Step Up Your Game: Multi-Board Versus Multilayer Designs

Zachariah Peterson
|  Created: February 6, 2018  |  Updated: December 15, 2023
Multi-Board Versus Multilayer Designs

Sometimes, a circuit board gets too cramped and has too many layers for its good. Highly cramped assemblies and higher layer counts generally increase costs, and you can't always enlarge a board just to fit everything into your mechanical constraints. Things like enclosures, connector placements, attached mechanical or electrical components, and the like all limit what you can do inside the space you are given. What's the difference between a multi-board vs multilayer design? 

If the component and function counts in your system start to increase, what are some ways you can add this to your design without cranking up the density and layer count? One option is to use a multi-board assembly, where the additional functionality is placed on a second or third board. Getting it right involves selecting the right connectors, cables, and stack up for each board, but this can help you ensure you get all your required functionality into one system without significantly higher density and layer count on a single board.

What Can Drive Higher Density and Layer Count?

Many factors can force you to use more layers in your PCB or to place parts on a separate board and link your PCBs together. An additional board cannot always solve extra layer count problems, and adding extra layers cannot always solve an additional board problem. However, there are some instances where each approach is entirely necessary. Some of the biggest drivers of higher layer count are the requirement for additional ground, power, or signal routing, and this is usually to accommodate more advanced components. The other extreme is a change in the design that requires many more components; unless you're putting cavities into the PCB, you won't solve higher component count problems with higher layer count.

On the other extreme, an additional board can be just what the doctor ordered if the component count increases in your design. This is especially true if your board size has a hard mechanical constraint that prevents a board size. In this case, where you have to increase component count with new circuitry or design modifications, you're only option is to go with an additional PCB.

Let's look at some of my favorite examples where we have to add a board or layer.

Going Multi-Board

If your board is getting more diverse in its functionality, or you need to integrate different types of subsystems into your product, then a multi-board approach will probably be best. This can also be driven by mechanical requirements in your enclosure. Here are some instances where you will find multi-board preferred over high-layer count boards:

Prefer to avoid a hybrid stack-up. Hybrid stackups can be unreliable if your fabricator does not know how to build and qualify these. Hybrid stack-ups could also be more expensive than just adding a board, depending on the materials being used. If you want to avoid a hybrid stackup approach, you could always just use the hybrid layer as its own board. This is an approach I have taken in RF systems in the past, where the more advanced RF section lives on its own PTFE PCB.

RF power amplifier module created in Altium Designer. Read more about this project.

Different power requirements. Power is one particular area where it is extremely common to see a supply dedicated to its board or module. Power supply modules are available from many vendors and they are typically built to output standard voltages. If you have a custom power supply, you can take the same approach and place it on a separate board that attaches to your host PCB with a mezzanine power connector or pogo pins. This gives you a convenient module form factor and the customization you might need for your particular power supply.

Non-isolated power supply module from Texas Instruments.

Replaceable or hot-swappable boards. Sometimes, you may have a requirement for hot swapping of add-in PCBs or making a board replaceable. Dedicating this circuitry to a second board gives you much more freedom in terms of how you design the rest of your system. That second board can be connected to the host board with mezzanine connectors or headers. Another option for connecting two boards with data and power is a flex printed circuit (FPC) cable. Some examples where you will find this approach include expansion cards, accelerator modules, and many applications in mobile, and embedded systems.