What is Electronic Packaging?

G.W. Poulos

Despite its name, electronic packaging does not refer to the packaging involved in the shipment of electronics or the sales packaging containing electronic devices or components seen in stores. Instead, electronic packaging refers to the method of enclosing, protecting or providing physical structure to either electronic components, assemblies of components or finished electronic devices. For example, a DVD player is an electronic assembly packaged in a rectangular metal case that both protects it and allows for the placement of buttons that are used to operate the device as well as the connectors needed to connect the DVD player to other devices. Likewise, an integrated circuit, often called an IC or chip, is packaged into an electronic packaging consisting of a small black epoxy encasement that allows the device to be handled without damaging it and to be soldered onto a circuit board.

The sheet metal enclosure of an electronic device can be considered electronic packaging.
The sheet metal enclosure of an electronic device can be considered electronic packaging.

Electronics packaging often involves a series of different electronics packages. For example, a series of integrated circuits, each in its own electronics package, are soldered onto a circuit board along with other devices, such as diodes and resistors, each of which is also in its own electronics package. The circuit board itself can be considered an electronics package as well, as it provides a place and method to connect the integrated circuits, diodes and resistors as well as a stable structure that can be attached to a framework. The framework, too, is an electronics package, as it provides the structure needed to collect the circuit boards into a larger, single assembly. That larger assembly may then be placed into a sheet metal case, which is an electronics package that consumers can easily identify as a DVD player.

Today's integrated circuit electronic packaging, used in cell phones and tablets, is designed to withstand reasonable drops and rough handling.
Today's integrated circuit electronic packaging, used in cell phones and tablets, is designed to withstand reasonable drops and rough handling.

The skills and qualifications needed to work in electronic packaging vary greatly, depending on the scale of the electronics involved and the final end use of the package in question. For example, the CPU in a computer contains within it a silicon chip, which is an electronics package containing all the transistors and other electronic circuits that make up the CPU. A cell phone is contained in a plastic electronics package that protects it from dust and dirt as well as allows for placement of all the buttons and displays needed to use the phone. As can clearly be seen, designing a microscopic CPU chip requires far different skills than designing a flashy case for a cell phone.

On the smaller end of the scale, primary electronic components such as resistors and CPU chips are usually packaged in plastic or epoxy, though sometimes glass is also used. If the component emits interference or is required to endure high temperatures, it can also be placed in an additional outer electronic package made of metal. An important part of packaging primary electronic components is the means that the package provides for connecting the components to other components. Sometimes this is accomplished though a set of small metallic leads that fit into a socket-type device, such as with a CPU. Other times the device’s package has a series of long, metal leads for soldering onto a circuit board, such as is the case with resistors.

Once a set of primary components is assembled into a larger assembly, there are other options for packaging these assemblies. Sometimes a circuit board itself can be an electronics package, though, usually circuit boards and similar assemblies are enclosed in another type of electronics package. The type of package used usually is determined by the use of the assembly or the conditions in which it will be used. For example, a circuit board can be screwed onto a framework that simply holds it in place; it can, however, be encased in plastic or resin in order to make it waterproof. It can also be enclosed in a sheet, cast or machined metal case to prevent it from being affected by circuit noise, or the case can be airtight to create a hermetic seal that prevents the assembly from being affected by atmospheric conditions.

Finally, there is the external electronic packaging which makes up the assembly’s outer shell, such as the sheet metal case on a DVD player. In consumer electronics this type of packaging’s design is often driven by consumer appeal; in industrial applications, however, it can be a complicated design that protects it from extreme heat, moisture or other environmental conditions. Often this type of packaging isn’t designed to keep things out as much to keep things in, such as is the case with packaging designed to enclose high-voltage components in a safe manner.

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