Wesley Chang

June 6, 2017

Hardware Lesson: What is a PCB

PCB featured image

Not many people take the time to actually explain what a PCB is, and for good reason. It’s fundamental to all electronics! Or at least all but the simplest products. So what exactly is a PCB and what does it have to do with hardware?

Before PCBs were created, circuitry was constructed through an elaborate process of point-to-point wiring, which by definition, allowed two devices to directly connect. But as wire insulation began to age and crack, circuitry began to fail frequently and short circuit.

Then came the 50’s when Printed Circuit Boards (PCB) were introduced. They’re made of glass fabricated plastic with copper tracks that behave like wires to allow signals and power to be directed towards other physical devices.

PCB (printed circuit board)

Advantages of PCB

While there are other alternatives to PCB such as wire wrapping and point-to-point circuitry, PCB offer’s quite a few advantages such as cost efficiency, size, and automation.

What makes PCBs cost efficient?

Although they need an extra layer of effort to design the circuit, they can be mass produced from a single design making them  less costly and faster to reproduce than other methods. On top of that, they’re quite simple. Instead of elaborate wiring, components are soldered onto the board, making them pretty simple. And since PCBs are designed using a computer, the chances of short circuits dramatically decrease and since the copper tracks that connect pads and components are embedded into the actual board. This may even negate the need to test the board until the product is ready since computer applications will allow you to test your designs.

Disadvantages of PCB

Like everything else in life, there are disadvantages to PCBs that you may want to consider. The most important ones being that they have to be entirely replaced if the board is damaged and they can only be used for a specific circuits.

This means that printed circuit boards can’t be updated if your product requires a new electronic component. This can be costly since you’ll have to reprint the board all over again to accommodate for a new component.

Another reason why PCB may be at a disadvantage is when you’re still in the early prototyping phase. While you could simplify the PCB down to bare minimum, using a breadboard instead might make more sense since it requires less effort (they require no soldering!).

In fact, an article on Sparkfun’s blog titled, “How to Use a Breadboard,” says that a breadboard is likely the best starting point for prototyping or for those new to electronics.

Prototyping is the process of testing out an idea by creating a preliminary model from which other forms are developed or copied, and it is one of the most common uses for breadboards. If you aren’t sure how a circuit will react under a given set of parameters, it’s best to build a prototype and test it out.

For those new to electronics and circuits, breadboards are often the best place to start. That is the real beauty of breadboards–they can house both the simplest circuit as well as very complex circuits.

Conclusion

Depending on what stage your hardware startup is at you may want to consider designing out a custom PCB. Later down the road when your prototype is ready for mass production, you can reuse that exact design to create multiple PCBs on a large scale. But keep in mind that PCBs have to be redesigned and recreated completely to accommodate a new component or if they’re damaged.

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