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The Basics of Printed Circuit Boards

how does a circuit board work

For all the wonders of electricity, it’s hard to forget that it takes something very physical to make the “magic” happen. That factor is printed circuit boards (PCBs), which have long been the foundation of electrical engineering.

Printed circuit boards are essential components in the world of electronics. They serve as the backbone for countless electronic devices, ranging from smartphones and computers to medical equipment and automotive systems. Regardless of its size, no electrically powered device will work without a PCB of some kind.

Whether it be a cell phone, a remote control, something as complicated as a computer, or as simple as a child’s toy, a PCB provides connectivity between all of the components of a device. As a result, the device will function as it should.

In this article, we embark on a journey to explore the fundamentals of printed circuit boards. We’ll delve into their structure, their function, and unravel the mystery of how these boards enable the operation of our modern electronics.

Let’s begin!

how does a circuit board work

What Are PCBs?

At its core, a PCB is a flat board made of non-conductive material, typically fiberglass-reinforced epoxy laminate, with conductive pathways etched or printed onto its surface. Electrical components are soldered onto the PCB through either wave soldering or selective soldering. Then, a conformal coating is then added to protect the surface and secure its longevity.

The primary purpose of printed circuit boards is to provide a reliable platform for interconnecting electronic components compactly and efficiently. By routing electrical signals between components through predefined pathways, PCBs facilitate the functioning of complex electronic systems with precision and reliability.

The History of PCBs

The origins of printed circuit boards can be traced back to the early 20th century. Before the invention of PCBs, electronic circuits were constructed using cumbersome and unreliable methods such as point-to-point wiring and terminal strips. These methods were labor-intensive and prone to errors and failures, so innovation was necessary.

Early Development

The concept of a printed wiring board, which would later evolve into the modern PCB, emerged in the early 20th century. In 1925, Charles Ducas filed a patent for a method of electrically connecting electronic components using a conductive foil pattern printed on an insulating board. This laid the foundation for the development of PCB technology.

During World War II, the demand for more efficient and reliable electronic systems spurred further advancements in PCB technology. In 1943, Paul Eisler, an Austrian engineer, is credited with creating the first true printed circuit board. Eisler’s invention, known as the “printed wiring,” was used in proximity fuses for anti-aircraft shells used by the Allied forces.

Evolution of Printed Circuit Boards

Following World War II, PCB technology continued to evolve rapidly. The introduction of new materials and manufacturing processes led to significant improvements in PCB design and performance.


One of the key milestones in the evolution of PCB technology was the development of the “through-hole” method in the 1950s. This method involved drilling holes in the PCB substrate and inserting component leads through the holes before soldering them in place. The through-hole method allowed for more secure connections and improved reliability compared to earlier methods.


In the 1960s and 1970s, the introduction of automated assembly techniques such as wave soldering and surface mount technology (SMT) revolutionized PCB manufacturing. Surface mount technology, in particular, allowed for smaller and lighter electronic devices by eliminating the need for bulky through-hole components.


The 1980s saw the widespread adoption of computer-aided design (CAD) software for PCB design, further enhancing the precision and complexity of PCB layouts. This era also saw the emergence of multi-layer PCBs, which allowed for denser component placement and improved signal integrity.

Recent Years

In recent years, advancements in materials science, manufacturing processes, and miniaturization techniques have continued to drive innovation in PCB technology. High-density interconnect (HDI) PCBs, flexible PCBs, and integrated passive devices (IPDs) are just a few examples of the latest developments pushing the boundaries of what is possible with printed circuit boards.

As you can see, PCBs have played a vital role in shaping the modern world of electronics from its humble beginnings to modern cutting-edge technology. Now, let’s discuss the importance of these electronic boards in our modern world.

The Importance of PCBs in the Electronics Industry


The importance of PCBs in the electronics industry cannot be overstated. Virtually every electronic device relies on PCBs to function, making them indispensable components of modern technology. Here are some key reasons why PCBs are crucial:

1.) Compact Design: PCBs allow electronic components to be densely packed onto a single board, optimizing space utilization and enabling the creation of compact and portable devices.

