Mark Finstad

All the pieces that add up to the right fit.

“I am developing a flexible circuit for my application and will soon be ready for prototypes, followed by production a few months later. A lot of flexible circuit suppliers are out there. How do I know if a vendor is reputable and will meet my needs?”

Many variables must be considered when picking a flexible circuit supplier. Do your homework and find a vendor that is a good fit for the project. It is advisable to also select a vendor that will support your program from prototype through production. Multiple vendors could build to the same Gerber files and overall specifications, but the end-product could have differences due to processing and material variations between suppliers. Switching fabricators midstream can introduce significant risk at a critical time between prototype and production. Following are the items I recommend learning about a vendor before making your sourcing decision:

Circuit application/performance class. This is more about the IPC performance class rather than specific application, but mil-aero, implantable medical devices, and so on generally are specified as IPC Class 3, while most everything else is Class 2. IPC Class 3 is the highest reliability and overall performance class and is usually specified when the product is used in a life-critical application. Class 3 product typically requires more stringent processing controls, QA, and documentation. Suppliers that primarily serve Class 3 users typically “stay in their lane” and build all products to Class 3 performance level regardless of the requirement.

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Nick Koop

First differentiate between rigid-flex and true flex.

As is often the case with flex circuits, knowing which solder mask to use on flexible circuits is somewhat of a trick question, one with several answers. The decision boils down to circuit construction and design intent.

To start, there are several ways to insulate circuits in the flex world. These include solder mask, coverlay and coverfilm. In most cases, the designer may simply note solder mask per IPC-SM-840 and leave the rest to the fabricator. This allows the fabricator to use the proper mask in the proper setting.

When making a design decision, first differentiate between rigid-flex and true flex circuits.

Let’s cover the easiest one first: rigid-flex. Typically, a rigid-flex construction will have solder mask applied to the external rigid layers to insulate all external traces, as well as define surface mount or BGA pads. It may also provide mask dams between pads to reduce the potential of solder shorts at assembly. This solder mask usually is classified under IPC-SM-840 as a type H solder mask, which denotes a high-reliability solder mask. These are the most common solder masks. Normally green in color, they can be modified for other colors, as desired. It is worth noting that if the color deviates from the as-formulated green option, there may be feature resolution and web size tradeoffs. This is because the additives used to change the color impact how the mask material absorbs light energy during the imaging process. As a result, the fabricator may need to ask for some relief for other colors.

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Mark Finstad

A little information goes a long way – but can carry added cost.

“My company has traditionally specified the finished thickness for each flex printed circuit (FPC) layer, and total thickness. This is because it’s understood some material layer thicknesses (i.e., adhesives) change during the manufacturing process due to compression and curing. As a purchaser of FPCs, we are less concerned with the initial raw material thickness than the finished thickness.

“We have received feedback, however, that the FPC market in general specifies the raw material thickness used in FPC fabrication, and not finished thickness. The assertion was nearly all customers purchasing FPCs follow this rule to minimize miscommunication. Is this common practice?”

Answer: The level of detail we see on customer drawings is all over the map, but the majority of customers that do specify individual materials will indicate the raw material thicknesses and then the overall finished circuit thickness.

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Nick Koop

Strategies for vias and routing.

It seems every new design has at least one BGA component on the board. The 1.0mm pitch BGA has become vanilla. Even the 0.8mm pitch BGA is commonplace. These components are not limited to rigid PCBs; BGAs of all shapes and sizes are implemented in flex and rigid-flex designs as well.

The rules for BGAs are much the same whether the board is rigid or rigid-flex. Due to some of the material differences in a rigid-flex, however, extra care is recommended when it comes to the artwork and the trace routing in the BGA field.

Let’s start with pad and via design. For microvias, many suppliers recommend staying at or above 0.005" diameter vias for reliability reasons. Much experience tells us vias smaller than 0.005" tend to have a much lower mean time between failure (MTBF) than vias at or greater than 0.005". In more benign applications, smaller vias may be an option. If the product will experience temperature extremes, however, the conservative bet is to stay above 0.005" diameter microvias. Depending on the design and manufacturer, the associated pads may range from 0.010" to 0.012". Smaller pads risk a via sliding off the edge of the pad. If it does, the risk is the laser may cut through the dielectric and down to the next copper layer.

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