Contrary to the construction of standard PCBs with a metal or fiberglass base, flex PCBs consist of a flexible polymer core and a Polyimide film as a substrate. The advantage of Polyimide is it does not soften when heated, and stays flexible after the initial thermosetting. Unlike several types of thermosetting resins that become rigid after being heated, Polyimide remains flexible, and that makes Polyimide a superior material in flex and rigid-flex PCB construction. RUSH PCB UK Ltd uses upgraded Polyimide film that has good resistance to humidity and tearing.
Rigid-flex PCBs basically connect flex PCB materials to rigid PCB materials. This allows the PCB to bend in certain areas, and to stay rigid in others. Therefore, the board remains strong, but flexible at the same time. When designers want to transfer signals between the rigid and flex parts, they need to design the rigid-flex PCB. While the flexible part of the board resembles a regular flex circuit, the rigid sections may use materials that standard rigid PCBs use, such as fiberglass.
According to RUSH PCB UK Ltd, both the manufacturer and the OEM benefit when they involve in the conceptual design of Printed Circuit Boards (PCBs). Specifically, for flex and rigid-flex PCBs, it is necessary for both to understand the full project requirements and implications up front.
The Concept Design Phase
The project usually starts with discussions between the two engineering teams to develop a broad understanding on several factors such as:
- Functionality of the rigid-flex PCB
- Objectives of the project related to the rigid-flex PCB
- Will the PCB have active components?
- Number of interconnects on the PCB
- Requirement of special signal capabilities such as impedance control, high current carrying traces, and other factors such as RF design and or shielding and protection requirements, operating temperature requirements, and similar
- Shape and size of the PCB
Answers to above questions help to clarify the requirements, based on which, the manufacturer can then give their inputs to the OEM regarding rigid-flex technology best suited to their needs. This mostly relates to the material and methods for high quality rigid-flex PCBs. The first consideration is to decide whether the application really needs a flex-based solution.
While identifying the additional levels of functionality, it is also necessary to look into higher levels of integration between parts. By simplifying complex levels of integrations, it may be possible to reduce the cost of the PCB project.
Completing the design concept phase and determining that the application does require a flex and rigid-flex PCB, the designers must delve into deeper specific details of the design.
Specific Detail Requirements
Although there may be several detail requirements specific to a particular project, those most common to all designs are:
- Minimum and maximum bend requirements
- Will the bend be permanent or will it flex periodically?
- Length of flex between bends
- Requirement of stiffeners and type of stiffeners necessary
Based on the requirements in the concept design and specific details the manufacturer can suggest various suitable materials and methods for the high-quality flex PCB capable of meeting the quality and life requirements of the OEM.
Materials and Methods of High-Quality Flex PCBs
In the last decade or so, RUSH PCB UK Ltd has taken the rigid-flex circuit design and fabrication to significant levels of evolvement. For instance, the rigid areas of our rigid-flex designs are capable of the same complexity and density as that of our HDI boards. For instance, just as for our HDI boards, the rigid areas of our rigid-flex designs can have the same fine lines/spacing, high operating temperatures, high layer counts, and compliance to RoHS standards.
In earlier methods of fabrication, manufacturers used several layers of adhesives while fabricating the rigid areas. However, the high coefficient of thermal expansion of adhesives led to a significant amount of stress on vias during thermal cycles that the boards undergo during the assembly cycles, and during operation. As a result, vias placed within the rigid areas would develop cracks in the copper plating.
The adhesives in the rigid-flex system may come from the copper clad flex laminate, the coverlay, and the material that bonds the rigid and flex layers. For solving the issue of reliability of vias, RUSH PCB UK Ltd has made necessary changes in the materials and methods of construction to eliminate or minimize the use of adhesives.
Where earlier manufacturers used layers of copper bonded to the polyimide core with some acrylic type of adhesive, RUSH PCB UK Ltd uses adhesive-less laminates where the copper bonds directly to the polyimide core, eliminating the adhesive bond layers. Not only does this technique allow thinner PCB construction, it also allows for higher flexibility and vastly superior reliability.
Adhesive-less copper clad laminates have further advantages. They can operate at higher temperatures, their copper peel strength is higher, and they exert much reduced stress on vias due to lower Z-axis thermal expansion coefficients.
Similarly, earlier coverlay construction in rigid-flex design used full coverage types that covered the entire rigid area of the PCB. As the coverlay adhesive expanded, it would put vias and other PTH to severe expansion stress. RUSH PCB UK Ltd uses selective coverlay constructions that remain restricted to the exposed flex areas only, while extending to a maximum of 0.05 inches (1.27 mm) into the rigid areas. No via or PTH is placed in this interface area.
RUSH PCB UK Ltd also uses high temperature no-flow FR4 prepregs to laminate the rigid and flex layers together rather than layers of flex adhesive. The structure this technology achieves is dimensionally highly stable. In fact, this stability matches that of standard rigid PCBs.
High quality flex and rigid-flex circuits from RUSH PCB UK Ltd conform to IPC 2223C, the Sectional Design Standard for Flexible Printed Boards. This standard defines the minimization/elimination of the use of adhesives within rigid areas, use of adhesive-less substrates, and the use of partial/selective coverlay construction.
As the demand for portable electronic equipment grows, engineers are increasingly taxed with improving the capabilities of combining functionality with flexibility. This flexibility also takes the form of flexible circuits that fit where no other design solution can help. Along with a significant reduction of interconnects, and a substantially greater freedom of packaging geometry, the integrated hybrid of the rigid PCB and flex circuits allows designers to retain the precision, density, repeatability, and reliability of regular PCBs.