What is a Printed Circuit Board (PCB)?

Zachariah Peterson
|  Created: October 5, 2020  |  Updated: August 28, 2021
What is a PCB

A printed circuit board (PCB) is an electronic assembly that uses copper conductors to create electrical connections between components. Printed circuit boards provide a mechanical support for electronic components so that a device can be mounted in an enclosure. A printed circuit board must be designed with a specific set of steps that aligns with the manufacturing process, integrated circuit packaging, and the structure of the bare circuit board.

Conductive features on a printed circuit board include copper traces, pads, and conductive planes. The mechanical structure is made up of an insulating material laminated between layers of conductors. The overall structure is plated and covered with a nonconductive solder mask, and a silk screen material is printed on top of the solder mask to provide a legend for electronic components. After these fabrication steps are completed, the bare board is sent into PCB assembly, where components are soldered to the board and the PCBA can be tested.

Design of printed circuit boards has grown into its own vertical within the electronics industry. Printed circuit boards play an important role in that they provide electrical interconnections between components, a rigid support to hold components, and a compact package that can be integrated into an end product. Circuit boards have to be carefully designed using specialized software packages, and the best software can help take a design from concept and all the way through manufacturing. In this article, we'll look deeper at what is a PCB and some of the important points to understand when designing circuit boards.

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All printed circuit boards are built from alternating layers of conductive copper with layers of electrically insulating material. During manufacturing, the inner copper layers are etched, leaving the intended traces of copper for connecting components in the circuit board. Multiple etched layers are laminated in succession until the printed circuit board stackup is complete. This is the overall process used in PCB fabrication, where the bare board is formed before passing through an assembly process.

History of Printed Circuit Boards

Before we can get into answering what is a printed circuit board, it is best to understand where PCBs have come from. In the past, electronics were designed and assembled from small integrated circuits and discrete components, which were connected together using wires. Today, standard designs can have high pin count components with many integrated circuits and very small passive components, making it impossible to manually connect components together with soldered wires. Instead, copper connections are deposited directly on insulating substrates to form electrical connections, and the manufacturing processes for circuit boards have evolved alongside the structural requirements for electronics packages and interconnects. Many of today's devices are advanced HDI designs with thousands of connections and multiple electrical interfaces, powering everything from smartphones to heart rate monitors to rockets. 

Before printed circuit boards, components were packaged by attaching individual wires to components, and by mounting components to a rigid substrate. This original substrate was initially a material called bakelite, which was used to replace the top ply on a sheet of plywood. Conductive paths were formed by soldering metal components to wires, and larger circuits could contain many electronic components with many wires. The number of wires were so great that they could get tangled or inhabit a large space within a design. Debugging was difficult and reliability suffered. Manufacturing was also slow, where multiple components and their wired connections were manually soldered.

Types of PCBs

In the previous section, I've focused on typical PCBs that are assembled on rigid substrates as these are most common. However, there are other types of circuit boards that are constructed on a range of possible materials. The common types of PCBs are:

  • Single-sided - This board only has components mounted on one surface. The back surface is typically fully copper (ground) and coated with solder mask.
  • Double-sided - This type of circuit board has components mounted on both surfaces. Each surface is defined as a signal layer in the PCB stackup, so the surfaces will contain traces that carry signals between components.
  • Multi-layer PCBs - These boards have conductors on internal layers that carry electrical signals between components, or the internal layers could be conductive plane layers. Multi-layer PCBs may be single-sided or double-sided.
  • Rigid PCBs - These boards are fabricated and assembled on a rigid laminate material, such as FR4-grade epoxy resin-impregnated fiberglass laminate materials. Other types of rigid laminate materials are available as well, which provide different material properties for use in some specialized applications.
  • Rigid-flex PCBs - Rigid-flex PCBs use a flexible polyimide ribbon that connects two or more rigid sections in a printed circuit board assembly (PCBA). A rigid-flex board might be used when the design must have some movable element, such as a folding or bending enclosure.
  • Flex PCBs - Fully flex PCBs do not use any rigid PCB materials and are made entirely of flexible polyimide ribbon. These boards can have components mounted and soldered on the, just like rigid and rigid-flex PCBs.
  • Metal-core PCBs - These boards use a metal slab in the core layer (normally aluminum) in order to provide much greater rigidity and heat dissipation than in a typical rigid PCB. The metal-core PCB manufacturing process is quite different from the standard rigid PCB manufacturing process, and there are a few design points to consider to ensure solveability. These boards are common in high power lighting and some industrial applications.
  • Ceramic PCBs - These boards are less common and are used in applications that require very high thermal conductivity such that the board can dissipate large amounts of heat away from components.

