Many don’t realize that the electronics, devices, and items they own are built upon several internal components which work collaboratively to provide the necessary functionality and features they use. A mobile phone, for example, is more than just the casing, buttons, and display you see on the outside. Inside the device are several pieces that house and connect the necessary components. One of those core pieces is called a printed circuit board or PCB for short.
Printed circuit boards are the foundation of most electronics. By the end of 2018 alone, the global PCB product sales value is expected to reach 82 billion U.S. dollars. That should give you some idea of just how often PCBs are used in manufacturing.
Without them, many devices would simply cease to function entirely. In the event of a major failure or malfunction, it can cause some pretty serious issues. Circuit boards aren’t invulnerable either. Over time, they experience a great deal of wear and tear that can deteriorate their performance and functionality. Things such as the weather, humidity, age, and even elevation can affect the condition of a board.
Luckily, it’s possible to repair or remanufacture boards to make them like new again. This does one of two things. Either the board in question can be returned to its original device, making it function again. Or, it can be used in a completely different device, as a form of recycling if you will.
Of course, before any board can be repaired or reconditioned, engineers need to discern and understand why it failed in the first place. You can’t very well fix a problem if you don’t know what went wrong, can you?
It’s highly beneficial to know and identify some of the most common problems associated with PCBs, so that if and when a device does fail, you at least know what went wrong. We’re going to take a look at some of the most common printed circuit board problems, and explore ways in which they can be solved.
For good measure, let’s explore what a printed circuit board actually is, and does.
What Are Printed Circuit Boards?
A printed circuit board or PCB is a core component of nearly all electronic devices. Everything except the simplest of electronics uses a board of some kind to connect and mechanically sync all elements of the product. A coffee maker, for instance, might have a small PCB inside to connect the electronic control system, heater element and display.
In the early days—way before design software was a thing—printed circuit boards were planned using Mylar sheets through manual hands-on development, and were often four times bigger than the circuit board itself. The designers would lay pin pads, traces and components out in a proposed design, which was used sort-of like a storyboard to test and explain circuits. Today, it’s all done via design and manufacturing software.
PCBs are mechanically necessary to support and connect all components within the device, which are synced using conductive tracks—this allows electricity to flow freely through the board and from component to component.
PCB components are soldered to the board, which electrically and mechanically fastens them to the overall circuit. Those “components” include things like the battery, resistors, LEDs, transistors, capacitors and more.
Boards are often produced in layers, which include various levels of conductive and non-conductive sheets. They can be one-sided with a single copper layer, two-sided with a double copper layer on both sides of a substrate layer, or multi-layer with differing layers of copper and substrate. It is worth mentioning that multi-layer boards provide a variety of benefits like an increased component density, however they are much harder to analyze, repair and modify.
It’s important to understand that circuit board repair parts and practices often consist of the same materials and components used to build the hardware in the first place. There are very few substitutes or alternatives, especially when talking about reliable and conductive materials. This highlights the need to find a proper, professional repair team with the right assets and connections.
What Devices Use Them?
PCBs are used in nearly every electronic device you may find, from smartphones and computers to televisions and vacuums. If a device requires an electrical connection to be passed through it to operate, it’s a safe bet that there’s some kind of circuit board inside, sometimes incredibly small and thin.
As technology has advanced over the years, so has the design and development of circuit boards allowing for smaller, more complex components, and thinner, less bulky boards. This makes the circuit board repair process particularly tricky because there are so many different types of varying sizes and design. You can’t go to just anyone to have a printed circuit board repair, modified or re-manufactured. It is crucial that you go to an authorized party who has both the experience and necessary gear to make it happen.
Why Do Printed Circuit Boards Fail?
As with anything that deteriorates over time and extended use, printed circuit boards can run into a variety of problems. From trace damage which affects the conductivity of the board and circuit to component failure which sees capacitors or diodes dying, there are many points of contention on a circuit board.
It helps to identify and understand some of the most common failures, that way you can deal with the problem in a relevant manner. This may also help people—who don’t have direct experience with circuit boards—keep them in better shape.
