Miniaturization vs. Passive Function Integration

Miniaturization vs. Passive Function Integration

The ever-growing trend towards miniaturization and industry applications are driving top capacitor and other passive components manufacturers to create ever-smaller parts even as costs climb higher and higher. The question now becomes, at what point will buyers find those costs just too high and start looking for alternatives?

Miniaturization doesn’t just incur costs when the component itself is manufactured; in fact, the costs ripple down the entire supply chain. Custom packaging must be designed if the parts aren’t to be shipped in bulk, and tape & reel becomes unfeasible for some of the smallest sizes. Existing assembly machinery isn’t built to handle the new sizes, and new equipment capable of maintaining precision and quality at the new scale is expensive. Few EMSs (Electronic Manufacturing Services) have thus far bet on making that investment in equipment. Those that have felt little competitive pressure to lower their prices. Even at the design level, very specific rules are required to fully take advantage of the new components while avoiding problems such as parasitic capacitance and excessive heat.

But what can you, an engineer designing the latest in cutting-edge devices, do? Market pressure means you can’t simply just use bigger components when your competitors promise the moon and stars wrapped in a box small enough to fit twenty in your pocket. You simply have to pay the price if you want to compete… right?
Experts agree: the answer is a very definitive maybe.

Sorry, you were hoping something clearer, weren’t you?

See, using extremely tiny single components isn’t the only way to make your device smaller. You also have the option of integrating your passive components directly into your PCB or integrating them into a module with an IC. The passive components of your design are no longer limited by current assembly-machine restrictions and can be incredibly small. The number of parts you need to order individually is drastically reduced, and you eliminate multiple failure points. If you choose to use flexible materials, you can even form your PCB to fit exactly into its final destination, such as a curved dashboard in a car. Sounds like a win-win-win.

Of course, passive function integration costs quite a bit more than traditional PCB assembly or else it would already have been widely adopted some time ago. Like working with very small single components, not many manufacturers are currently equipped to make boards with passive function integration, and those that are are not all created equal. If the board is to made of silicon, for example, the manufacturer needs to be capable of semi-conductor tech. If they do have the equipment required, high set-up costs make manufacturing feasible only in very large volumes. Boards become more difficult to test and repair with capacitors and resistors buried in the multilayer.

That’s why industry experts right now are engaged a combination guessing-and-waiting game. Will customers continue to demand smaller and smaller circuitry despite the costs? Will prices rise high enough to make passive function integration economically competitive? If so, how quickly? How close are we to “black box” modules becoming common? Has the physical limit to how small passive components like capacitors can be reached, or will they shrink even further? Which manufacturers are best poised to take advantage of and profit from the new tech? We’ll know soon, but right now it’s anybody’s guess.