A printed circuit board (PCB) can last for decades when properly manufactured and stored. Once put to active use in electronics applications, PCBs still maintain a long lifespan, typically 15-20 years.
Long-lasting PCBs are essential for the success of businesses and industries that rely on electronics. From medical devices to military hardware, these products must maintain their functionality over long periods to ensure safety and efficacy.
Several factors contribute to the longevity of a PCB. Understanding how these elements affect a PCB’s shelf life can help shape informed decisions about PCB manufacturing needs to maximize the lifespan of a product.
The Reasons Behind PCB Failure
Knowing what makes for long-lasting PCBs starts with understanding the qualities that don’t.
Failure to adequately heat, clean, coat, handle, or store a PCB can introduce impurities that break down the board material and cause early failure.
By avoiding the following causes of PCB degradation, boards can be manufactured for peak performance and long lifespans.
Arguably, the number one reason for printed circuit boards not lasting as long as they should is poor manufacturing. If a board isn’t made to the correct specifications, it will likely have a shorter lifespan than one made correctly.
For example, if the copper tracks are too thin, they can easily break. If the tracks are too thick, they can cause electrical problems. The solder mask needs to be the right thickness, too. If it’s too thin, it won’t protect the tracks, and they could short circuit. If it’s too thick, it can crack and lift the tracks off the board.
Other examples of poor manufacturing include cold solder joints, incorrect component placement, and damaged or missing vias. All of these issues can lead to premature failure of the board.
Usually, poor manufacturing isn’t a result of one or two processes in PCB manufacturing going awry. Instead, the manufacturer’s inexperience or lack of quality control procedures creates an environment where these issues are more likely to occur.
To avoid boards with shortened life spans due to poor manufacturing, work with a reputable and experienced PCB manufacturer with a robust quality control program to ensure that all boards meet the required specifications.
Even printed circuit boards made under the best conditions could succumb to degradation from environmental factors if improperly stored or used in the field.
While moisture is the most common environmental hazard to affect printed circuit boards, causing corrosion, electrical shorts, and oxidation, other environmental factors to watch out for include:
- Temperature. High temperatures can cause expansion and contraction of the materials used in PCBs, which can lead to cracking and other damage.
- Radiation: Exposure to UV light, X-rays, and other forms of radiation can damage the board material and cause it to degrade over time.
- Dust: The accumulation of dust on uncovered PCBs can cause electrical shorts and even be a fire hazard.
Storing PCBs in a dry, temperature-controlled environment is vital to prevent environmental damage. In addition, if they’re going to be used in an environment with harsh conditions, it’s essential to protect them with a coating or enclosure.
Shipping & Handling
Getting an order of fresh, ready-to-use PCBs is an exciting moment for any business. But if the shipment arrives and the PCBs are damaged, it can be a costly setback.
There are several ways that PCBs can be damaged during shipping and handling, with the most common being physical damage from improper packaging. The rough handling and transport of PCBs can cause cracking, chipping, and other damage leading to electrical shorts and rendering the board unreliable for any significant length of time.
Another non-physical yet hyper-critical factor during handling is electrostatic discharge (ESD). This sudden release of static electricity can damage or destroy sensitive electronic components, rendering them useless.
It’s important to use proper packaging materials and techniques to prevent damage during shipping and handling. For example, PCBs should be placed in anti-static bags and then wrapped in bubble wrap or foam before being placed in a sturdy box for transport.
How to Increase PCB Lifespan?
Taking steps to ensure the lifespan of a PCB isn’t something that manufacturers do. Once PCBs have been delivered, you must take critical steps to ensure a long-lasting printed circuit board stays in its intended condition.
Dusting & Cleaning
Whether they are in storage or currently in use, businesses should take time every 3 to 6 months to clean and dust PCBs. You can dust smaller PCBs with a small brush, such as a toothbrush. You can use a vacuum with a soft brush attachment for larger boards.
After dusting, cleaning should come next using isopropyl alcohol. This step will help remove any oils or fingerprints on the board. Apply the alcohol to a lint-free cloth and then wipe across the board’s surface.
Visual Spot Checks
After high-performance runs that put extra strain on the PCB, it’s important to do a visual spot check. Taking this measure can help to catch any issues early on before they become bigger problems that require costly repairs or replacements. Visual spot checks should look for the following:
- Overheating or burns (indicated by discoloration on the board)
- Cracks or chips
- Warping (bubble-like deformities)
- Corrosion (white or green powdery spots)
- Missing pieces
If you find any of these issues, it’s important to take the PCB out of service and repair or replace it as soon as possible.
Emploring the same environmental techniques and controls used by reputable PCB manufacturers will help increase the lifespan of your boards. The ideal storage environment for PCBs is clean and dry, with temperatures between 60-70 degrees Fahrenheit and relative humidity of 40-60%.
Storing PCBs when not in use in a temperature-controlled environment will minimize the risk of corrosion and prevent damage from high or low temperatures. Additionally, you can use humidity cards, desiccant bags, and other moisture-absorbing products to help control the humidity in storage areas and protect against corrosion.
Furthermore, controls such as moisture bags will be necessary for locations prone to high humidity levels to maintain an optimal storage environment for PCBs.
Find Your PCB Manufacturing Partner
Too often, businesses waste time, money, and resources by working with an inexperienced or unqualified PCB manufacturer using low-quality materials and unreliable methods. The result is subpar products that have a short lifespan and are more costly to repair and replace.
When searching for the right PCB manufacturer for your business, you must consider factors such as experience, quality of materials used, and manufacturing methods employed. These factors will help you find a partner who can provide the high-quality, long-lasting PCBs your business needs to succeed.
Learn more about finding a reliable partner for your PCB manufacturing.