Star Trek: Laying a Path for Technology of Tomorrow, Today

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Tomorrow is Yesterday
In 1966, when Star Trek first aired, PCBs were in their infancy. A handful of components mounted to a double-sided board with 6-mil traces was on the leading edge of electronics. Since then, much of electronic innovation has been driven by PCB technology. Could the trends in PCB innovation have been predicted at that time? Perhaps through science fiction like Star Trek we can boldly explore our own final frontier.

Star Trek has always taken the universe it inhabits very seriously, always stretching our current understanding of technology by creating a world where we accept the extraordinary as possible. They have done this by taking our understanding of current technology and extending it to its logical and plausible extremes.

This methodology has amazingly predicted cellphones, voice-activated computers, and transparent aluminum, but can it be used within the PCB industry? The demand for more complex PCBs has resulted in new and enhanced design demands and production technologies, processes, and materials that not necessarily have gone hand-in-hand along the way. Did Star Trek work to predict this?

Mirror Mirror
Let’s start with reviewing the main forces that have driven PCB technology in the recent decades—and most likely will keep driving it for years to come.

Star Trek
technology has always focused on miniaturization; the original series featured tiny cathode ray tubes on portable scanners. Over the run of the show, communicators shrank from hand-held devices to pins worn on your clothing.

Miniaturization has been so ubiquitous within our society that it has been reflected within the series reboots. In the Kelvin timeline (alternate reality), Hikaru Sulu, for example, carries a folding sword, a gadget that he likely keeps on hand in case of an impromptu polywater intoxication.

Since the early 2000s, every one of us has owned a handheld device that would outperform the most powerful supercomputer of the 1960s. Under the hood, smartphones hide multilayer, high-density boards with hundreds of components under severe physical size and weight restriction.

Computational Power
At the same time we see miniaturization of hand-held technology within the universe, we have also seen examples of the opposite happening—each iteration of the Enterprise is a little bigger, many of the ships larger. A good comparison might be looking at the size of the Doomsday machine in the original series to the Dyson Sphere in Star Trek: The Next Generation. The second is orders of magnitude larger than the first. When relaunching the series, there has always been some element of superpower present. Whether it is V'Ger in Star Trek: The Motion Picture, or the Narada, Nero’s ship from the 2009 movie, size, power, and complexity are always present.

In reality, autonomous cars, electric vehicles, medical electronic instruments, internet-of-things devices—all these and more require complex and powerfully interconnected electronics. Industry is moving toward a more collaborative manufacturing experience, with cloud-based DFM tools like PCBflow enabling and streamlining this collaboration, your fabrication partner’s manufacturing constraints are instantly available to you.

To read this entire article, which appeared in the June 2021 issue of Design007 Magazine, click here.


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