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Are Flex Boards Suitable for High Speed Applications?
Posted on 25/01/2019

The printed circuit industry offers copper clad circuits in four different classes, with individual standards defined by IPC. These are rigid, flexible, high-speed, high frequency, and High Density Interconnect (HDI). Each of these families has more standards within them for defining the base material, acceptance, and design they use. However, users may utilize all four classes of boards in a single assembly for their application. This poses a problem of inter-connectivity, as the design rules vary from one type of board to another. This has led to improvements in flexible circuit technology to make them more suitable for high frequency and high-speed applications.

Difference between Flex and Rigid Materials

One significant difference with flex materials is their base material generally does not contain glass reinforcement as is usual with rigid boards. Both mechanical integrity and flexibility of flex circuits comes from the dielectric material, which comprises various grades of polyimide. Manufacturers usually have their trademark composition of polyimides, with emphasis on specific functional aspects. 

Another significant difference is the brittle solder mask is replaced in flexible circuits with coverlay, a thin coating of conformable, elastic layer, and is processed differently. Unlike rigid boards, manufacturers prepare flex dielectrics as large rolls of coated film and laminate them to the copper layer in a separate step. This makes the thickness of the cast films very consistent, and this has the major advantage of keeping a tight control over impedance, an important factor for high-speed applications.

Unlike electrodeposited (ED) copper commonly used in rigid circuits, flex circuits use rolled-annealed (RA) copper. The rolling process ensures the copper is smoother, ductile, and less likely to crack when bending. 

Flex Materials and High Frequencies

Applications meant for high frequencies and high speeds require consistent dielectric thickness, low dielectric constant, and low dielectric loss. However, as operating frequencies cross 1 GHz, the term dielectric constant loses its consistency. This is because the polymers used in flex circuits absorb energy from the RF and this is called the loss tangent of the material. As the operating frequency increases, materials with high loss cause greater changes to occur in the relative permittivity, which means, to work at high frequencies, materials used for flex circuits must be chosen carefully. Most popular materials for use at high frequencies are Advanced Kapton and Teflon, as they maximize signal integrity for high-speed flexible circuits.

Influence of Copper at High Frequencies

Flex circuits are usually very thin, which means the copper layer is thin as well, and this has an exponentially increasing impact on signal loss as compared to that from the dielectric. This is because of the phenomenon known as skin effect, wherein high frequency currents tend to concentrate around the periphery of the copper conductor rather than flow uniformly across its cross-section. This increases the resistance offered by the copper, and hence increases the loss. Therefore, manufacturers use special types of RA copper known as Meg4 and Meg6, as these present a lower loss at higher frequencies.

Conclusion

Flex circuits work very well at high speed and high frequency applications, provided suitable materials are used for the dielectric and copper traces. For more information of flex circuits or to speak to a PCB Global Team member to see if utilising flex in your PCB project is right for your design and application, please don’t hesitate to contact us at sales@pcbglobal.com