Expected Trends in Circuit Boards for the 2020s

Amidst all of the advances we witness in technology from year to year, there are often underlying changes in how circuit board design is approached. Most modern electronics require PCBs or full-fledged motherboards in order to work, and the ways in which these components are designed and handled ultimately help to shape modern technology.

With that in mind, it’s never a bad time to look at some of what’s happening in the circuit board business. And right now there are actually some fairly clear possible trends we can point to for the decade that lies ahead.

More Custom Decisions

In a recent look at the ‘Top 5 Motherboards for i7 9700K in 2020’ the idea was discussed that there are several different motherboard options that can “unleash the beast” of i7 9700k gaming CPUs — at various price points and with various specs. This speaks to a basic idea of expanding options, as well as the fact that people who care about the particulars of their electronics are aware of those options.

Swapping out motherboards and even smaller PCBs to customize electronics (or even build them from scratch) has long been possible. But with electronic components being treated more and more like products in and of themselves, we may be entering an era of deeper and more frequent customization. That is to say, more people might look through their options and build up their electronics to meet their specific needs.

More Independent Design

On a similar note, we may also start to see more independent design of circuit boards from the ground up. Even a few short years ago, even true tech enthusiasts might not have considered the idea of designing their own circuit boards. But with the technology needed for this kind of effort becoming more available and easier to use, this is another trend we may well see.

In Altium’s explainer on free Gerber file editors, it is pointed out that Gerber files have been used for some 30 years to transfer PCB information from the design process to manufacturing. Today though, the same files can be downloaded and shared between amateurs. This means that people can access open-source PCB designs, customize them if need be, and have them made. It’s not a necessary practice in most cases, but it’s another level of customization more people are likely to embrace as it becomes more commonplace.

A Focus on the IoT

Expansion of the Internet of Things has been a hot topic for quite some time now. And yet, many don’t quite have a true grasp on what that expansion entails. Estimates from the IDC suggest 41.6 billion devices comprising the IoT by the year 2025 — a staggering number that it’s hard to even wrap one’s head around.

Not all of those devices will necessarily need PCBs of their own. But most likely will, which means there will inevitably be a greater focus on IoT functionality and compatibility in PCB design moving forward. First and foremost this means that PCBs will need to be made with increasingly reliable wireless connectivity and power. However, it also means there will need to be more of a focus on physical design and sustainability — incidentally our next two points below.

Flex Design & Material

The last few years have brought on exciting changes in how PCBs are built with regard to material and physical capability. Stronger but thinner boards are being built to take up less space; multi-layer designs are being created with the density to support complex functions but, again, take up less space; and some PCBs are now even being made on flexible material that can be bent and weaved into unusual spaces.

These trends are underway, but we expect there will be even more innovation of his sort as we continue to fit PCBs into smaller and newer devices. In the IoT for instance, many of those tens of billions of devices will be very small, and will thus need strong but minimalist or flexible circuit boards.

Greater Sustainability

The PCB design industry is also bound to revolve more around sustainability efforts throughout the next decade, as so many industries are likely to be. This will partly mean new efforts to minimize the carbon footprint associated with actual design efforts and manufacturing. But most important might be the development of PCBs that can perform as well as todays’ top-tier options while using materials that are easier to recycle.

According to a report by The Atlantic on e-waste, the majority of personal electronic devices are thrown out, rather than recycled. This report was generated a few years ago, but not much has changed since. Our electronics ultimately wind up in landfills all too often, and the PCBs within them can be some of the more harmful pieces of waste. Altering design by incorporating more recyclable or at least eco-friendly material would represent a massive step toward making electronics in general more sustainable.