2.) Reliability: The controlled manufacturing processes used to fabricate PCBs ensure consistent quality and reliability. This reliability is essential for electronic devices to operate under various conditions.

3.) Ease of Assembly: PCBs streamline the assembly process of electronic devices by providing a standardized platform for mounting and interconnecting components. This simplifies manufacturing, reduces production time, and lowers costs.

4.) Scalability: PCBs can be designed and manufactured in various sizes and configurations to accommodate the specific requirements of different electronic applications. Whether it’s a simple single-layer board or a complex multi-layer design, PCBs offer scalability to meet diverse needs.

5.) Facilitation of Innovation: PCBs play a crucial role in fostering innovation in the electronics industry. They provide designers and engineers with a versatile platform to prototype, test, and refine new electronic concepts and technologies.

How Does a Printed Circuit Board Work?

Now that we have some background on the subject, let’s get into the nitty gritty of these electronic boards. PCBs are deceptively simple when it comes to their construction. Regardless of how simple or complex a device might be, a PCB is involved in channeling the electricity that is drawn into the device to accomplish its intended purpose. It really is that easy.

It’s a wonder when you consider that with only a few layers of resin and some solder channels that allow electricity to travel through the different elements of a board. Not only do PCBs channel power, but they also support the mechanics of the device itself. This is because PCBs send electrical impulses where they need to go.

Additionally, they provide a support structure to which all of the components can fasten. With all of this support provided by a PCB, it’s not hard to see how PCBs are considered the brains of a piece of equipment. Without the PCB, a piece of electronic equipment quite simply wouldn’t work. So, let’s take a look at what components make up a printed circuit board.

Components of a Printed Circuit Board

Most PCBs contain the following components:

  • Transistor
  • Resistor
  • Capacitors
  • Inductors
  • Diodes
  • Sensor
  • Transformer

Understanding the components of a PCB is crucial for designing and manufacturing reliable electronic devices. By selecting the appropriate substrate materials, conductive layers, and solder mask materials, engineers and manufacturers can ensure the performance, reliability, and longevity of the final product.

Substrate Materials

Printed circuit boards are constructed using various substrate materials, which form the base or foundation of the board. The choice of substrate material depends on factors such as the application, operating conditions, and cost considerations. Some common types of substrate materials include:

  • FR-4: FR-4, short for Flame Retardant 4, is one of the most widely used substrate materials in PCB manufacturing. It is a type of fiberglass-reinforced epoxy laminate known for its excellent electrical insulation properties, mechanical strength, and flame resistance. FR-4 PCBs are commonly used in consumer electronics, industrial equipment, and automotive applications.
  • Flex: Flex or flexible PCBs are made from flexible materials such as polyimide or polyester. These PCBs are designed to bend or flex during use, making them ideal for applications where space is limited or where the PCB needs to conform to a specific shape. Flex PCBs are commonly found in wearable devices, medical implants, and aerospace applications.


Conductive layers are the metallic pathways on a PCB that provide electrical connectivity between components. These pathways are typically made of copper and are deposited onto the substrate using various techniques. Two key components of the conductive layers are:

  • Copper Foil: Copper foil is the primary material used to create the conductive pathways on a PCB. It is typically laminated onto the substrate using heat and pressure, forming a thin layer of copper that follows the desired circuit pattern. Copper foil is chosen for its excellent electrical conductivity and ease of fabrication.
  • Copper Plating: In addition to the copper foil used for the main circuitry, copper plating is often applied to the walls of plated through-holes or vias on the PCB. This ensures electrical continuity between different layers of the board and strengthens the connections between components. Copper plating is achieved through electroplating processes, where copper ions are deposited onto the exposed surfaces of the PCB.

