Discovering Printed Circuit Boards in Plain English

by:Rocket PCB     2020-04-22
An essential component of every electronic device is the printed circuit board (PCB). The board itself, called substrate, gives a solid surface upon which to mount components. The PCB also connects components so they can communicate with each other through wire-like connections called traces. Traces are made by laminating copper sheets to the circuit board and etching off whatever copper is not needed. Electronics users typically have the notion that a PCB substrate is one solid piece of material. Although single-piece printed circuit boards do exist, multiple-layer circuit boards are the norm. Thin material with traces etched upon it is stacked and bonded together, one on top of the other. A dozen or more layers may comprise a single circuit board. The traces on each layer need a way to carry electrical currents to traces on other layers, in the same way that people on each floor of a building need a way to get to other floors of the building. To accomplish this, tiny holes are drilled through all the layers, like an elevator shaft running from top to bottom, wherever a connection is needed between layers. These holes are filled with metal and are called plated through holes. Other holes are used to mount chips, called integrated circuits (ICs), and connect them to traces. These holes are not filled solid like plated through holes but rather have a metal coating inside the holes running through the layers. Each chip has metal prongs jutting from it, which are inserted into the holes and soldered into place during the printed circuit board assembly. This ensures that the metal prongs can send and receive signals to and from the chip. Since chips have highly complex logical capabilities, the computer industry calls them smart components. Engineers refer to other components as passive. Unlike the active chip, passive components merely wait for electrical currents. Like a bump in the road changes the behavior of a car passing over it, passive components change the behavior of electricity passing over them. Resistors, for example, reduce the current's voltage or amperage like a bump in the road slows the car. Other passive components include capacitors, diodes, switches and transformers. Many types of circuit boards exist to perform many types of functions. The motherboard controls all the other printed PCB in the computer. Expansion cards like video cards and sound cards control extra features on a computer. The PCB's function determines which combination of components will be mounted upon it and what paths the traces will take.
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