How circuit boards have to adapt to support smart cities

As we begin to gain a broader understanding of what near-future smart cities may look like, it’s become clearer just how many different systems and devices are involved. Cities like Barcelona have set the tone early, making use of everything from IoT-connected trash cans, to intelligent transportation, to initiatives promoting ongoing urban solutions. More broadly, we also expect that we’ll begin to see more applications along the lines of solar energy collection, traffic monitoring sensors, automated energy saving, and so much more.

One of the exciting things about all of this is that it’s clear smart cities don’t depend on any one product, concept, or company. By nature, they will come about as a result of countless innovations across categories, meaning that even a city that may fall short in one area may excel in another. One thing that does connect many potential smart city features, though, is the reliance of devices and sensors on advanced printed circuit boards (PCBs).

PCBs already support electronic devices in all other walks of life, including in the IoT. But if we’re truly to transition to smart cities around the world, there are a few ways in which PCBs will have to adapt to make it possible.

Optimized Production

Perhaps the most important factor at hand is that the transition to smart cities is going to call for virtually innumerable new sensors and devices all around the world — all of which will of course require their own specialized PCBs. For that reason, the actual process and scale of production is one of the most important elements of smart city creation. This means that the companies involved in the design and creation of PCBs will likely need to adopt more collaborative practices and more global production, where they can.

The good news is that these aren’t necessarily new ideas. From a design standpoint, top PCB creators are already accustomed to software that allows for collaboration between teams and contributors, which sets them up well for more wide-ranging operations. As for the actual production, modern manufacturing may come into play. To that point, the combination of the IoT and 3D printing has already been referred to by some as the arrival of ‘industry 4.0’ — and PCB development could be an excellent example of those combined forces put into action. Part of optimizing production may end up being the use of 3D printing methods to craft PCBs from designs that are shared remotely.

More versatile design

The sheer variety of smart city IoT device and sensors, and some of the rigors of the urban environments in which they’ll be deployed, also call for more versatile underlying PCB design. For one thing, we may need to see more durable PCBs in certain applications, such as sensors on traffic devices, or even in the IoT-connected trash cans mentioned above with regard to Barcelona. There are, currently, some PCB designs that are meant to be more flexible and better able to absorb shock, and it’s reasonable to suspect that smart cities will require heavy use of these options.

Another aspect of design versatility that will come into play is the need for small but powerful PCBs, which will power tiny sensors that will be placed around cities for various purposes. Here, too, the companies involved area already prepared. Software for advanced HDI design in PCBs already exists, and can produce more compact yet equally capable circuit boards. Still, these more advanced HDI (high-density interconnect) PCBs are more complex by nature, and it’s likely that more designers will have to become familiar with them to meet the coming demands of smart cities.

Greater accountability

This point is not meant to suggest that PCB suppliers lack accountability today. However, most of the points made above speak in one way or another to bigger, broader production efforts. And as PCB designers and manufacturers work to outfit cities with the material they need to become, in fact, ‘smart’, it will be very important that the PCBs themselves are equipped with the necessary identifying and tracking features to maintain the integrity of the system. Anything from a PCB being misplaced in the supply chain, to one not being identifiable during maintenance can slow down production and cause confusion. For these reasons, then, it’s also important to point to the need for a continued focus on accountability where PCBs are concerned.

These are all changes that the PCB industry is more than capable of handling, which bodes well for our transition to smarter urban environments. Nevertheless, they will involve a great deal of effort over a number of years, and they’re unlikely to get much attention in the process.

Written by: editors Smart City Hub
Header image: metamorworks

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