What are Multi-Layer PCBs?

Most electronic equipment have one or more Printed Circuit Boards (PCB) with components mounted on them. The wiring to and from these PCBs determines the basic functionality of the equipment. It is usual to expect a complex PCB within equipment meant to deliver highly involved performance. While a single layer PCB is adequate for simple equipment such as a voltage stabilizer, an audio amplifier may require a PCB with two layers. Equipment with more complicated specifications such as a modem or a computer requires PCB with multiple layers, that is, a PCB with more than two layers.

Construction of a Multi-Layer PCB

Multiple layer PCBs have three or more layers of conductive copper foil separated by layers of insulation, also called laminate or prepreg. However, a simple visual inspection of a PCB may not imply its multi-layer structure, as only the two outermost copper layers are available for external connection, with the inner copper layers remaining hidden inside. Fabricators usually transform the copper layers into thin traces according to the predefined electrical circuit. However, some of the layers may also represent a ground or power connection with a large and continuous copper area. The fabricator makes electrical interconnections between the various copper layers using plated through holes. These are tiny holes drilled through the copper and insulation layers and electroplated to make them electrically conducting.

A via connecting the outermost copper layers and some or all of the inner layers is a through via, that connecting one of the outermost layers to one or more inner layers is the blind via, while the one connecting two or more inner layers but not visible on the outermost layers is the blind via. Fabricators drill exceptionally small diameter holes using lasers to make vias, as this allows maximizing the area available for routing the traces.

As odd number of layers can be a cause of warping in PCBs, manufacturers prefer to make multiple layer boards with even number of layers. The core of a PCB is an insulating laminate layer with copper foils pasted on both its sides—forming the basic construction of a double-layer board. Fabricators make up further layers by adding a combination of prepreg insulation and copper layers on each side of the double-layer board—repeating the process for as many extra layers as defined by the design—to make a multi-layer PCB.

Depending on the electrical circuit, the designer has to define the layout of traces on each copper layer of the board, and the placement of individual vias, preferably using CAD software packages. The designer transfers the layered design output onto photographic films, which the fabricator utilizes to remove the excess metal from individual copper layers by the process of chemical etching, followed by drilling necessary holes and electroplating them to form vias. As they complete etching and drilling for each layer, the fabricator adds it on to the proper side of the multi-layer board.

Once the fabricator has placed all layers properly atop each other, application of heat and external pressure to the combination makes the insulation layers melt and bond to form a single multi-layer PCB.