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What’s the Difference Between Potting and Conformal Coating?

Posted by Sean Horn

Friday, January 22, 2016 9:00

@ 9:00 AM

What’s-the-Difference-Between-Potting-and-Conformal-Coating

Printed circuit boards (PCBs) are an essential element of all electronic devices. Manufacturers must choose an appropriate method to protect their product’s most critical components from damage.

That’s where this comparison of potting vs. conformal coating becomes invaluable — helping you select the right method of protection for your application and requirements.

What is Conformal Coating?

Conformal coatings are protective, non-conductive dielectric layers that are added to a circuit board or electronic device.

thermally-conductive-potting

The coating “conforms” to the object being coated — often referred to as the “substrate” — allowing protection without significant additions to the weight or thickness of the device.

What is Potting?

Potting, sometimes called embedment, is also designed to protect a device from the surrounding environment. But instead of adding a coating, potting uses a “pot” or shell to encase the board or device.

The potting process begins when the substrate is placed inside the pot. A liquid compound is then poured into the pot, filling it and covering the device completely. The liquid hardens, encasing the device inside it. The pot and the hardened compound surrounding the device become part of the final product.

Potting is a common technique for protecting printed circuit boards (PCBs), especially in high-volume production facilities.

Similarities Between Potting and Conformal Coating

Potting and conformal coating both use organic polymers to achieve similar goals:

  • Prevent the substrate from failing in harsh environments or from vibrations.
  • Protect the substrate from minor impacts, corrosion and other potentially damaging hazards.
  • Increase the electrical performance of a circuit board through shielding.

Each method can be effective when used in the right situation.

When Should I Use Potting?

Potting is the clear choice for impact resistance.

If your device needs to withstand potential impact damage or rough mechanical abrasion, potting will provide the best level of protection. Potting is also a good candidate if you need:

  • Significant vibration dampening
  • Heat dissipation
  • Privacy and security

By using colored potting compounds, potting can obscure the circuit board or device. This can prevent someone else from reverse engineering your product.

Potting’s biggest drawback is that it creates an extremely thick block compared to conformal coating methods. For this reason, potting is not a good choice if your device has thickness or weight restrictions.

When Should I Use Conformal Coating?

Conformal coating is extremely thin, making it an excellent choice for many circuit boards and devices, especially those with strict weight or thickness restrictions.

Circuit boards in mobile devices, for example, are often placed in extremely small spaces. In situations like these, the conformal coating provides greater flexibility to make it an ideal option.

Type Full Name Thickness when applied
Type AR Acrylic Resin 0.00118 to 0.00512 in.
Type ER Epoxy Resin 0.00118 to 0.00512 in.
Type UR Polyurethane Resin 0.00118 to 0.00512 in.
Type SR Silicone Resin 0.00197 to 0.00827 in.
Type XY Parylene Resin 0.000394 to 0.00197 in.

Which Is Better? Conformal Coatings vs. Potting Compounds

As with any engineering decision, the needs of your device will determine which protection is best. Both potting and conformal coating provide a degree of dielectric protection, and both can protect against:

  • Corrosion
  • Salt
  • Acids
  • Bases
  • Most solvents

Potting and Encapsulation: Pros and Cons

Potting is a popular choice because it is fast and easy to apply on assembly lines or in high-volume production environments. The thicker protection offers more durability and resilience than conformal coatings.

PCB potting offers several benefits:

  • High resistance to heat, chemicals, vibration and environmental hazards
  • Increased durability against impacts and abrasions
  • Greater protection against water and electrical arcs
  • Additional design security with dark-colored potting compounds
  • Easy and quick to use in high-volume applications

A device protected by PCB potting, however, is much more challenging to work with than a device that has been coated. Potted devices are complicated to rework since removing the potting often destroys the circuit board or device underneath. Other disadvantages include:

  • Significant weight increase
  • Inflexibility
  • Higher costs
  • Added process steps

Most manufactured devices and components require thorough inspection before they can be used in the field. Not only are potted parts challenging to change or repair, but the dark coloring also makes them harder to inspect.

Conformal Coating: Pros and Cons

Because they are so thin, conformal coatings are the clear choice when tolerances are tight. The translucent quality of the coatings also makes them the right choice when an item needs to be visible. Potting a device with an indicator light, for example, defeats the purpose of having the light in the first place.

Other benefits of conformal coatings include:

  • Excellent protection against corrosion and particulate matter.
  • Minimal contribution to the overall weight of devices.
  • Long life expectancy.
  • Flexible design.
  • Relatively low expense.
  • Reduced need for complex enclosures.

Conformal coatings take up much less space in a device enclosure than PCB potting. The lightweight layer places little to no physical stress on the substrate. Additionally, PCBs with conformal coatings are less challenging to rework, repair and inspect.

While conformal coating has comparatively few downsides, it will not provide the same level of durability and resilience as PCB potting. This factor can lead to minimal protection against heavy-duty threats. However, many different conformal coating materials provide a range of options for manufacturers that require the pros of conformal coating.

