The Role of PCB Prototyping in Emerging Applications

Real single-sided printed circuit board

PCBs are the cornerstone of modern electronic design, playing a pivotal role in the functionality and performance of many devices. Because PCBs are so important in modern electronics, it’s crucial that their designs meet the unique demands of emerging applications.

One way to ensure PCBs are well-designed for their applications is through prototyping, the process of building a preliminary model before production. Prototyping makes it easy to validate design concepts and identify potential issues with PCBs, like inadequate thermal management, power distribution errors, and physical weaknesses.

Additionally, in industries like defense/military and aerospace, any decline in product quality is a risk to public health and safety, so prototyping isn’t just a convenience, but a necessity.

Drone Technology

A top view of a disassembled drone/quadcopter. Next to the disassembled drones are three prop blades and a wallet of assembly tools.

Drone technology is a constantly evolving application used by commercial sectors like real estate and construction, and the military. The military has been using drone technology for decades, although the drones of the past were much larger than they are today.

In 2024, when people think of drones, they often think about small FPVs or quads. Drones keep getting smaller because smaller designs help conserve battery life while improving accessibility, although this becomes a challenge when manufacturing PCBs.

PCBs handle critical functions in drones, such as navigation, communication, power distribution, and sensor integration. As a result, they must be reliably efficient, even in extremely small drones. PCB manufacturers have to adapt by designing components that are lightweight and compact yet robust enough to handle the demands of flight, like extreme temperature changes, moisture, vibrations, and shock, and specific mission requirements.

Advanced Vision Systems

a PCB used inside of a Philip's MRI machine.

Advanced vision systems, like autonomous vehicles, MRI, CT, and augmented reality, are used in various sectors where they perform tasks ranging from object detection and recognition to navigation and surveillance. Within these systems, PCBs serve as the framework that supports and connects essential components like sensors, processors, and connectivity modules.

The challenge with advanced vision systems is that they require fast data processing capabilities to analyze visual information in real-time, so PCBs must be designed to support high-speed processes and data pathways without signal degradation. 

Additionally, in sectors like automotive and security/military, space is critical, so PCBs must be compact, capable of integrating multiple components efficiently, and have the ability to withstand harsh environmental conditions.

Furthermore, the high processing power of vision systems generates significant heat, so PCBs used in these systems need effective thermal management to prevent overheating.

Material Handling Equipment

A disassembled electric forklift with its battery exposed.

PCBs are also indispensable in material handling equipment, widely used in many sectors, including military logistics, where they facilitate the control and automation of processes involved in moving, storing, protecting, and controlling materials. 

Whether used in automated guided vehicles or robotic handlers, PCBs must be able to withstand severe temperature variations, high levels of dust and moisture, and potential electromagnetic interference.

Additionally, material handling systems often involve complex networks of machines communicating with each other, so PCBs must support sophisticated communication protocols and connectivity options, like EtherCAT, PROFINET, CANopen, Modbus, and PROFIBUS, as well as proprietary or specialized military communication standards that focus on security and encryption.

Lastly, material handling equipment, especially in military logistics, often operates for extended periods, making energy efficiency a key factor in PCB design to minimize the need for frequent recharging or refueling.

Guidance & Navigation Systems

A close-up of an airplane's navigation system dashboard.

As discussed briefly in our recent aerospace blog, guidance and navigation systems frequently used in the aerospace and military sectors heavily rely on PCBs to provide accurate, real-time positional and directional data.

In aerospace and defense, even minor inaccuracies can lead to significant consequences, so PCBs must remain precise and reliable even when exposed to high altitudes, extreme temperatures, vibrations, and shocks. Guidance and navigation systems also often require complex signal processing for tasks like target tracking and terrain mapping, so PCBs must support advanced processes and high-speed signal processing components. And, like many of the applications mentioned in this blog, space and weight are critical—PCBs must be compact and lightweight without compromising functionality.

Radar Equipment

Military radar equipment pointed towards the sky

In radar applications such as weather monitoring, military surveillance, and air traffic control, PCBs help accurately detect, track, and analyze objects over various distances and under different conditions.

The challenge is that radar systems operate at high frequencies, which generate significant heat. This requires PCBs to be designed for minimal signal loss, maximum integrity, and effective heat dissipation to prevent component damage and system failure. Radar systems also involve complex signal processing algorithms, so PCBs must support sophisticated processors and electronic components capable of handling these computations quickly and accurately.

How Prototyping Helps

Single sided printed circuit boards

In many of these emerging applications, manufacturing challenges include:

  • Creating a component capable of withstanding multiple environmental conditions.
  • Ensuring compactness without compromising functionality and quality.
  • Ensuring longevity and energy efficiency to reduce downtime.
  • Ensuring effective thermal management, even when exposed to extremely hot environments or when used in high-frequency or high-processing operations.
  • Minimizing EMI and signal degradation.

Prototyping helps address all of these challenges in multiple ways.

By testing PCB designs under conditions that closely mimic real-world scenarios, manufacturers can mitigate layout or component placement issues, ensure signal integrity, and minimize EMI disruptions. This is particularly crucial in ensuring the durability and functionality of PCBs when used in applications with high operational stress. Testing also allows for refinement of the size and layout of PCBs, a key requirement in space-constrained applications.

Manufacturers can also address heat-related issues during the prototyping phase by optimizing heat sinks and other cooling mechanisms. Iterative testing can also help identify design inefficiencies, allowing engineers to optimize power management schemes and significantly reduce energy consumption.

Learn More About PCB Prototyping

PGF Technology is committed to helping manufacturers in many industries, including aerospace and defense, get the high-quality components they need. We specialize in manufacturing ISO-certified single-sided, double-sided, and stacked PCB assemblies and will work with you to design the right component based on your unique requirements. We always build and thoroughly test a prototype of the end product to ensure accuracy and precision. Our testing capabilities include in-circuit, automated optical inspections, and solder paste inspections.

Please contact us today to learn more about our prototyping and testing capabilities.