The microelectronics market is growing—fast. We recently covered this space, detailing both the expanding markets and some of the most noteworthy new applications of microfabrication, microprocessors and other microelectronics technologies.
In this blog, we'll focus more specifically on some of the challenges and benefits inherent to microelectronics designs. To make the most of the microelectronics space, companies must ensure they're accommodating microelectronics' limitations and advantages.
The Reasons Behind Microelectronics
To fully appreciate these challenges and benefits, it's first essential to address some of the factors driving companies in this direction.
Arguably the single biggest issue here is consumer demand. In some ways, this is obvious—consider how cellular phones have evolved over the past two decades, from brick-sized boxes to the slim devices we know today. The same trend can be seen in laptops, tablets, and so on. In these cases, electronics firms are responding to consumers' desires for smaller products.
"Many IoT devices and wearables can only exist thanks to the development of microelectronics."
It's also critical to recognize that the fast-increasing popularity of wearables and the Internet of Things are both driving the development of microelectronics devices and components. In these cases, it's not mere consumer preference leading to smaller designs. Instead, it's the simple fact that these solutions can only exist thanks to the development and use of microelectronics. Companies are reaching out to design or manufacturing houses, discovering what's possible in the microelectronics field, and immediately directing their efforts accordingly.
The IoT market will be worth hundreds of billions of dollars within a few years, as we explained in this blog post. And in the healthcare space alone, the market for wearables and medical devices—which, by their nature, depend on microelectronics—will be worth billions of dollars in its own right.
Challenges, Technical, and Otherwise
So what are the challenges that microelectronics designers must grapple with?
As size shrinks, circuit boards innately become more dense. Designers need to pack more input/output into a smaller space, and make this array of pads as close together as possible. The problem here is that as the pitch becomes tighter and tighter, so too does the trace and space, and that creates signal reliability challenges. On a typical circuit board (as opposed to micro printed circuit board—a topic we'll dive into more deeply in a future blog post), signals on a trace lose their energy as that trace becomes smaller. This is due to the simple fact that it is incredibly difficult to ensure uniform traces for signals when relying on subtractive circuit board printing methods on the micro level.
This could potentially create significant problems for the microelectronics themselves. Perhaps most notably, weaker signal strength will lead to reduced battery life. This is an increasingly important issue for electronics in a wide range of spaces, including all of those highlighted above. In the case of consumer electronics, there is an obvious demand for cell phones and other handheld devices that can last as long as possible without the need to recharge. For other microelectronics concerns, such as IoT sensors and implants, recharging may be unfeasible or impossible, as the devices themselves are simply unreachable. In these instances, impressive battery life is an absolute prerequisite for design success.
Any microelectronics design that does not fully account for the challenges posed by increasing board density will run the risk of failing to meet its full potential, or may not function whatsoever.
Another less obvious and, in a sense, less technical challenge inherent to this space is that the fact that the evolving microelectronics market is leading many companies to grapple with this technology for the first time. For example, a health tech firm may become interested in the potential for a new device that leverages microfabrication in order reduce the amount of blood that needs to be drawn for testing. However, unlike a major electronics developer like Apple or Samsung, this company is unlikely to have its own design team to work on developing microlectronics. Instead, the company will need to reach out to a third-party design or manufacturing house, one with proficiency in microelectronics. This shift into a new space and new relationships creates a great deal of uncertainty and significantly complicates efforts to move forward with new microelectronics applications and designs.
The good news is that none of these challenges are insurmountable. In upcoming blog posts, we'll explore the issues surrounding microelectronics designs in greater detail, focusing specifically on best practices and the advantages offered by micro PCBs and choosing the right manufacturing partner.