What Is Characteristic Impedance in PCB Manufacturing?

Have you ever heard the term “characteristic impedance” when it comes to PCB manufacturing? Are you confused about what it actually means and how it can impact your PCB designs?

PCB manufacturing can be a complex process, involving a variety of factors that impact the performance of your final product. Among these factors is the characteristic impedance of your PCBs.

If you want your PCB designs to function optimally, it is essential to understand what characteristic impedance is and why it matters. In this article, we will explore the concept of characteristic impedance, how it relates to PCB manufacturing, and why it is so important for ensuring the performance and reliability of your final product. So let’s dive in and explore this important concept in detail.

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    What Is the Impedance of a Circuit?

    Characteristic impedance refers to the total electrical impedance on a transmission line, such as the traces on the PCB. Electrical signals experience impedance as they travel the PCB traces.

    The impedance is the total opposition to the flow of AC signals. It is the combination of resistance and reactance that the signal experiences.

    Resistance is opposition to the AC signal due to the resistance provided by different components, including resistors. Resistance is measured in ohms (Ω). The resistance level remains constant, no matter the frequency of the electrical signal.

    Reactance is opposition to the AC signal from reactive components, including capacitors and inductors. Reactance is also measured using ohms, but the value varies depending on the frequency of the signal.

    Increasing the impedance on the transmission line limits the flow of the AC signal. Lowering the impedance allows the signal to flow with less restriction.

    Increasing or decreasing the impedance is necessary in a variety of situations, as it gives you more control over the AC signal.

    When to Use Controlled Impedance?

    Controlled impedance is used to maintain a consistent AC signal across a transmission line, such as the PCB traces.

    Characteristic impedance is the impedance of a trace in isolation while controlled impedance is the impedance achieved using different components, PCB layouts, and PCB design elements.

    Controlled impedance is frequently used for the following types of applications:

    • RF circuits
    • High-speed digital signals
    • High-frequency analog circuits
    • Differential signaling

    RF circuits require precision. Impedance matching is necessary for reducing signal loss while maximizing power. Without controlled impedance, the circuit is likely to suffer from signal degradation.

    High-speed digital signals may require controlled impedance to minimize crosstalk, distortion, and other elements that degrade the quality of the signal. Any errors could corrupt the data and prevent proper communication.

    High-frequency analog circuits that operate at high frequencies typically benefit from impedance control. For example, analog audio and video circuits typically include controlled impedance to help maintain the fidelity of the signal and prevent distortion.

    Differential signaling requires controlled impedance. Mismatched impedances can cause one signal to pick up noise from the other signal.

    These are a few of the situations where you may want to control impedance. The bottom line is that controlled impedance is beneficial whenever you need to minimize signal degradation and optimize the performance of the circuit.

    How to Calculate the Impedance of a Circuit?

    Calculate Impedance

    Impedance is represented using the “Z” symbol and measured using ohms (Ω). The impedance of a circuit includes the total impedance of the components that impact the current on a PCB trace.

    The two main components of characteristic impedance include resistance (R) and reactance (X). Reactance may include capacitive reactance (XC) and inductive reactance (XL).

    When the resistors, capacitors, and inductors are placed in a series instead of a parallel layout, the total impedance is equal to the sum of each component. When placed in a parallel circuit, a more complex formula is required.

    Impedance calculators are also available to help determine the impedance of a circuit. Other considerations include the characteristics of the trace, including its thickness and width. You also need to consider the distance from the signal layer.

    Why Is Impedance Control for PCBs Necessary?

    Impedance control is necessary for maintaining the integrity of a signal. It helps ensure consistent transmission across the length of a transmission line.

    Here are some of the reasons for impedance control in PCB design:

    • Clean power
    • Optimized performance
    • Better control of current
    • Managing EMI

    Many of these benefits are related to a reduction in crosstalk, electromagnetic interference (EMI), distortion, and noise.

    Impedance matching helps limit standing waves, signal attenuation, and other issues that result in signal distortion. It also minimizes crosstalk between adjacent traces by coupling the separate transmission lines.

    Clean Power

    Increasing the frequency or voltage of an AC signal can lead to a greater risk of crosstalk and EMI. Surges are also more of a threat without impedance control.

    Impedance control helps deliver clean power across the entire length of a trace. Without impedance control, you could not ensure that maximum signal power travels the entire trace or circuit.

    Optimized Performance

    Impedance control can improve the performance of the PCB by stabilizing the AC signal. Preventing distortion, noise, and EMI helps improve signal integrity (SI). SI helps a signal travel the entire transmission line without experiencing a reduction in quality.

    Along with protecting signal integrity, controlled impedance helps the PCB utilize less energy. It can perform faster with less energy, which results in greater reliability and longer service life.

    Better Control of Current

    Impedance control allows you to control the flow of energy. You can impede the voltage or frequency of a circuit, such as filtering an AC signal in an amplifier circuit.

    Controlling the flow of energy is also necessary with RF applications and projects that involve working with high power.

    Managing Electromagnetic Interference

    Managing EMI is a concern for almost any PCB design. With controlled impedance, you can isolate the AC power signal from DC components.

    AC power signals are a common source for EMI. Cleaning the power source and isolating it from the DC circuit helps ensure proper performance.

    How Do I Control the Impedances?

    You can control the impedance of an AC signal or any other trace in a PCB design using resistors, capacitors, inductors, and specific design choices.

    For example, adjusting the trace width, length, or thickness can alter its impedance. A shorter, wider, thinner trace will have less impedance compared to a longer, narrower, thicker trace.

    Some of the design features that impact impedance include the use of additional PCB layers and a solder mask. Incorporating additional layers or a solder mask can ensure consistent impedance across a trace while providing a protective layer against damage or EMI.

    Line geometry also influences impedance. Line geometry refers to the length and cross-sections of electrical traces on the PCB. For example, the placement of a trace may increase or decrease the risk of EMI and crosstalk.

    Computer-aided design (CAD) software and PCB software can also help include impedance matching in the PCB design.

    When adding a schematic to PCB software, you can specify the impedance of each component. The software helps track total impedance and all relevant factors, simplifying the entire process.


    Impedance control is a necessary part of PCB design. You need to consider the characteristic impedance of a trace carrying an AC signal to ensure that it does not interfere with the performance of the rest of the circuit.

    You can control impedance by adjusting the trace width, thickness, or length. The use of resistors, capacitors, and inductors also influences the total impedance of the circuit. 


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