Will there still be PCBs in 60 years?

-August 07, 2016

Reflecting on 60 years of EDN has us thinking about the future, and wondering how PCBs will change.

If you were around in the '60s, sing it:

In the year
2076
Will there still be printed circuit boards?


Maybe not, but I predict PCBs will exist for at least a while longer. What should we expect?

High-end trickle-down

The most obvious near-term changes will simply result from trickle-down. High-end technology, like low-loss dielectrics, ultra-smooth copper, HDI (High Density Interconnect), integrated flex, embedded components, and decoupling planes, will invade more and more products. HDI of course is already pretty common given the extremely dense devices we take for granted.

Then again, the move to ever greater silicon integration–including multi-chip packaging–will counteract this trend to some degree. Who needs high-tech PCBs when your system is on one chip, or a stack of chips? Or whatever amorphous blobs of circuitry pass for electronics in 2076.


Embedded optical

Optical interconnects are widely used for high-speed data. Expect PCB-embedded optical waveguides to become common in backplanes and cards, possibly in conjunction with 3D printing.


Embedded optical waveguides might look like this. Blue: Active device. Orange: Electrical connections. Yellow & light blue: Waveguide & cladding.


New substrates

PCBs will embrace new forms, such as flexible materials and continuous roll production. Ultra-thin materials will see use in, for example, externally applied medical monitors that “stick on” using only van der Waals force, and internal, dissolvable sensors. And if the video-playing cereal box ever becomes a thing, it may be covered with just such a film-like "board".


Bluetooth sensor circuit: This is folded into shape and over-moulded with plastic.


3D-printed PCBs

3D PCB printing is inching towards reality. While this might seem questionable technology at first glance – perhaps useful for fast prototyping – it's not that hard to see how it could become the dominant production method. High-speed printers with multiple nozzles will produce boards more quickly and cheaply than existing methods, obsoleting etching, drilling, laminating—even soldering.



This PCB was printed on a nano dimension 3D printer.

3D printers will also enable printing of embedded components like resistors, and embedded structures like optical and microwave waveguides. Some discrete components and IC packages/dice can be placed into internal cavities. Vias will run between arbitrary layers, and won’t need pads. The same machine will place parts, and instead of soldering, will just print a bit more conductive ink to hold the parts in place, or, they’ll be pressed into a still-soft board material.

Where do you think the next 60 years will take PCBs?

Michael Dunn is an editor at EDN with several decades of electronic design experience in various areas.

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