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 many digital technologies and connect them electrically via conductive pathways etched or printed on their surfaces. They are said to be the world’s largest market for glass fiber (but see a competing claim by those who build wind turbine blades in CW’s coverage of “Renewable Energy” under “Editor’s Picks”). 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.
According to TTM Technologies, 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.
A much newer realm of composites involvement in the electronics world is the manufacture of electronic device casings. Rugged but attractive and lightweight for portability, cases for cellphones, tablets, e-readers and laptop computers could be a new and enormous market for thermoplastic composites. A key composite industry player in this market is RocTool (Le Bourget du Lac, France and Charlotte, NC, US), a specialist in the design and development of technologies for rapid molding of composites and plastic injection. In March 2014, RocTool showcased a smartphone back cover produced for Motorola in a four-cavity mold at a rate of 15,000 parts per day, using RocTool’s 3iTech inductively heated tooling technology. RocTool followed that with the announcement that it had signed two 3iTech production licenses with Ju Teng International (Hong Kong), a leading provider of computers, communication and electronic devices. Ju Teng’s new composites factory (reportedly the world’s largest, with about 100 production lines equipped with RocTool technology), would turn out parts for touch tablets and laptop/notebooks. (For details on RocTool's technology, click on "License to speed for composites manufacturing" under "Editor's Picks" at top right.)