The markets: Electronics (2017)

Although the printed circuit board is no longer the exclusive realm of glass-fiber composites, composites manufacturers are expanding elsewhere in the electronics market.

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Glass fiber/epoxy laminates have been the foundational structural substrate in printed circuit boards (PCBs) for decades. These iconic thin, green “cards” support the transistors, resistors and integrated circuits at the heart of almost all digital technologies and connect them electrically via conductive pathways etched or printed on their surfaces. They are the world’s largest market for glass fiber. Lucintel (Irving, TX, US) reports a global market for glass fiber in PCBs of 382,832 MT in 2013 and forecasts a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 4.5% to 498.951 MT by 2019. The growth will be fueled by the proliferation of mobile devices and digital control in appliances and cars, and new robotic applications in medical, defense and other manufacturing industries.

            Glass/epoxy’s dominance, however, is under challenge as a variety of trends — notably, toward miniaturization, better thermal management, increased speed and performance, and the 3D printing process — force PCB manufacturers to re-examine their material options. Will glass fiber composites meet tougher specifications as electronics development careens into unknown territory?

According to industry sources, the global PCB market grew from US$35 billion in 2006 to a 2013 value of US$62 billion, but the U.S. share dropped from 15% to 5%, with 90% of PCBs now manufactured in Asia. North America still maintains some important technology players, including laminate producers Isola and Rogers Corp. (both in Chandler, AZ, US), PCB producer TTM Technologies Inc. (Costa Mesa, CA, US), and a host of small prototyping and specialty fabricators.

            TTM Technologies says multilayer PCBs make up 47% of the market, with the highest growth projected for 8- to 16-layer boards. Rigid-flexible PCBs, now only 5% of the market, are forecast to grow fastest, reflecting the move toward smaller, higher-performance electronic devices. This trend also pushes growth projections for high-density interconnect (HDI) and flexible PCBs, the latter used in liquid crystal displays (LCDs) and touch screens.

            One unusual challenger to glass-fiber-reinforced composites in the electronics market in 2016 as the advent of carbon fiber as a material option for mobile antenna construction, because of its strength, extreme weight-savings capability and its inherent conductivity. The latter was key in Antenna Products’ (APC, Mineral Wells, TX, US) design and manufacture of its TLP-20CC transportable military antenna, which weighs 13 kg vs. its 40-kg aluminum predecessor. Designed to replace metal log periodic antennae developed in the 1950s but considered by the US military to be “unwieldy, difficult and time-consuming to deploy, and expensive,” the carbon composite version  can be assembled and operated by one rather than two communications technicians. Carbon fiber’s conductivity is enhanced with a 200-nm nickel coating, applied via thin-film coating technology developed by Conductive Composites’ (Heber City, UT, US).

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