Skip to main content

Living On The Edge Of The Printed Circuit Board

The perimeter of a PCB defines the extent of whatever electronics have to be packaged therein. The outline can also serve other functions.

Printed circuit boards come in many shapes and sizes. The first thing the outline gives us is the resulting routable area. The positional variation of each layer in the stack-up requires us to compensate with a little pullback of the metal from the edge.

These days, pulling the metal back from the edge by 8 mils (0.2mm) is sufficient for most fabricators. I went to a PCB conference walking from booth to booth and asked all of the fabricators what their minimum pull back from the edge would be for production quantities. A few of them, call it 20%, said that they could plate the board to within 5 mils (0.127mm) of the edge. In a special case, we used lasers to define the edge and had metal just 2 mils (.05mm) away.

The next increment is to plate right to the edge and wrap the copper around to the other side. Edge plating is used in cases where we want to create a more complete faraday cage around a circuit. It’s also possible to pass voltage and ground from top to the bottom around the edge of the board or even using a slot within the outline of a board.

All you have to do is draw your shape(s) right up to the edge on both sides and specify that those locations have the metal wrapping around. A few unrelated teams have asked for this technology so it’s not that rare. In addition to stemming EMI emissions, the metal also prevents the inner layers from absorbing moisture through the edges of the board.

The edge of the circuit board becomes the connector

Gold Finger is more than just a James Bond movie. A row or rows of gold fingers can take the place of a connector. One common application is the PCIe connector. In this instance, the gold fingers are plated on both sides of the PCB. Consequently, the board has to use a standardized PCB thickness of 0.62” or 1.6 mm so that the fingers on both sides properly engage with the receptacle.

Figure 1. Image Credit: Author - A PCIE connector is a common interface that makes use of the board edge as one half of the pairing with what amounts to a printed connector. A few pins are pulled back further from the edges so that the other connections are made first and disconnected last.

Using the edge of the board as a connector is the norm for flex circuits, many of which are little more than bespoke cables between rigid boards. What is known as a zero-insertion-force or ZIF connector expands on the finger idea with an additional row of contacts and a companion connector that has a latch that locks the ZIF tail in place.

While I created the PCIE connector footprint by hand, the ZIF connector geometry is too convoluted for me to want to even try. The connector vendors know this and they provide the interlocking pad geometry in the popular ECAD formats.

Figure 2. Image Credit: Author - A PCIE mini card edge connector; the PCB thickness is standardized on 0.8 mm requiring their own class of fine-pitch connectors.

Edge connectors for HDMI are simpler in geometry but the thing I remember when these came out is that the spec calls for more durable gold on the typical edge connector. The pass/fail criteria is 10,000 insertion/extraction cycles. That meant that you needed hard gold instead of medium which is a selective plating step just for the edge connector.

The selective gold plating requires that the fingers extend right to the very edge of the PCB. The cost and push-back from the fab house usually means that we forego this process unless it’s absolutely necessary. Note that the spec for USB dongles is 5000 times in and out of the connector. That seems more likely to actually happen than with the HDMI use case.

Figure 3. Image Credit: Author -  Dual fans and numerous connectors define the outline of this Main Logic Board. Whimsical silk screen to distinguish each prototype optional.

Speaking of USB, implementing those connectors in a low headroom environment like a phone, tablet or laptop often finds us using a mid-mount connector. The feature here is that there is a cut-out in the edge of the board taken up by the connector body. The connector vendors like to have some tight tolerances, sometimes describing a cut-out feature as a minimum or a maximum value.

In the past, I would have made sure that these off-beat dimensions are not forgotten. I’d put the key dimension on a layer that shows up as part of the fabrication drawing. Then what happens is that the vendor gets confused and wants a nominal dimension with a bilateral tolerance. I try to look ahead to anticipate the vendor’s reaction. None of them seem to want a unilateral or limit tolerance giving an upper and lower bound.

A Technique For Ensuring Stack-up Layer Order

 Many printed circuit boards are for development purposes and have some extra real estate that you would not find on the production form factor. That open area on the big board can be used to put the number 1 on the top layer followed by a 2 on the next layer and so on through the board in sequence. Clearing out the copper above and below these numbers lets us check to see that the stack-up is laminated in the correct order.

But what can we do when the space is at a premium? This is a situation where we can violate the route keep-in with a little tab on the top layer that juts out to the edge of the board. Below and to the right would be a tab on the next layer down and cascading down a stair-step pattern to the bottom layer. The whole thing takes place in between the keep-in area and the edge of the board. It is a rule violation and we keep those tabs separate from each other in the lateral direction so that nothing shorts out in the z-axis. The tabs are usually part of the ground but could be floating if there is nothing to join.

About the Author

John Burkhert Jr is a career PCB Designer experienced in Military, Telecom, Consumer Hardware and lately, the Automotive industry. Originally, an RF specialist -- compelled to flip the bit now and then to fill the need for high-speed digital design. John enjoys playing bass and racing bikes when he's not writing about or performing PCB layout. You can find John on LinkedIn.

Profile Photo of John Burkhert