory, materials, and stability. His background in scientific research spans topics in nanoparticle lasers, electronic and optoelectronic semiconductor devices, environmental sensors, and stochastics. His work has been published in over a dozen peer-reviewed journals and conference proceedings, and he has written 1000+ technical blogs on PCB design for a number of companies. He is a member of IEEE Photonics Society, IEEE Electronics Packaging Society, American Physical Society, and the Printed Circuit Engineering Association (PCEA), and he previously served on the INCITS Quantum Computing Technical Advisory Committee.

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