Design for Assembly in Fast PCB Prototyping

In our fast-paced world, OEMs need to churn out new electronic devices very quickly to remain in the forefront of the market. For this, they require rapid PCB prototype services, which allow them to test their new designs thoroughly. Once they are ready to enter the market, OEMs need to tie up with a fast PCB production partner to fulfill the marketing demands. If the design requires high-speed printed circuit boards, the design house cannot afford the time to make trial and error, but must optimize the design on the first try. This ensures a smooth quickturn PCB production process. Therefore, the designer must start designing the board with assembly in mind.

Design for Assembly

Whatever be the type of PCB involved—rigid, flex, rigid flex, high density interconnect (HDI), or conventional—the bare boards will require assembly with additional components, before they are useful. Usually, the assembled PCB fits within a product or application, and overlooking this aspect of the assembly during design may ultimately lead to significant complications.

High Speed operation of PCBs requires the designer achieve the following:

  • Minimizing noise generation from the on-board power network
  • Minimizing cross-talk between traces
  • Reducing simultaneous switching noise
  • Proper impedance matching
  • Proper signal line termination
  • Reducing the effects of ground bounce

Board Material and Transmission Line Design

The dielectric construction material of the PCB is a major contributor to the amount of noise and cross talk the fast switching signals generate. A high frequency signal traveling along a long trace on the PCB could be affected seriously if the loss tangent of the dielectric material is high, resulting in high absorption and attenuation at high frequencies.

The modeling and effect of transmission lines also affects the signal performance and its noise separation. In general, any circuit trace on the PCB will have its characteristic impedance. This depends on the trace width, thickness, the dielectric constant of the PCB and the separation between the trace and its reference plane. Designers can route circuit traces on a PCB in two ways—in a microstrip transmission line layout or a stripline transmission line layout.

In a microstrip layout, the designer routes the circuit traces on an outside layer with a reference plane below it. The characteristic impedance of a circuit trace in a microstrip layout is inversely proportional to the trace width, and is directly proportional to the separation from the reference plane.

In a stripline layout, the designer routes the circuit traces on an inside layer of a multi-layer PCB, with two reference planes on either side. Here again, the characteristic impedance is inversely proportional to the width of the trace, and directly proportional to the separation from the reference planes. However, the rate of change with trace separation from the reference planes is much slower in a stripline layout as compared to that with s microstrip layout.

Designers for rapid PCB prototype services must be able to predict the characteristic impedance of their design if they are to get their design right the first time. Understanding the nuances of transmission lines helps with fast PCB production.


Minimizing Cross-Talk between Traces

While designing a high speed PCB, designers must take steps to reduce cross talk between neighboring signal lines, even when following either the microstrip or the stripline layout. Designers follow certain thumb rules to minimize the cross talk:

  • Utilize as much space between signal lines as the routing restrictions allow
  • Place the transmission line as close as possible to the ground reference plane
  • Use differential routing techniques for critical nets—match the length to the gyrations of each trace
  • Route single-ended signals on different layers to be orthogonal to each other

Routing two or more single-ended traces in parallel with not enough spacing will increase the cross talk between them. Therefore, designers prefer to minimize the parallel run, often routing them with short parallel sections, minimizing long, coupled sections between various nets.

Maintaining Signal Integrity

For high-speed boards, it is very important that the signal maintains its integrity, that is, it is able to keep its amplitude, and shape as it travels from its source to its destination. Signals may be single-ended, such as clocks, or may be differential, which are very important for high-speed design. For traces carrying single-ended signals, designers follow design rules such as:

  • Keeping traces straight as far as possible, and using arc shaped bends rather than right-angled bends where necessary
  • Not using multiple signal layers
  • Not using vias in the traces—they cause reflections and impedance change
  • Using the microstrip or the stripline transmission line layout
  • Minimizing reflection by terminating the signal properly

Designers follow additional rules for differential signals:

  • Minimize crosstalk between two differential pairs with properly spacing them
  • Maintain proper spacing to minimize reflection noise
  • Maintaining constant spacing for the entire length of the traces
  • Maintaining the same length of the traces as this minimizes phase and skew differences
  • Not using vias in the traces—they cause reflections and impedance change

Effective Filtering and Grounding

Conducted noise from the power supply can hinder the functioning of a high speed Printed Circuit Board. Since a power supply may deliver noise of high as well as low frequencies, designers minimize this problem by effectively filtering the noise at the points where the power lines enter the PCB,

An electrolytic capacitor across the power lines can filter the ripple and low frequency noise, while a non-resonant surface ferrite bead will block most of the high frequencies. Since the ferrite bead will be in series with the supply lines, its rating needs to be adequate to handle the current entering the PCB. Designers also keep provision for a decoupling capacitor very close to each IC on the board, to smoothen out very short duration current surges.

Effective power distribution throughout the PCB is extremely important for printed circuit boards operating at high speeds. For doing this, designers often use power planes or a power bus network. Power planes on a multi-layer PCB comprise two or more copper layers carrying power to the devices—typically, the VCC and GND lines. By making the power planes as large as the entire board, the designers ensure the DC resistance is as low as possible.

This offers multiple advantages to high speed boards—high current source and sink capability, shielding, and noise protection to the signals. For two-layer PCBs, designers often use the power bus network, which has two or more wide copper traces for carrying power to the devices. Although the DC resistance of the power bus is high compared to power planes, they are less expensive.

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As high-speed digital devices operate simultaneously, their fast switching times may cause a board-level phenomenon known as ground bounce. This is a very difficult condition to predict, as several factors may influence to the occurrence, such as number of switching outputs, socket inductance, and load capacitance. Designers follow a number of broad guidelines to reduce the effects of ground bounce:

  • Placing vias adjacent to a capacitor pad, and connecting them with wide, short traces
  • Using wide, short traces to connect power pins to power planes or decoupling capacitors
  • Using individual links to connect each ground pin to the ground plane, no daisy-chaining
  • Adding decoupling capacitors for each IC and each power pin
  • Placing decoupling capacitors very close to the IC
  • Properly terminating the outputs to prevent reflections
  • Buffering loads to limit the load capacitance
  • Eliminating sockets as far as possible
  • Distributing switching outputs evenly throughout the board
  • Placing ground plane next to switching pins
  • Using pull down resistors rather than using pull up resistors
  • Using multi-layer PCBs with separate VCC and GND planes
  • Placing power and ground planes next to each other to reduce the total inductance
  • Minimizing the lead capacitance by using surface mount devices
  • Using capacitors with low effective series resistance

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Rush PCB UK recommends designers follow the above design guidelines for delivering rapid PCB prototype services to satisfy customers. However, please note that all other general guidelines for PCB design are also important and designers should follow them meticulously for fast PCB production.