rigid-flex PCB

New Configurations for Rigid-Flex PCBs

Rigid-flex PCBs comprise both rigid as well as flexible board materials, and they consist of layers of flexible substrates attached to rigid boards. With rigid-flex circuit boards, designers can have more options, while eliminating the need for expensive, unreliable wires connecting the rigid substrates.

Ensuring the integrity of the boards and successful manufacturing requires attention to detail. Rush PCB, the largest rigid-flex printed circuit board (PCB) manufacturer, manages four vital design parameters when configuring their PCBs and creating them.

Stack Management

The stackup for the PCB design needs an impeccable template for the finished product to work flawlessly. For this, designers must use appropriate software and create the rigid-flex layers of the PCB. Delays and issues related to PCB performance will surely result from improper communication with the fabricator, inefficient management, and flaws with the rigid-flex stackup.

Rush PCB recommends proper ECAD software and related tools for designing rigid-flex PCBs. The board design requires fine-tuning for region-specific stack up. The software must have board specific tools for altering the board outline, rather than making multiple complicated changes when designing the stackup.

Integration tools between ECAD and MCAD can save time when designing precise stackup for configuring rigid-flex boards. ECAD programs that support 3-D design is most suitable for rigid-flex design especially as it helps with verifying the placement and integrity of sensitive components and bends.

Ground Plane Management

The configuration for the rigid-flex PCB depends on whether it will be a flex-to-install or a dynamic-flex type. Flex-to-install PCBs need bending only once when the OEM places it in the product during assembly. On the other hand, a dynamic-flex PCB needs to bend and fold repeatedly whenever the device using it is active. Ground planes in a dynamic-flex PCB are under constant stress as it bends, and therefore, need more attention during design.

The key concern during the design of a dynamic-flex PCB is the integrity of the signals and that of the ground planes surrounding them. The designer must place emphasis on the reliability of the materials and substrates the PCB uses.

For instance, using solid copper ground planes in a dynamic-flex PCB may result in cracking and failure. Some designers prefer using annealed copper on the flexible parts. Others prefer reinforcement of Gold and Nickel plating on the ground planes. However, both the above increase the cost of the PCB while reducing flexibility.

Also Read:  Material and Methods for High Quality Rigid-Flex PCBs

Rush PCB recommends using cross-hatched polygon rather than solid copper for ground planes. Although this does increase flexibility while reducing the possibility of cracking during repeated flexing, it impacts high-speed signals negatively. The recommendation is to add solid copper return paths below the high-speed traces. Making the return paths 5-10 times wider than the signal traces helps improve signal integrity.

Bend Management

Designers have several concerns when the rigid-flex PCB must bend. Apart from ground and power planes in the bend area, pads for SMDs and through holes are also at risk when present in the area of the PCB that will bend. Designers often resort to anchoring pads using additional coverlay and plating for through holes to strengthen the PCB.

Rush PCB recommends not using components or vias very close to bends in a rigid-flex PCB. When designing bends, the recommendations are to:

  • Reduce material thickness at bends
  • Avoid bends that are too tight
  • Avoid stretching of bend material

Mechanical stresses at the bend area will repeatedly stretch the outer layers while compressing the inner layers as the PCB bends. Unless the designer has properly configured the materials at the bend, the PCB is likely to fail prematurely.

Trace Management

Rush PCB UK recommends routing traces perpendicular to the bend during the design. In a rigid-flex design, the perpendicular routing helps reduce the stress on the traces when they bend. For double-sided flex design, the recommendation is to offset the traces. Staggering the traces on the top and the bottom layers makes the PCB stronger, enabling it to withstand repeated bending.

When bending traces, it is best to avoid a 90-degree bend, as the corners of the trace will be under greater stress than straight traces or curved traces. Therefore, using a gradual curve when bending the traces or using piece-wise linear curves reduces the chance of traces delaminating during bends.

Likewise, using tear-drop pads rather than round pads improves the reliability of rigid-flex boards significantly. For further copper adhesion to the flexible substrate, designers provide pads with anchor stubs.

