Growing interest in flexible and rigid-flex PCBs for applications where flexibility and space-saving are crucial
PCB assemblies are a major service that any electronic contract manufacturing company offers. However, as electronics have advanced over the years, one of the major needs in many different industries is for smaller, more flexible printed circuit boards. The ability to save both space and weight is crucial in certain applications, from personal electronics to flight-critical Aerospace equipment, leading to the development of smaller, more flexible PCBs.
Flex vs. Rigid Flex–what’s the difference?
PCBs come in three different types: the traditional rigid PCBs, rigid-flex PCBs, and flexible PCBs, each named for the base on which the components are sat. Rigid PCBs are the most common, featuring a solid, unbending board that is easily recognized by its bright green color. However, equipment had to be built with their size and rigidity in mind–PCBs, while vital to any electronics, were not originally very versatile.
This led to the development of rigid-flex and flex printed circuit boards. Rigid-flex boards sit in the middle of the spectrum, being made of a combination of both rigid and flexible components in order to provide greater spatial efficiency. The board is designed in a 3D space so that the designer can twist, fold, and roll the substrates in order to ensure the PCB will fit properly within the device while using all available space for the mounted components. These are excellent for applications with unusual shapes or that require reliable connectivity–typically, rigid-flex PCBs don’t require as many solder joints as rigid boards.
Flexible PCBs are at the other end of the spectrum, offering a bendable printed circuit board with the potential for high complexity in a smaller, more versatile package. There are many different types of flex PCBs, from single or double-sided to multilayered and more. While they are not as durable as rigid-flex PCBs, they have many more applications and are especially useful in wearable medical devices, a variety of sensors, handheld devices, and Aerospace applications.
A case study in aerospace
One of the major applications for flex and rigid-flex PCBs has been in Aerospace electronics. Saving space–and weight–is critical in aerospace manufacturing, as is durability. Flexible circuit boards can take on unusual shapes and fit into spaces that traditional rigid ones can’t. Rigid-flex boards are also useful in that they can be uniquely customized to handle the stress of extreme temperatures, high vibrations, and other common factors.
Recently SI Manufacturing assisted one of our partners by developing the manufacturing capability for a complex coil assembly on a PCB that was used for precise electronic manipulation of a particular piece of equipment. We developed a very small coil that allowed for the precise control of the equipment’s physical position using a magnetic field. The use of a flexible substrate for the PCB also allowed the board to be uniquely shaped to fit into the customer’s equipment.
This is just one small example of the many different ways that flexible PCBs are being used.
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