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Rigid-flex PCB design: How to Master More Skills for Rapid Design

Introduction to Rigid-Flex PCB Design

Rigid-Flex PCB design is a specialized area of printed circuit board design that combines rigid and flexible substrates into a single, integrated circuit board. This unique combination allows for greater design flexibility, improved reliability, and reduced size and weight compared to traditional rigid PCBs. As electronic devices continue to shrink in size and increase in complexity, the demand for rigid-flex PCBs has grown significantly.

To master rigid-flex PCB design, it is essential to understand the key concepts, materials, and techniques involved in the process. This article will provide a comprehensive guide to rigid-flex PCB design, covering everything from the basics to advanced skills for rapid design.

Understanding the Basics of Rigid-flex PCBs

What is a Rigid-flex PCB?

A rigid-flex PCB is a type of printed circuit board that combines rigid and flexible substrates into a single, integrated board. The rigid sections provide structural support and house the majority of the components, while the flexible sections allow for bending and folding, enabling the board to fit into tight spaces or conform to unique shapes.

Advantages of Rigid-flex PCBs

Rigid-flex PCBs offer several advantages over traditional rigid PCBs:

  1. Reduced size and weight: By eliminating the need for connectors and cables between rigid sections, rigid-flex PCBs can be smaller and lighter than their rigid counterparts.
  2. Improved reliability: The integrated nature of rigid-flex PCBs reduces the number of potential failure points, such as connectors and solder joints, resulting in improved reliability.
  3. Greater design flexibility: The ability to bend and fold the flexible sections allows for more creative and compact designs that can fit into unique form factors.
  4. Reduced assembly time and costs: With fewer components and connections to assemble, rigid-flex PCBs can be manufactured more quickly and at a lower cost than traditional rigid PCBs.

Applications of Rigid-flex PCBs

Rigid-flex PCBs are used in a wide range of applications, including:

  • Wearable electronics
  • Medical devices
  • Aerospace and defense systems
  • Automotive electronics
  • Consumer electronics
  • Industrial automation

Materials and Layers in Rigid-flex PCB Design

Flexible Substrates

The most common flexible substrate materials used in rigid-flex PCB design are:

  1. Polyimide (PI): Known for its excellent thermal and chemical resistance, as well as its ability to withstand repeated flexing.
  2. Polyester (PET): A lower-cost alternative to polyimide, suitable for less demanding applications.

Rigid Substrates

Rigid sections of a rigid-flex PCB are typically made from the same materials as traditional rigid PCBs, such as:

  1. FR-4: A glass-reinforced epoxy laminate, widely used for its good mechanical and electrical properties.
  2. High-Tg FR-4: A variant of FR-4 with improved thermal resistance, suitable for high-temperature applications.
  3. Ceramic: Used in high-frequency and high-power applications due to its excellent electrical and thermal properties.

Conductive Materials

Copper is the most common conductive material used in rigid-flex PCBs, available in various thicknesses and grades:

  1. Electrodeposited (ED) copper: A thin, low-profile copper layer, suitable for fine-pitch traces and high-density designs.
  2. Rolled annealed (RA) copper: A thicker, more durable copper layer, suitable for power and ground planes.

Adhesives and Coverlay

Adhesives and coverlay materials are used to bond the flexible and rigid sections together and protect the exposed copper traces on the flexible sections:

  1. Acrylic adhesives: Provide a strong, flexible bond between the layers.
  2. Polyimide coverlay: A thin, protective layer that covers and insulates the exposed copper traces on the flexible sections.

Designing Rigid-flex PCBs

Designing the Flexible Sections

When designing the flexible sections of a rigid-flex PCB, consider the following:

  1. Bend radius: Ensure that the minimum bend radius is appropriate for the chosen substrate material and thickness to prevent damage during flexing.
  2. Trace routing: Route traces perpendicular to the bend axis to minimize stress during flexing, and avoid placing vias or components near the bend area.
  3. Stiffeners: Use stiffeners to reinforce the transition areas between rigid and flexible sections, reducing stress on the traces and components.

Designing the Rigid Sections

The rigid sections of a rigid-flex PCB are designed similarly to traditional rigid PCBs:

  1. Component placement: Optimize component placement for manufacturability, signal integrity, and thermal management.
  2. Trace routing: Follow best practices for trace width, spacing, and impedance control to ensure proper signal integrity.
  3. Power and ground planes: Use solid power and ground planes to reduce EMI and improve power distribution.

Layer Stackup

A well-designed layer stackup is crucial for the performance and reliability of a rigid-flex PCB:

  1. Symmetry: Ensure that the layer stackup is symmetric to minimize warpage and improve manufacturability.
  2. Signal layers: Alternate signal layers between power and ground planes to minimize crosstalk and improve signal integrity.
  3. Shielding: Use shielding layers to protect sensitive signals from EMI and crosstalk.

Simulation and Analysis

Before finalizing the design, perform simulations and analyses to verify its performance and reliability:

  1. Signal integrity analysis: Simulate the behavior of critical signals to ensure proper timing, impedance matching, and minimize reflections and crosstalk.
  2. Thermal analysis: Analyze the thermal performance of the design to ensure that components operate within their specified temperature ranges.
  3. Mechanical analysis: Simulate the mechanical stresses on the flexible sections to ensure that they can withstand repeated flexing without damage.