Solder Mask

The solder mask is a protective layer applied to the surface of the PCB, covering the conductive traces and pads while leaving the soldering areas exposed. It serves several important purposes:

  • Purpose: The primary purpose of the solder mask is to prevent unintended electrical connections between adjacent traces or components during the soldering process. By covering the non-soldering areas, the solder mask helps to ensure that solder is applied only where it is needed, reducing the risk of short circuits and other soldering defects.
  • Materials Used: Solder masks are typically made from epoxy-based resins or liquid photoimageable (LPI) materials. These materials are chosen for their ability to withstand the high temperatures and harsh chemicals used in the PCB manufacturing process while providing excellent adhesion to the substrate. Additionally, solder masks are available in various colors, with green being the most common, but other colors such as blue, red, and black are also used for aesthetic or functional purposes.

Manufacturing Printed Circuit Boards

Now that we know the different components of a PCB, let’s discuss the manufacturing process.


PCB fabrication is a multi-step process that transforms raw materials into functional printed circuit boards. Here are the key steps:

  1. Etching: Etching is the process of selectively removing unwanted copper from the surface of the PCB to create the desired circuit pattern. A chemical etchant, typically an acidic solution, is applied to the copper-clad substrate, which dissolves the exposed copper while leaving the protected areas intact. This process is usually performed using a photoresist mask that defines the circuit pattern.
  2. Drilling: After etching, holes are drilled into the PCB to accommodate through-hole components and to establish electrical connections between different layers of the board. High-speed precision drills are used to create these holes, which are then plated with copper to ensure electrical continuity.
  3. Plating: Plating is the process of depositing a thin layer of metal, typically copper, onto the surface of the PCB to enhance conductivity and protect against corrosion. Copper plating is applied to the walls of plated through-holes and vias, as well as to any exposed copper traces on the surface of the board. This plating process is usually achieved through electroplating, where copper ions are deposited onto the PCB under the influence of an electric current.

Solder Mask Application

Once the desired circuitry has been etched and plated, a solder mask is applied to the surface of the PCB to protect the copper traces and pads from oxidation and to prevent unintended electrical connections during soldering.

The solder mask is typically applied as a liquid coating using a process known as screen printing or curtain coating. After application, the solder mask is cured using heat or ultraviolet (UV) light to harden the material and bond it to the surface of the PCB.

Silkscreen Printing

Next, silkscreen printing is the step where identifying marks, component designators, and other information are printed onto the surface of the PCB. This information is printed using a special ink that is resistant to the harsh chemicals and temperatures encountered during the PCB manufacturing process.

Silkscreen printing not only provides valuable information for assembly and troubleshooting but also adds a professional finish to the PCB.

Testing the PCB

testing printed circuit board

Finally, the most important part is to test the board. This ensures that the PCB functions correctly and reliably before it is integrated into the final product. The testing process involves a series of comprehensive checks and evaluations to verify the integrity of the PCB’s design and functionality.

  1. Design Verification: Ensures PCB accuracy and compliance with specifications through simulation.
  2. In-Circuit Testing (ICT): Identifies electrical faults like open circuits and short circuits.
  3. Automated Optical Inspection (AOI): Detects physical defects such as misaligned components and solder issues.
  4. Functional Testing: Validates overall functionality under simulated operating conditions.
  5. Environmental Testing: Evaluates performance in varied environmental conditions like temperature and humidity.
  6. Compliance Testing: Ensures adherence to regulatory standards and industry requirements.

Overall, the PCB manufacturing process is a complex yet highly precise operation that requires careful attention to detail at every step. By following established procedures and utilizing advanced manufacturing techniques, PCB manufacturers can produce high-quality printed circuit boards that meet the demanding requirements of modern electronic devices.

Create A Custom Printed Circuit Board With Hallmark Nameplate

When it comes to designing, assembling, and manufacturing your circuit boards, the importance of having a trusted manufacturer cannot be overstated. A skilled circuit designer can craft a printed circuit board tailored to specific technological needs, ensuring optimal performance and reliability. Additionally, rigorous testing procedures guarantee that every aspect of the PCB functions as intended, minimizing the risk of failures in the future.

At Hallmark Nameplate, we understand the critical role that PCBs play in your products, and we are committed to providing the highest quality PCB assembly services. With our expertise and dedication to excellence, we strive to empower businesses with the tools they need to succeed in today’s competitive market.

Contact us today or request a FREE quote to see how we can create the exact circuit board to fit your needs!

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