1. Physical Damage
This is the more obvious choice when it pertains to the damage of a circuit board. In fact, the most common causes of PCB failures all stem from physical damage to a device or its internals. This can be just about anything pertaining to physical pressure or shock. The device in question might have been dropped from a great distance. Perhaps it was smacked or hit forcibly by another object? There’s also the possibility that the device was disassembled for whatever reason, and damage happened directly to the board.
How to Diagnose and Repair
So long as complete failure is not the scenario—the board fell upon the ground and shattered or broke completely—physical damage can be remedied through the remanufacturing process. Generally, this involves melting down the damage sections of the board or repairing through disassembly and reassembly. Due to the nature of most physical damage, it’s highly unlikely that this can be done as a DIY project by those without experience with printed circuit board repair. The repair of physical damage should only be done by a trained and experienced professional. In most cases, it calls for remodeling of the board, resoldering of components, and the reballing of conductive traces.
2. Component Failure
Aside from physical damage, faulty components are the other most common cause of printed circuit board failures. In fact, if and when there is no physical damage but a device has failed to operate or power on, you can almost guarantee it has to do with one of the components connected to the board.
The component itself could be anything from a capacitor to a diode or microprocessor. If the component is the issue and has died or failed to work, it may need to be replaced entirely. However, it’s not always the actual component that’s the problem. Sometimes due to aging, overheating and voltage sags the trace circuit may have deteriorated to a point where it’s no longer conductive. It’s also possible that a component—or several—have dislodged entirely from the board and need to be reseated.
How to Diagnose and Repair
You may be asking, how to fix a printed circuit board when a component fails? Again, the repair and remanufacturing process for faulty components is best left to professionals. There are voltage tools and various devices that can be used to test the conductivity of a board’s circuit. They can also be used to discern if there’s electricity flowing to a component, or if an element of the board has failed entirely. A lot of times, by just opening up the device you can see components that have failed. Their outer shell may seem burnt, cracked or broken, or the component is completely detached from the board and loose.
To repair a faulty component, you may need to apply heat—usually with a heat gun—solder and conduct rigorous testing.
3. Trace Damage
Traces on a circuit board are the conductive pathways comprised of silver or copper. Generally, you can see an issue with traces using the naked eye, but not always. If a trace suffers damage, whether through regular use or physical damage then it can cause significant issues with the printed circuit boards conductivity, components and the device in question.
Some of the more common reasons for trace damage include lightning strikes, severe power surges or shorts, metallic dust contamination, overheating and normal wear.
How to Diagnose and Repair
Provided the trace is not incredibly thin and difficult to see, you can usually discern damage simply by scanning the pathway. Copper and silver by nature are bright and shiny, which makes it easier to identify when there’s a break or damage. Keep in mind this is not always the case, but it’s a sure bet.
To repair faulty or damage trace pathways, you simply need to resolder or reball the board with the necessary material. This reconnects the broken circuit and allows electricity to flow freely throughout the board.
4. Poor Design
As much as we’d love to praise every single engineer or product developer in existence, that’s just not viable. Sometimes, for whatever reason, a team may cut corners when designing a board or manufacturing the necessary components. This can result in the poor design and construction of a board, which causes issues later down the line.
Unfortunately, poor design for a printed circuit board can lead to several things, many of the failures that happen are already discussed here.
How to Diagnose and Repair
You’ll know as soon as you have a faulty or poor circuit board because your device will continue to fail time and time again, even after a repair or service session. The best solution for a shoddy circuit board is to replace it completely, by visiting an official or licensed repair center.
The easiest way to identify a poorly designed board is the number of failures or problems after extended use. Barring significant physical or electrical damage to the device, if you take the board to be repaired or analyzed somewhere and there are a handful of issues, there’s likely something wrong with the way the board was constructed. In some cases, this simply means the original manufacturer used cheap or unreliable components, but the board itself is fine.
5. Power Failure
In most cases, a power failure is remarkably similar to a component failure, it may even be one in the same. The ultimate issue stems from the fact that there was a major power failure to all or part of the board. One of the components could have been exposed to higher voltages than normal, causing it to overheat and explode. Or maybe there was a trace failure causing a short somewhere? Whatever the case, a power meter can be used to test each individual component and the general conductivity of the board.