For signal integrity, it is necessary the impedance of the high-speed signal path remains constant for the entire length of the trace. As the impedance may change as the track passes from the rigid to the flexible parts (and vice-versa) of the PCB, the ECAD tools should have the provision for altering the width of the trace to accommodate the change in impedance.

Rigid-Flex PCB Construction — Standard

Although manufacturers use several combinations and configurations for rigid-flex construction, some advanced constructions use odd layer count construction, varying flex layer counts, asymmetrical construction, air-gap flex layer constructions, blind and buried vias, multiple rigid area thicknesses, integrated ZIF constructions, shielded flex layers and more.

The standard method of constructing rigid-flex PCBs has the flex layers in the center of the construction with both the flex and rigid areas containing even layer counts. There is an even layer count in the thicker regions, and these are the rigid areas. The layer count may vary from four to eighteen layers or even more. The distinguishing feature of the standard design is that the construction sandwiches the flexible layers in its center.

Rigid-Flex PCB Construction — Odd Layer Counts

Among rigid board designs, layers with even counts are more common. However, designs with odd layer counts do exist, and have their own benefits. Similarly, rigid-flex boards may have an odd layer count.

For instance, it is possible to have a nine-layer rigid board along with three flexible circuit layers. Designs that necessitate two-sided shielding primarily use the odd layer construction. Stripline type impedance control mostly drives such requirements of two-sided shielding. The layers of flex consist of the ground + signal + ground construction, aimed at controlling RF and EMI. It is also possible to guide numerous interconnects between the rigid sections. This type of design offers a high amount of flexibility while reducing the cost.

The odd layer count construction is applicable to both the rigid and the flex parts of the PCB, but may also be independent of each other. For instance, it is possible that one side has an even layer count while the other end has an odd layer count, should the application demand such a design. The primary advantage provided by this configuration is an improved mechanical bend reliability due to improved flexibility, brought about by minimizing the flex area thickness.

Rush PCB recommends keeping bend reliability and constructions compliant with IPC 2223C. This will ensure all parts of the PCB have a high degree of reliability. To some extent, the odd layer-count configuration cuts down the cost of the design as it minimizes the final number of flex layers.

Rigid-Flex PCB Construction — Asymmetrical Design

The necessity for complex impedance usually drives asymmetric designs of rigid-flex PCBs. These designs require dielectric thickness to vary widely within the design. Constructions with asymmetrical design also improves reliability and manufacturability of the PCB by allowing a reduction of the aspect ratio of blind vias in the PCB.

However, asymmetric design may require fixtures to hold down the arrays during transportation for assembly. This is due to the introduction of warps and twists because of the unbalanced build of the PCB.

For instance, in an asymmetrical construction, the location of the flex layer may no longer be at the center of the design. Rather, the location of these layers may shift up towards the top or towards the bottom. In general, an asymmetric rigid-flex PCB design does not have any significant manufacturing concerns other than introduction of a few warps and twists.

Rigid-Flex PCB Construction — Varying Flex Layer Count

A varying flex layer count design is also common for rigid-flex PCB construction, where the layer count of the flex part varies between the rigid sections. As an example, if a PCB has three rigid sections, the second and third sections may have one or two flex layers joining them, with three or four layers joining the first to the second—this type of construction may have large variations in the configurations.

Rush PCB recommends using a construction with air-gaps in the flex layer for a varying flex layer count design to meet the IPC 2223C guidelines. Although the extra flex layers may run into the rigid section for routing, they may not surpass between the other sections. The reduction in the flex section, therefore, allows it greater flexibility and bend capability, which is the primary advantage of this design.

Rigid-Flex PCB Construction — Integrated ZIF Tail Construction

A ZIF tail integration within a rigid-flex construction is a common occurrence for the stackup. Such a construction eliminates the need for a flex circuit with a separate rigid section with a ZIF connector mounted on it. Therefore, the construction actually reduces the requirements of real-estate of the rigid area. The design also helps when the PCB is a high-density type with real-estate at a premium or a very thin design where it is not possible to incorporate the height of the ZIF connector.

