How useful are PCB Vias?

Designers use a plated through via as a conduit for transferring signals and power from one layer to another in a multi-layer printed circuit board (PCB). For the PCB fabricator, the plated through via are a cost-effective process for producing PCBs. Therefore, vias are one of the key drivers of the PCB manufacturing industry.

Use of Vias

Apart from simply connecting two or more copper layers, vias are useful for creating very dense boards for special IC packages, especially the fine-pitch components such as BGAs. BGAs with pitch lower than 0.5 mm usually do not leave much space for routing traces between neighboring pads. Designers resort to via-in-pads for breaking out such closely spaced BGA pins.

To prevent solder wicking into the via hole while soldering and leaving the joint bereft of solder, the fabricator has to fill or plug the via. Filling a via is usually with a mixture of epoxy and a conductive material, mostly copper, but the fabricator may also use other metals such as silver, gold, aluminum, tin, or a combination of them. Filling has an additional advantage of increasing the thermal conductivity of the via, useful when multiple filled vias have to remove heat from one layer to another. However, the process of filling a via is expensive.

Plugging a via is a less expensive way, especially when an increase in thermal conductivity does not serve additional value. The fabricator fills the via with solder mask of low-viscosity or a resin type material similar to the laminate. As this plugging protects the copper in the via, no other surface finish is necessary. For both, filled and plugged vias, it is important to use material with CTE matching the board material.

Depending on the application, fabricators may simply tent a via, covering it with solder mask, without filling it. They may have to leave a small hole at the top to allow the via to breathe, as air trapped inside will try to escape during soldering.

Trouble with Vias

The most common defect with vias is plating voids. The electro-deposition process for plating the via wall with a layer of copper can result in voids, gaps, or holes in the plating. The imperfection in the via may limit the amount of current it can transfer, and in worst case, may not transfer at all, if the plating is non-continuous. Usually, an electrical test by the fabricator is necessary to establish all vias are properly functioning.

Another defect is the mismatch of CTE between the copper and the dielectric material. As temperatures rise, the dielectric material may expand faster than the copper tube can, thereby parting the tube and breaking its electrical continuity. Therefore, it is very important for the fabricator to select a dielectric material with a CTE as close as possible to copper.

Vias placed in the flexing area of a flex PCB can separate from the prepreg causing a pad lift and an electrical discontinuity. It is important designers take care to not place any vias in the area where they plan the PCB will flex.