How to Diagnose and Repair
All professional repair teams have a power or voltage meter that can be used to identify electrical issues with a board and its components. This is really the only way to diagnose a problem outside of visible damage to a component. As for repair, the process is best left to professionals but generally involves reseating or replacing components.
What Does PCB Repair and Remanufacturing Consist of?
There are several ways in which a printed circuit board can be repaired or serviced, with varying degrees of skill required. For the most part, however, anything to do with the internals of an electronic or device calls for knowledge of engineering and mechanics, and basic electrical circuits. For some of the larger devices on the market, you could seriously injure or even fatally wound yourself if you don’t know what you’re doing.
With traces and conductive pathways, you may need to coat, remove or replace the necessary material: be it copper or silver. Often, this relies on tools such as a soldering iron or heat gun.
For physical or visible damage to a board, base board repair is necessary. This may include melting down similar materials to reshape or modify the board, or can sometimes even call for complete disassembly.
For conductor and component repair, knowledge and skill of soldering, desoldering, BGA rework and pinpoint accuracy may all be necessary. If you’ve ever worked with or held a soldering iron before, it’s not so easy to retain a steady hand and spread the material evenly. You will want extensive experience with a soldering and desoldering iron, just to be sure the components and parts are seated properly to the board.
Of course, there are a variety of IPC and ICO standards necessary to follow for professionals, to ensure electronics and components are constructed and repaired using proper protocols. If you are not aware or don’t know enough about these standards, you may find yourself in hot water later.
Make sure that any Electronics Manufacturing Services or EMS you work with know and follow the necessary procedures.
An EMS, if you don’t know, is often a circuit board repair company that designs, manufactures, tests, distributes, and repairs electronic components and internal assemblies. They commonly service components and devices for OEMs or original equipment manufacturers. An OEM is the company that originally designed and owns the product in question.
This entire process is called electronics contract manufacturing or ECM for short.
What Materials are Necessary for PCB Repairs?
As is to be expected, most repairs require the same materials—or improved materials—used in the official design of a board. It may call for copper or silver to be reseated to repair trace pathways. PCB substrates are often comprised of fiberglass or an epoxy resin with copper foil bonded to the conductive layer. They may also be comprised of reinforced phenolic resin, a more paper-like material that’s thinner than fiberglass.
Gold is also used by many manufacturers or repair centers, especially when it comes to re-plating or improving soldered segments of a board.
The best service and repair teams can reassemble or fix a damaged board near enough to its original condition that there’s almost no difference in a previous version and the upgraded one. Certainly, this requires a great deal of finesse and experience that you won’t find outside of an experienced and professional setting.
An important part of researching and hiring a professional repair service is making sure they have the proper PCB repair materials and tools available to get the job done. Some service repair teams don’t have everything on property or on-site, which can balloon the time it takes to repair or reassemble parts. They have to wait to receive the requisite materials or tools.
It’s no secret that a lot of the materials used are not environmentally-friendly or conducive to safety. We’re a long ways off, but there are scientists and bleeding edge teams working on bio-degradeable PCBs that will break down naturally after being discarded.
Why Working with EMSG Is Crucial?
For PCB repair and remanufacturing and industrial PCB repair service options you can’t do any better than EMSG Inc. (Electronic Manufacturing Services Group). We are well suited to handle board level and complete box build assemblies, including any custom packaging you may have created or utilized.
We have a highly advanced facility with the latest manufacturing and repair technologies, which allow us to be incredibly precise, yet efficient in our duties. This, coupled with our incredibly experienced personnel, modern equipment and great management team means we can be swift and reliable and get any repairs or development done within the schedule of your choosing.
At EMSG, our primary goal is to help you enter the market successfully, but also in a competitive, reliable setting. We understand every business is unique, and the design and specifications of their components entails personalized attention. We can and will afford you the absolute focus and dedication you need, to ensure any and all work exceeds your expectations.
We are highly confident that EMSG will play an integral role in the design and development of your product. The information presented here is merely scratching the surface of what’s necessary to conduct and perform a professional-grade repair and remanufacturing service. You can rest assured, we have the skills, experience and tools to get you to market as soon as possible.