The Best Ways to Troubleshoot PCBs

When designing and modifying a Printed Circuit Board (PCB), it is important to ensure that the component requirements are considered and testing is completed. This can reduce the final costs and help reach your customers quicker. When you use faster PCB prototyping methods, you can help lower your costs while increasing your ability to reach your customers as quickly as possible.

Everyone knows that component failure and mistakes are unavoidable aspects of life, and, therefore, you should be prepared to experience some trouble during the prototyping phase. You will no doubt eventually find circuit boards that are made with mistakes and components that have been soldered in the wrong position or backward. Sometimes, components can go bad for no identifiable reason, which means you’re going to need a handy set of tricks that you can use to work your way through the troubleshooting process, which you will eventually experience.

Here are a few tips to keep in mind regarding the prototyping stage you can use to greatly speed up your PCB repair and rework process.

Troubleshooting PCBs

PCBs are usually made up of a bunch of copper traces and insulators that connect very dense components to create what has come to be known as a modern circuit. While more complicated PCBs will require more complex tools and equipment to properly troubleshoot, most boards can be effectively checked out by using very basic electronics to follow currents, signals, and traces through their configuration.

Equipment

PCBs are very simple to troubleshoot, and, because of this, there is not much equipment you will need in order to troubleshoot your average printed circuit board. The most versatile tool for troubleshooting PCBs is a multimeter. In cases when more complex technology is required in order to properly troubleshoot a PCB and trace a problem back to its source, you may need to use something like an LCR meter, an oscilloscope, or a power supply and logic analyzer. These are all tools that go beyond just simple troubleshooting and can reach deeply into the operational behavior of the PCB itself.

Methods for Troubleshooting

There are a few methods for troubleshooting, the first of which is the visual method. This consists of conducting a visual inspection of the PCB, although this approach is not very good for noticing problems that aren’t on the very surface. You can, however, notice things like shorted traces, overheating symptoms, and missing or fried components by performing a visual inspection. Bulging components are another sign that something is wrong, especially concerning electrolytic capacitors.

Sometimes a fried component that has been damaged due to excessive current flowing through it cannot be easily identified with a visual inspection, but a magnified visual inspection will usually be able to pick up on it. Another method is to physically inspect the PCB when power is applied to it. You can touch components on the board and the PCB to identify hot-spots. This will save you the use of a thermographic camera, which can cost a lot.

Often, the most effective way to troubleshoot a PCB is by testing its components. There is also a method of troubleshooting PCBs know as “Nodal Analysis” which allows for unpowered testing of the components on a PCB. This is done by applying power only to the single component being tested and measuring the voltage vs. the current response it provides.

Testing basic PCBs is relatively simple. However, when you’re working with more complex features such as integrated circuits combined with different PCB designs, it can make it very difficult to accurately test a PCB. For situations like this, one very useful trick is to compare the behavior of the problematic circuit to another circuit that is working normally. This will help you identify anomalous behavior where you would not otherwise be able to detect it.

PCB troubleshooting, however, is not for the faint of heart. It can sometimes require incredible resources of willpower that could fatigue someone in minutes without the right tools. When you know what to look for and how to look for it, however, you will be much better off. You won’t need much special equipment beyond a multimeter unless your PCBs are super complex, and there are many problems you can identify with either a visual inspection or a more thorough magnified inspection.

Testing individual components, however, is one of the best ways to troubleshoot a PCB, because you can apply power to each circuit to quickly find out which one is the cause of a problem. Troubleshooting PCBs can put a huge hiccup in your manufacturing process, but if you know the right tips and tricks, you can save yourself a great deal of time and effort.

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