The integrated ZIF tail construction actually improves the reliability of the PCB, as it eliminates the rigid section, the connector, and the associated interconnect points. The ZIF tail may require an additional stiffener using Polyimide, mainly to achieve the specified thickness requirements of the finger contact area of ZIF connector. If there are multiple layers in the flex part, the stiffener may not be necessary. However, more than four layers may make it difficult to achieve the ZIF thickness requirements. Rush PCB recommends limiting the integrated ZIF tail constructions to one and or two-layer flex configurations.

Rigid-Flex PCB Construction — Blind and Buried Vias

Rigid-flex PCB constructions may also utilize blind and buried vias, just as rigid circuit boards do. The necessity for using blind and buried vias arises from high-density applications, such as those for BGA and fine-pitch component mounting that may require via-in-pad designs. In case the blind vias require interconnects to the layers of the flexible circuits, it may be necessary for the designer to utilize an asymmetrical construction.

The number of sequential lamination cycles required by the design may limit the configuration. Typically, rigid-flex PCBs with multiple layers accommodate only a specific number of cycles of lamination, before the manufacturing methods and the dimensional tolerance of the materials prevent layers form registering effectively to one another. Again, just as in rigid PCBs, applications requiring via-in-pads can use capping and via fill.

Rigid-Flex PCB Construction — Air-Gap Construction

In rigid-flex PCBs with air-gap construction, manufacturers use isolated independent pairs of flex layers to substantially improve the flexibility. Rush PCB recommends constructions with two or more layers of flex to use this method, especially as using this method with four or more layers allows the design to conform to the guidelines of IPC 2223C.

Using air-gap construction precludes the use of any flexible adhesives within the rigid areas, ensuring the reliability of via structures within them. This method of construction also offers a very high degree of reliability and ensures a long-term operational life of the PCB.

Rush PCB recommends using coverlay on both sides of each flex pair, followed by a tiny air gap. All subsequent pairs follow a similar construction.

If the manufacturer constructed the design with bonding together of all layers, there would be significant issues of via reliability, and the flex section would have limited flexibility, to the extent of being almost non-flexible. Additionally, this construction would not meet IPC 2223C requirements.

Rigid-Flex PCB Construction — Multiple Rigid Area Thickness

Although a complex construction, some designs need rigid-flex PCB designs with multiple rigid areas of different thicknesses. Rush PCB recommends reviewing alternative options because of the manufacturing complexities that the design involves. In practice, manufacturers limit the construction to a maximum of two rigid area thicknesses, mainly due to the materials they require for the construction. The stackup is expensive, as the design is similar to manufacturing two boards at the same time.

In this design, one of the rigid sections may be considerably thicker than the other rigid section. Both sections may have plated hoes and vias. However, the manufacturer may have to limit the final thickness of the thinner section as there would be some commonality of materials between the two sections. For instance, the prepreg thickness on both rigid sections need to be the same. Presence of any extra core on one side would need mirroring it on the other side as well.

For instance, the manufacturer may start the construction as a four-layer stackup, encompassing layers two through five. They will run through all the manufacturing processes in sequence, leaving out creation of the outer profile. At this time, the manufacturer will have to start from the beginning again to add layers one and six, proceeding with all the manufacturing sequence once again, finally adding the outer profile. Unless the application demands following this process of multiple rigid area thickness, the process is an expensive one.

Rigid-Flex PCB Construction — Shielded Flex layers

Applications that require FR or EMI shielding use this method of construction, where manufacturers use specialized films in place of copper layers for shielding. Using these films saves on the expense of copper layers as well as allowing the flex construction to be thinner and hence improving its flexibility, along with an effective RF and EMI shielding.

Coverlays on the flex area can have selective multiple openings that expose the ground circuit. Electrically conductive adhesives on the films allow them to bond to the uncovered ground when laminated, thereby grounding the shield layers.

Summary

Combining the rigid PCB to the flex circuits technology allows adding a significant level of creativity, the overall reduction in packaging, and design integration. Rush PCB combines several specific constructions described above to create endless numbers of rigid-flex circuit configurations for their customers.

Material and Methods for High Quality Rigid-Flex PCBs

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.

 

Also Read: Five Reasons Why RushPCB is the Leading LED Board Manufacturer in UK

 

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.

Adhesive-less Construction

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.

Conclusion

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.