Image Credit: eisklotz.com
Image Credit: eisklotz.com

Complexity and miniaturization have dramatically influenced computing these last years. It’s almost hard to conceive of a time when computers once took up entire rooms. Current computers can take up no more space than the palm of a hand. But it was once argued that PCB and circuit board designers would have trouble condensing their components.

How have they managed to get things so small? Is smaller still the way of the future?

Smarter and Smaller PCB Design
Many PCB designers continue to think that smaller is the way of the future. But how is this achieved? More and more components are crammed into smaller volumes, which has been made possible in great part thanks to 3D printing advantages and smart PCB design tools.

Though there are some costs to increased density, benefits also make themselves apparent, including better clock rates and even higher currents. Smaller devices serving higher currents often force designers to consider novel approaches, such as aluminum cladding or the use of ceramics. But that leads to an interesting phenomenon: designers acting more like engineers… and vice versa.

Board layout and routing used to be a relatively simple affair, where there were fewer immediate considerations other than placement for PCB designers. For one example, smaller components and better clock speeds generate more heat, which require special mounting at the board-level. Increasingly, board designers must creatively problem-solve for the hardware that they design to increase the final product’s reliability.

More Information, Faster
Most circuit board designers need to be impressively organized to handle all the components typically set on a single board. In fact, so many hundreds (or thousands) of elements must be on an assembly these days that the task can be utterly overwhelming. So, some have considered the value of information pulls at the board level.

PCB design software helps mitigate the growing complexity of modern PCB, and automated manufacturing processes have also grown to provide more reliability and creation of a unified data device.

Designing for Multiple Functions
Some designers, motivated by space or cost, will even design sensors directly onto their PCB. The need to create and scale complex component shapes has created an environment in which many designers are now attempting to incorporate multiple functions. There’s a convergence happening in the industry.

And it’s not just occurring at the design level. System platforms are increasingly under scrutiny, with many manufacturers and designers comparing FPGA options to existing microprocessor stock, taking into account necessary periphery chips. Programmable options are becoming the bread-and-butter of designing for PCB. The fact that their use was once exclusively the purview of specialists is hardly surprising. The tech boom has created a workforce hungry for innovation.

Testing Still Trumps Theory
But with as many advancements have been made in the field, prototyping test samples is still a big deal. And it’s not likely to be one to go away soon. But this, too, is becoming the province of designers as they gain more access to 3D printing technologies and the capability to produce prototypes in-house without waiting for a manufacturer. In fact, many of the most popular circuit board design software suites allow users to download their design files in 3D printing formats.

What Will the Future Look Like?
With boards becoming ever-smaller, the traditional computers are likely on their way out: for good. For most people, the smartphone is used more often than a traditional computer, and it’s only a matter of time before small, sleek options are simply the staple. and that’s not all: convergence will help enterprising designers incorporate more into machines, from touch interfaces to even more stunning practical innovations.