The 5 Types of Conformal Coatings

There are five types of conformal coating.

Four of the five — acrylic, epoxy, polyurethane, and silicone — are applied by either brushing, spraying, or dipping the coating on the substrate, then letting it dry. The fifth coating type — Parylene — is applied using a unique vapor-phase polymerization process.

Each type of coating has its own benefits.

Acrylic Resin (Type AR)

Acrylic conformal coatings are fungus resistant and can easily be applied. They dry to the touch at room temperature in minutes and have excellent electrical and physical properties. Acrylic coatings are typically applied at 0.002 to 0.005 inches thick. Most variations cure in as little as 30 minutes, making them a great choice when you need a short turnaround time.

Most popular acrylic coatings are not good choices for high-temperature environments. They can usually only withstand temperatures of up to 125 degrees Celsius.

Epoxy Resin (Type ER)

Epoxy conformal coatings are “two-component” compounds. They deliver a rugged coating with good resistance to damage from humidity, high abrasion, or chemicals.

Epoxy coatings are known for their extreme hardness, making them a good choice when you need toughness and durability.

Their extreme hardness means rework and repair are difficult. Extreme temperatures also tend to reduce the stress resistance properties of epoxy coatings.

Polyurethane Resin (Type UR)

Polyurethane (also called “urethane”) conformal coatings deliver excellent humidity and chemical resistance. Polyurethane is often the optimal choice for devices that will be exposed to chemical solvents. Its dielectric properties also promote miniaturization because it insulates signal traces from circuits that are close together.

Polyurethane provides humidity, abrasion, and chemical resistance. It retains high dielectric properties over time and is one of a few methods to prevent against tin whisker growth.

Polyurethane’s resistance to solvents means it can be difficult to remove or rework. It also doesn’t do well in high-vibration or high-heat environments.

Silicone (Type SR)

Silicone conformal coatings perform well in high-temperature environments, even up to 200 degrees Celsius. That makes silicone a popular choice for automotive applications. It also has a resistance to humidity and corrosion and can be applied in thicker layers than other coatings, promoting vibration damping.

Silicone is less resistant to abrasion and solvents than other coatings. It also requires more care to apply correctly.

Parylene (Type XY)

Parylene is often considered the “gold standard” of conformal coatings. Unlike the other coatings, Parylene conformal coatings are applied using a unique vapor phase polymerization process.

Parylene’s application begins with a raw parylene dimer. The dimer is placed in a loading boat inside a vaporizer.

The powdery dimer is heated to 100-150 degrees Celsius, converting it from a solid into a gas. The gas is then heated to 680 degrees Celsius. At this higher temperature, the parylene gas splits from a polymer into a monomer, causing a single molecule vapor to be formed.

The gas is pulled through a vacuum into an attached coating chamber, where it evenly coats the surface of the circuit board or device placed there by the operator.

Parylene-coated surfaces are exceptionally resilient, withstanding extremes in temperature and physical stress. The unique coating process makes Parylene coating the thinnest coating available, and it ensures a pinhole free application.

Parylene can be applied to virtually any surface and objects of any shape, including glass, metal, paper, resin, plastics, ceramics, ferrite, and silicon. Parylene is also completely inert, making it an excellent choice for implants and biomedical devices.

Rework is complex with Parylene due to its unique application process. Operators must also ensure the object to be coated is completely clean and that any areas not to be coated are meticulously masked.

Which Is Better to Protect My PCB?

The answer you’re searching for will rely less on which method is better, as both provide suitable protection in different applications. The best option will depend on the application for which you’re protecting electronic components.

Consider the device’s intended use, as well as the conditions it’ll endure both during manufacturing and in the field. These considerations should include:

  • The possible elements it’ll be exposed to in the use environment.
  • The expected conditions of the manufacturing process.
  • The design of the enclosure where the PCB will be housed.
  • Whether the device will include other protection from environmental factors.

When choosing between conformal coating vs. potting, the selection will depend upon the PCB’s purpose. While potting and encapsulation offer greater durability, your PCBs may not require that much protection. Depending on your application, the significant weight increase that comes with increased resistance could hinder other product requirements.

PCB potting is the ideal choice for heavy-duty applications and is often used for high-voltage electrical devices. Consider potted devices for environments with extreme conditions such as power plants, factories and mines. The increased durability is also beneficial for high-volume and high-speed production environments that could introduce scratches or abrasion.

Conformal coating is ideal for sensitive components and devices where size or form are critical concerns. Due to its lightweight and thin application, conformal coatings are the industry standard for smartphones and other handheld electronics.

How to Choose

Before you make a final decision, we recommend consulting with a team of experts.

Both potting and conformal coating are complex processes with unique variables that determine cost, effectiveness and turnaround time. Consulting a team of experts will help you choose the right protection for your project, budget, and timeline.

To learn more about how conformal coatings work, download our free guide.

Diamond-MT provides high-quality conformal coating services. Our team of experts is committed to providing the protective coatings and excellent service your project needs. Contact us to request a quote and get more information about our services.

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