The markets: Electronics (2015)

Glass fiber/epoxy laminates have been the foundational structural substrate in printed circuit boards (PCBs) for decades, but its dominance is currently under challenge.


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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. Market research firm Lucintel (Dallas, TX, US) reports a global market for glass fiber in PCBs of almost 383,000 MT in 2013 and forecasts a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 4.5% that will reach nearly 500,000 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 3-D 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 US share dropped from 15% to 5%, with 90% of PCBs now manufactured in Asia. North America still maintains a number of important technology players, including laminate producers Isola GmbH and Rogers Corp. (both in Chandler, AZ, US), and PCB producer TTM Technologies Inc. (Costa Mesa, CA, US), as well as 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.

            Another emerging trend is the development of low-loss glass fiber to meet HDI board requirements. Lucintel cautions that PCBs are facing many challenges, among them, thermal fatigue and coefficient of thermal expansion (CTE) mismatch. Consequently, glass fiber could come under attack as R&D programs seek materials that can provide the higher performance now demanded by device OEMs in almost all electronics market segments. To read more about the challenges that face composites in electronics applications, click on “Printed circuit boards: A mobile market,” under “Editor’s Picks,” at top right.

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 cell phones, 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 Inc. (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), will turn out parts for touch tablets and laptop/notebooks. Ju Teng already had one RocTool license for the manufacture of smartphone components.