Vias are actually holes drilled into PCB layers and electroplated with a thin layer of copper to provide the necessary electrical connectivity. Three most common types of plated through via are in use—plated through holes, blind holes, and buried holes—with plated through holes running through all the layers of the PCB. These are the simplest type of holes to make and the cheapest. However, they take up a huge amount of PCB space, reducing the space available for routing.
Blind vias connect the outermost circuit on the PCB with other circuits on one or more adjacent inner layers. As they do not traverse the entire thickness of the PCB, they increase the space utilization by leaving more space for routing.
Buried vias connect two or more circuit layers in a multi-layered PCB, but do not show up on any of the outer layers. These are the most expensive type of vias and take more time to implement, as the fabricator has to drill the hole in the individual circuit layer when bonding it. However, designers can stack several buried vias in-line or in a staggered manner to make a blind via. Therefore, buried vias offer the maximum space utilization when routing a PCB. Fabricators of high-density interconnect (HDI) boards usually make use of buried vias, most often using lasers for drilling them.
Drilling a Via
At positions for the vias, the fabricator drills holes through the PCB using a metal drill of small diameter. He or she then cleans the hole, de-smears it, and de-burrs it to prepare it for plating. Rather than removing copper as is normally the case with the etching process, the fabricator then adds a thin layer of copper to the newly formed hole through a process of electroplating, thereby connecting the two layers. For a two-layer board, the fabricator then etches circuit patterns on both sides. Via usually have capture pads on both layers.
The process of drilling a via hole using a laser is somewhat different. In general, fabricators use two types of lasers—CO2 and UV—with the latter able to make very small diameter via holes. UV laser-drilled via holes are about 20-35 µm in diameter. As the laser beam is able to ablate through the thin copper layer, capture pads with a central opening are not necessary. Most fabricators program a two-step process for drilling a hole with a laser beam.
In the first step, a wider-focused laser heats the top copper layer, driving the metal rapidly through the melt phase into the vapor phase prior to gas-dynamic effects expelling it from the surface. The laser repeats this for all via positions on the PCB layer.
In the next step, the program focuses the beam tightly and controls the depth the laser can burn. For blind vias, It allows the laser to burn through the intervening dielectric and stop when it has reached the bottom copper layer, before moving on to the neighboring via position.
The same process of electroplating as above deposits a thin layer of copper along the walls of the holes left behind by the laser beam, thereby connecting the two layers. The rest of the process for etching the circuit pattern on the two sides remains the same.