Manufacturing Considerations

Fabrication Process

The fabrication process for rigid-flex PCBs involves several steps:

  1. Lamination: The flexible and rigid substrates are laminated together using adhesives and heat and pressure.
  2. Drilling: Holes are drilled through the rigid sections for vias and component mounting.
  3. Plating: Copper is plated onto the drilled holes and traces to create electrical connections.
  4. Etching: Unwanted copper is etched away, leaving the desired traces and pads.
  5. Solder mask and silkscreen: A protective solder mask is applied, and silkscreen markings are added for component identification.

Design for Manufacturing (DFM)

To ensure a smooth manufacturing process and high yield, follow these DFM guidelines:

  1. Minimum feature sizes: Adhere to the manufacturer’s minimum recommended feature sizes for traces, spaces, and holes.
  2. Panelization: Design the board to fit efficiently on a standard manufacturing panel, minimizing waste and maximizing yield.
  3. Tolerances: Specify appropriate tolerances for critical dimensions, such as hole sizes and trace widths.
  4. Testability: Include test points and other features that facilitate automated testing and inspection.

Advanced Techniques for Rapid Rigid-flex PCB Design

Modular Design

Break down the design into smaller, modular sections that can be designed and tested independently:

  1. Functional blocks: Divide the design into functional blocks, such as power supply, RF, and digital sections.
  2. ReusaBLE Modules: Create reusable modules that can be easily integrated into multiple designs, reducing design time and effort.

Automated Design Tools

Utilize automated design tools to streamline the design process:

  1. Schematic capture: Use schematic capture tools with built-in libraries and design rule checks to quickly create accurate schematics.
  2. PCB layout: Employ PCB layout tools with auto-routing, auto-placement, and design rule checking capabilities to accelerate the layout process.
  3. 3D modeling: Use 3D modeling tools to visualize the final assembled board and check for mechanical fit and clearance issues.

Collaboration and Version Control

Implement collaboration and version control tools to facilitate teamwork and manage design revisions:

  1. Cloud-based platforms: Use cloud-based design platforms that allow multiple team members to work on the same design simultaneously.
  2. Version control systems: Employ version control systems, such as Git, to track changes, manage branches, and merge contributions from different team members.

Design Reuse and Templates

Develop a library of reusable designs and templates to accelerate future projects:

  1. Component libraries: Create and maintain a library of commonly used components, with pre-verified footprints and schematic symbols.
  2. Design templates: Develop a set of design templates for common board types and form factors, including layer stackups, design rules, and basic component placement.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)

  1. Q: What is the minimum bend radius for a rigid-flex PCB?
    A: The minimum bend radius depends on the substrate material, thickness, and copper weight. As a general rule, the minimum bend radius should be at least 6 times the total thickness of the flexible section.

  2. Q: Can rigid-flex PCBs be used in high-temperature environments?
    A: Yes, rigid-flex PCBs can be designed for high-temperature applications by using appropriate substrate materials, such as polyimide or high-Tg FR-4, and by carefully considering the thermal expansion properties of the materials.

  3. Q: How can I ensure the reliability of a rigid-flex PCB design?
    A: To ensure the reliability of a rigid-flex PCB design, follow best practices for flexible section design, use appropriate materials and layer stackups, perform thorough simulations and analyses, and adhere to DFM guidelines during manufacturing.

  4. Q: What are the most common failures in rigid-flex PCBs?
    A: The most common failures in rigid-flex PCBs include delamination of the flexible sections, cracking of copper traces due to repeated flexing, and solder joint failures due to mechanical stress.

  5. Q: How can I reduce the cost of rigid-flex PCB design and manufacturing?
    A: To reduce the cost of rigid-flex PCB design and manufacturing, consider using lower-cost substrate materials where appropriate, optimize the design for manufacturability, and leverage design reuse and automation tools to minimize design time and effort.


Rigid-flex PCB design offers numerous advantages over traditional rigid PCBs, including reduced size and weight, improved reliability, and greater design flexibility. By understanding the key concepts, materials, and techniques involved in rigid-flex PCB design, and by leveraging advanced techniques for rapid design, engineers can create high-performance, reliable, and cost-effective rigid-flex PCBs for a wide range of applications.

As the demand for smaller, more complex electronic devices continues to grow, the importance of mastering rigid-flex PCB design skills will only increase. By staying up-to-date with the latest tools, techniques, and best practices, and by continuously refining their skills, engineers can position themselves at the forefront of this exciting and rapidly evolving field.

Comparison Rigid PCBs Rigid-flex PCBs
Size and weight Larger and heavier due to connectors and cables Smaller and lighter due to integrated design
Reliability More potential failure points due to connectors and solder joints Improved reliability due to fewer potential failure points
Design flexibility Limited by the need for connectors and cables Greater flexibility due to the ability to bend and fold
Assembly time and costs Longer assembly time and higher costs due to more components and connections Reduced assembly time and costs due to fewer components and connections
Typical applications Consumer electronics, industrial automation, telecommunications Wearable electronics, medical devices, aerospace and defense systems, automotive electronics