From smartphones and laptops to satellite systems and medical equipment, printed circuit boards (PCBs) are used as the base in most electronics products today.

However, not all PCBs are the same — and they most certainly aren’t all made equal.

Let’s take a closer look at the different types of PCBs available, which applications they are best suited to and how to choose the right manufacturer to guarantee the quality of your PCB and finished product.

Types of PCBs

There are several types of PCBs, each with their own manufacturing specifications, material types and preferred uses.

Most PCBs for simple electronics are composed of just a single layer. However, more sophisticated hardware can require multiple layers — sometimes up to twelve. Although the largest multi-layer PCB ever built was 50 layers thick!

As the name suggests, a single-sided PCB is made out of a single layer of base material or substrate. One side of the base material is coated with a thin layer of metal, with copper being the most common coating choice due to its excellent electrical conduction properties. A protective solder mask is then usually applied on top of the copper base plating, followed by the silk-screen to mark out all of the elements on the board.

In comparison, double-layer or double-sided PCBs have a base material with a thin layer of conductive metal — again, like copper — applied to both sides of the board.

Multi-layer PCBs consist of a series of three or more double-layered PCBs. These boards are secured together with a special glue and sandwiched between pieces of insulation to protect the components from any excess heat.

PCBs can also be either rigid, flexible or a combination of the two. Rigid PCBs are made out of a solid substrate material that prevents the board from twisting and keeps it set in one shape for the duration of the product’s lifespan. Unlike rigid PCBs, flexible PCBs are made of malleable materials such as plastic. This means they can be folded over edges and wrapped around corners. Flex-rigid PCBs then combine the best of both worlds!

Selecting the best PCB for your application

The type of PCB used will depend largely on the application. Single-layer PCBs work well in simple electronics such as stereo components, calculators, cameras, power supplies and printers. These types of boards are easy to design and manufacture and cost less to mass-produce. However, because of their intrinsic design limitations, they’re less popular than they used to be. Double-sided PCBs are a little more complex and are widely used in applications such as automotive dashboards, industrial controls, amplifiers and HVAC systems.

With multi-layer PCBs, designers can create thick, intricate designs which are suitable for a variety of complicated applications including satellite systems, GPS technology and weather analysis. Medical equipment such as pacemakers also rely on high-density, multi-layer PCBs to create the smallest and most lightweight design possible. When producing PCBs for the medical sector, quality is of the utmost importance, and strict standards should be followed to ensure complete reliability and optimal performance.

Rigid PCBs are manufactured in large quantities. Once assembled and mounted, they cannot be altered or modified. For some applications, such as computer motherboards, these types of PCBs are ideal. However, they would not be suitable for use in areas that might be subject to environmental hazards.

In this case, flexible PCBs are preferred. Flexible PCBs can be manufactured using waterproof, shockproof, corrosion-resistant or temperature-resistant materials. Both the automotive and aerospace sectors make use of flexible PCBs, which are designed to withstand the high-vibration environments that are common in these fields. Depending on specifications and design, flexible PCBs can also be very lightweight and conform to tight spaces such as those present in instrument panels.

Finding the right manufacturer for your project

Finding the right PCB manufacturer to produce your printed circuit boards can be a challenge. Many companies promise the same things, but in reality, they offer entirely different levels of service and quality.

Choosing the wrong manufacturer for your PCB can lead to extended turnaround times, unnecessary costs and a lot of frustration. So, always do your research to guarantee you’re choosing a quality, certified and experienced manufacturer that can meet all of your project requirements.

It’s also worth noting that the components on a PCB are usually connected in one of two ways: through-hole technology (THT) or surface-mount technology (SMT). Through-hole mounting involves placing components into drilled holes on a bare PCB, whereas components are secured by solder on the surface of the board in the SMT process. Most boards today use a mix of plated THT and ultra-fine pitch SMT, so it’s crucial to find a manufacturer that has experience in both areas.

As a specialist PCB assembly manufacturer, EMS offers both through-hole technology and surface-mount technology — enabling us to provide the complete assembly solution you require. We only work with trusted PCB supply partners that best meets our customers’ requirements, and thanks to our policy of continuous investment, all of our PCB assembly services are carried out to the highest standards using the latest, top-of-the-range equipment. 

To discuss your project requirements with us, please get in touch today.