The fabrication and assembly processes for these types of PCBs varies, but today's ECAD software can help designers create any of these boards as long as the right PCB design rules are enforced in the software.

What is a pcb
Older circuit boards would largely include through-hole components in the design.

In the above image, we have an older circuit board that largely uses through-hole components to provide the required functionality. Modern PCBs have switched to largely surface-mount (SMD) components as they are more useful in high-density, double-layer designs. SMD components are now the standard component type used in most applications that require small form factor, low power, and low cost. However, some applications still make use of through-hole components as they are more reliable and easier to assemble, including with hand assembly. The image below shows an example of a modern PCB with high-density SMD components.

What is a PCB
Modern designs can have any type of solder mask and tend to include many SMD components.

Structure and Applications of PCBs

Many of the important performance characteristics of a PCB are defined in the stackup, or the arrangement of layers in the PCB. The layer stackup is built with alternating layers of conductive and insulating material, and with alternating layers of core and prepreg (two types of dielectrics used in the layer stackup). The dielectric and mechanical properties of core and prepreg will determine reliability and signal/power integrity in the design, and they should be selected carefully when designing for high-reliability applications. For example, military and medical applications need highly reliable designs that might be deployed in harsh environments, which a PCB for a telecom system might require a low-loss PTFE laminate in a small package.

An example of a PCB stackup is shown below. In this example, the stackup implements a 4-layer structure with two internal plane layers (L02_GND for ground, and L03_PWR for power). This type of stackup is appropriate for IoT devices, lightweight embedded systems, and many other designs that use high speed protocols. The internal plane arrangement helps ensure power integrity while also providing some shielding against external EMI. The internal plane layers also provide a consistent reference for controlled impedance signals. This type of stackup is typical for many designs and is often a starting point for many modern PCBs.

What is a PCB
Example stackup drawing created with Draftsman in Altium Designer.

Starting a New PCB Design

When it's time to start a new design, a circuit board will pass through several stages. Production-grade circuit boards are designed using ECAD software, or a CAD application that includes many utilities that are specialized for circuit board design and layout. ECAD software is built to help designers walk through a specific process for circuit board design, beginning with basic electrical drawings and ending with manufacturing file preparation. Circuit board design follows a basic process:

  1. Front-end engineering - In this stage, the major components are selected and some basic circuit diagrams are typically created so that the functionality in the board can be designed.
  2. Schematic capture - This is the stage where ECAD software is used to translate simple circuit diagrams into electronic drawings that define electrical connections between components. Schematic symbols are used to denote components in the design.
  3. Material selection and PCB stackup design - In this stage, laminate materials are selected and the stackup is designed to accommodate the need for plane layers, signal layers, dedicated routing channels, and specific material properties.
  4. Component placement - After the board shape is set and components are imported into a new PCB layout, components are arranged in the layout to comply with the design's mechanical requirements.
  5. Routing - Once component placement is approved, it's time to route traces between components. Routing tools in ECAD software are used to set Trace geometry may be determined in this stage with the goal of ensuring impedance control (for high-speed signals).
  6. Design review and verification - Once routing is completed, it's always a good idea to inspect and evaluate the design to ensure there are no mistakes or unresolved problems. This can be done with manual inspection or using post-layout simulation tools.
  7. Preparing for manufacturing - Once the design is completed, it's time to prepare for production by generating standard manufacturing files. These files are used in automated fabrication and assembly equipment.

If you want to easily get through all of these stages in the PCB design process, you need to use the best design software with an intuitive user interface and a complete set of PCB design features.

Use Altium Designer to Create Your Circuit Boards

The industry's best ECAD software should be easy to use and easy to learn, and it should include a complete set of design features. Altium Designer is the only application that includes everything in a single program, no external programs are needed to complete a design and prepare it for production.

what is a pcb
3D view of a finished PCB layout in Altium Designer

Altium Designer’s unified environment provides includes everything needed to design and manufacture high-quality circuit board assemblies. Other programs separate your important design tools into different programs with different workflows, making it difficult to stay productive and increasing your licensing costs. Altium Designer is consistent rated as the easiest to learn and the easiest to use, making it ideal for new designers and experienced professionals.

Altium Designer on Altium 365 delivers an unprecedented amount of integration to the electronics industry until now relegated to the world of software development, allowing designers to work from home and reach unprecedented levels of efficiency.

We have only scratched the surface of what is possible to do with Altium Designer on Altium 365. Start your free trial of Altium Designer + Altium 365 today.

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, and the American Physical Society, and he currently serves on the INCITS Quantum Computing Technical Advisory Committee.

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