Printed circuit boards (PCBs) are the heart and heartbeat of all electronic devices. Developed principally after WWII, we are all familiar with the exponential development in PCB technology in the following years, and the oft-quoted pub statistic that the electronics in the spaceship that first landed man on the moon are now found in most domestic calculators.
The evolution of PCBs has left us with a marketplace in which semiconductors are likely to cost pennies for a discrete version up to a couple of thousand pounds for an integrated circuit. To that shopping list we must now include system-level products – flexible PCBs that can cost anywhere north of £10,000. The technology has indeed become more and more petite. And, increasingly, more and more… bendy.
At Hi5 we are extremely keen to keep across developments in PCB technology and we have previously been quick to report on the development of flexible PCBs. The utility was immediate: anything from smart bandages that can monitor vital signs, through to phones you can wrap around your wrist. Applications are obvious, in both civil and military fields.
At the stage we last reported, this technology seemed largely theoretical. Several things stood in the way: a lack of precision in the printing process, a lack of appropriate materials for manufacture and, as ever, the associated costs of developing such technologies.
Of course industry and academia continually push research in the same forward direction, and the discovery of Graphene at The University of Manchester was a gigantic leap forwards, in terms of the material science side of developments. Tech insiders were soon talking of wearable electronics, and flexible screens for iPods, as a thing of the near future.
Into that heady mix we must also add the impulses of the market. Commercial pressures from industry have also demanded the research and development of flexible circuit boards be prioritised, as the demand for wireless devices increases.
Only 15 years ago, the share of the American PCB marketplace accounted for by flexible circuit boards stood at around 10%. Last year, it is estimated that production of flexible PCBs was up by a third. In the same year, it is estimated that the semiconductor market itself stood at £200 billion, worldwide.
The driver for this boost is, of course, domestic technologies. Yes there are applications in, for instance, the medical industry… but it is really consumer demand that has, in turn, demanded the engineers pull their collective fingers out and bring the technology fully to market. In the process they have circumvented the obstacles that previously existed.
We already have flexible PCBs appearing in more and more consumer electronics, including laptops, but particularly in mobile phones. In actuality we are currently witnessing a move from desktop computer systems to much more mobile devices, utilising the benefits of cloud storage. Shipments of smart phones had already leapfrogged PCs some five years ago.
Where we go in the next five years remains hard to predict. However, now the industry has bypassed the obstacles standing in the way of developing flexible PCBs we can, with confidence, predict two things: Firstly, that technology will only become more and more flexible; and secondly, that Hi5 will continue to stay across all the very latest developments.