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How Can Manufacturers Optimize PCBs for Better IoT Design

By Special Guest
Megan R. Nichols, Writer
February 19, 2020

The Internet of Things (IoT), including the Industrial IoT (IIoT), is one of the most important trends in technology today. That’s not exactly news. The bigger story for engineers and designers is how these technologies are forcing changes the rest of us can’t see — including at the PCB level.

Printed circuit boards are the “brains” that make it possible for billions of connected devices around the world to communicate with one another, regularly and wirelessly, using the internet. Optimizing how today’s PCBs are designed, tested and distributed is a great way to ensure these many devices, and the networks they run on, are well-prepared for unprecedented levels of connectivity and data mobility.

Here’s a look at how PCBs can, and already are, evolving to serve these personal, industrial and global computing needs.

Accommodating Shrinking Form Factors
The era of ubiquitous computing sees manufacturers embedding sensors, intelligence and internet connectivity within a wide range of products. Familiar sights in the IoT include smart thermostats, smoke detectors and running shoes. Its cousin, the IIoT, includes handheld and powered equipment that connect to the internet, “self-aware” product packaging and much more.

This variety of internet-connected devices means we need new PCB form factors. As they grow smaller for portability’s sake, PCBs must shrink their footprints to match.

High-density interconnect PCBs are one way in which designs can accommodate device markets where space is at a premium. HDI PCBs feature denser wiring and connection pads, as well as coreless construction and miniaturized vias and other components. The result is a thinner and lighter PCB and a smaller device footprint that does not compromise on essential features.

Answering the Call for More Durable Devices
Glass-clad phones have always been a bit of a head-scratcher, and consumers seem ready to move on. Some 88% of surveyed smartphone owners say durability is one of their top concerns when buying a new handset.

There are many reasons to prioritize durability throughout the IoT and IIoT. Rugged IoT devices like wearables, drones, tablets, sensors and industrial workstations have implications far beyond consumer electronics. That includes the armed forces as well as industries like oil and gas exploration, renewable energy generation, shipping and logistics, and many other disciplines.

Experts predict solid growth for rugged IoT devices in the coming years. The North American market for rugged handheld electronic devices sits ready for 7.9% growth each year between 2019 and 2024.

So how are PCB designers responding? One way is through rigid-flex PCBs.

Industrial environments regularly subject electronic devices to shocks, drops, vibrations and other forces that can damage them or compromise their functionality. Rigid-flex designs improve durability by breaking down PCBs from one solid board into several small ones connected with flexible wiring.

These PCBs provide much greater vibration and shock protection than does a single rigid PCB running the length of the device. They can also be folded over to further minimize their footprint.

Achieving End-to-End Traceability
Vetting and holding electronics and PCB manufacturers accountable is critically important in a global marketplace. The collision of geopolitics and the IoT means a closer eye on vendors and their products. For instance, even without a clear alternative in place, lawmakers in the U.S. chose to ban Huawei products from America’s 5G infrastructure. National security was the proffered reason, with economic nationalism coming in at a close second.

When 5G becomes more widely available, its implications in consumer and industrial electronics — including and especially the Internet of Things — shouldn’t be underestimated. Even without the stated geopolitical concerns, any technology that reaches into our personal lives and industrial activities to this degree deserves new kinds of scrutiny, traceability and the highest levels of quality control.

Today, traceability can be embedded in every layer of printed circuit boards. Until now, it was standard procedure to put a single barcode or identifier onto a PCB. This is no longer sufficient in an industry where even the U.S. military admits as much as 15% of its electronics pipeline is comprised of counterfeit goods.

To answer this challenge, modern PCBs feature sophisticated encoded identifiers at every physical layer. This links each layer to the others, provides far more detailed traceability data and greatly reduces the likelihood of counterfeit parts going unnoticed in a supply chain.

Achieving true end-to-end traceability for every layer, and ensuring that the provenance of every component corresponds to the others, makes it far simpler to track manufacturing defects back to individual machines on the factory floor. Industry certifications such as IPC-A-600, provide a framework while inspecting products for functionality and defects.

Embedded identifiers are an ideal accompaniment. They provide new levels of peace of mind, especially after the PCBs have left the production floor and change hands throughout the world.

IoT and PCB, Evolving Together
Future IoT technologies and implementations will likely bring even more changes to how PCBs are designed and manufactured. In the meantime, it’s fascinating to watch how some of the smallest details in our electronics evolve to answer challenges.

Edited by Ken Briodagh
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