5G PCB: Fabricators Explore New Materials, Designs to Accelerate 5G Deployment

The fifth generation (5G) technology is rapidly emerging as the next-gen mobile communication. 5G network is extensively being utilized in plethora of IoT and mobile devices. Businesses in several industries put high stakes on leveraging 5G to achieve astonishingly high-speed communication in numerous applications. A combination of high bandwidth, low latency, and high performance, 5G technology helps industries build vast network capacities never imagined or achieved before. The dramatic rise in data processing speed possible in 5G rests to a great extent on the PCB design. PCB manufacturers thus are witnessing ample opportunities to meet the current and emerging demands.

Deployment of 5G to Drive Commercialization of Novel PCB designs

The PCB design industry has made continual advancements. Several electronics industry- related factors and the changing dynamics of consumer demand have driven the change. Increasing trend of miniaturization of electronics and robust force toward digitization in diverse industries have encouraged fabricators in the industry to test new ways to integrate components within circuit boards. Perhaps, the strongest driver for the 5G PCB market stemmed from the deployment of transition from 4G LTE and 4G to 5G. Introduction of 5G has set the bar to new high.

Large-scale deployment of 5G has triggered the need for new PCB designs. Fabricators seek new PCB track designs to fulfil demanding requirements of 5G network in various applications. Companies in the 5G PCB market are looking for new geometries to meet high speed and high frequency signals. They seek novel techniques to achieve smaller form factors, intense interconnection densities, and improved ability to integrate components such as antennas. Development of 5G antenna arrays include usage of MIMO (Multiple Input Multiple Output) antennae of suitable size and shape, for instance.

Multiple considerations guide or determine which geometry works best. The geometry is one of the defining factors that have shaped new product development in the 5G PCB market. Finally, cost and complexity are two major considerations. The width and the distance between the tracks are key considerations. Photolithography is one of the technologies that have been widely explored by designers and fabricators. Another cost-effective tracing technique used in the market is mSAP (Semi-Additive fabrication Process) technique. High frequency signals present unique challenges to fabricators. Signal integrity is one of the vital deciding factors for the choice of manufacturing processes PCB make.

High-density interconnect (HDI) PCBs Present Tremendous Market Opportunities

High-density interconnect (HDI) PCBs have generated great interest in the 5G PCB market. Demand for HDI PCBs has witnessed a surge in the past few decades, with rise in demand for 5G-compatible smartphones. It is characterized with higher circuitry density, and is increasingly being utilized in smartphones. The past few years have witnessed significant fillip in percentage of 5G-enabled smartphones of the total shipment: it rose to from one percentage to a projected 69% in 2023. The market trend has presented enormous opportunities for HDI PCB boards manufacturers. Most prominent manufacturers offer both blind and buried vias, wherein the microvias are of 0.006 or less in diameter. A number of packaging technologies have been adopted to achieve high-density PCB particularly for HDI PCBs. An example is usage of fan-out technology. 

However, several challenges might concern PCB manufacturers while using these techniques. For instance, in case of HDI PCBs, poor signal integrity and impedance anomalies are things of perpetual concern.

Rise in Use Cases of 5G to Play Crucial Role

As 5G technology emerges, the demands from PCB manufacturers are likely to become stringent. These requirements will pave the way to implementation of new packaging as well as inspection technologies. Companies are increasingly investing in developing automated and advanced technologies that will make the production line more efficient as well as PCB manufacturers meet the technical requirements. PCB manufacturers are keenly utilizing advanced testing and inspection technologies in the assembly line. An example is PCB fabricators adopting automated optical inspection systems (AOIS).

Incorporation of novel technologies such as AI has broadened the canvas for the commercialization of these inspection technologies in the 5G PCB market. PCB fabricators seem to increasingly benefit from incorporation of AI in automatic optical shaping (AOS) systems. For instance, AI might help increase the accuracy of AOI fault detection. Usage of AOS might also benefit users, specifically to control impedance in HDI PCBs. In the near future, automation inspection technologies are likely to become more pervasive and used in conjunction with inspection technologies. Modified semi-additive process (MSAP) is another emerging method used by manufacturers in the 5G PCB market.

Choice of Substrate Materials Crucial for 5G-ready PCB Designs

Considerable progress has been made in choice of substrate materials. Demand for high-performance substrate material has opened enormous opportunities for companies in the market. A general guideline mandates that the manufacturers need substrate materials with low dielectric transmission loss and high thermal conductivity. Moreover, fabricators must adopt materials that enable them to manage intense heat generated.

Manufacturers need materials high thermal conductivity. Another significant criterion is that the materials have low dielectric constant. Numerous issues may occur if thermal management is not addressed which can certainly cause degradation of PCB materials; examples are delamination and broken PCB traces. Mechanical and chemical characteristics along with thermal management have become important criteria for 5G PCB manufacturers to meet the technical requirements of 5G.

Material advancements along with adoption of techniques are likely to play crucial role in the development high-frequency PCB designs for current and emerging 5G technology applications. Cost and design complexity are expected to play a crucial role in the choice of these fabrication techniques. The evolution of the 5G industry is expected to massively influence the dynamics of PCB product development. According to a business intelligence study on the 5G PCB market, exponentially increasing demand for 5G in mobile, satellite, and cellular communications in several industries will shape the product development.

Two application areas in the 5G PCB market are autonomous driving and smart homes. Expansion of IoT applications for smart cities is likely to open up new revenue streams for companies in the 5G PCB market. Adoption of 5G in medical industry presents tremendous opportunities. Rise in use cases of 5G in the healthcare industry is poised to open up incredible avenues for 5G manufacturers. Need for high-speed and ultra-low latency network are crucial criteria for ensuring the reliability of real-time remote monitoring of chronic diseases in patients. Some of the other important areas are robotic surgeries and telehealth.

Asia Pacific and North America are lucrative regions. Strides in 5G communication technology are likely to become important drivers for demand for 5G PCBs in these markets. Companies are spending significantly in R&D of novel PCB geometries and substrate materials to tap into the burgeoning revenue potential.