Peter Bigelow

Amazing things sometimes happen at a snail’s pace.

As much as we are mesmerized by the paradigm-breaking, over-the-top, deal-breaking new thing, more often than not it’s the low-key evolution of tried-and-true technologies that are truly amazing.

Examples abound. When HDI technology was first bandied about, it seemed the deal-breaker. Yes, we all intuitively knew that advanced technology was demanding more functionality in less real estate, but still, holes that small – and all that went with them! Not many years later, just about every printed circuit board sports some aspect of HDI. Lines and spaces of once unthinkable size are now common. Miniature vias are being drilled using conventional mechanical drilling equipment, as well as with lasers. Plating technology has evolved to a much more refined level, as has the advent of conductive and nonconductive filled vias, etc. The once unthinkable is now built with tried-and-true equipment and processes, albeit significantly tweaked, once thought to be inconceivable for producing such advanced technology.

Printed electronics is another technology touted as a game-changer yet increasingly viewed as less replacement and more complementary technology. Many are toying with printing circuitry on more traditional materials via existing and proven processes. While in its transitional stages, it’s still following an evolutionary track toward prime time.

Nanotechnology is another “wow” that at first blush seems not just mind-blowing to comprehend but impossible to process. And yet materials are being developed and utilized that can be incorporated into fabricated and assembled product. More important, manufacturing is taking place on existing equipment via new or tweaked processes.

The common denominator for all these advancements is the need for smaller packages that perform more functions, faster, and in environments that (oxymoron alert) are both robust and lightweight. As we are creatures of habit, or more to the point, comfortable working with what we know rather than starting from scratch, our supply chain keeps showing its collective creativity and ingenuity to leverage existing processes and equipment to fabricate and assemble technology.

And much of the technological gains have not been just with radical new materials or technologies. Traditional materials, thanks to RoHS and designers’ demands for higher performance as measured by thermal shock, frequency and cost-effective manufacturability, have evolved to levels never imagined as recently as a decade ago. Ditto for surface finishes where the cost of precious metals combined with the exit of lead in manufacturing has forced everyone to revisit plating, etching, imaging and all the basic “blocking and tackling” processes that are rarely on designers’ radars but can make the difference between a functional product and scrap.

With all the advanced technologies we’ve been wowed by and then creatively integrated into the daily manufacturing playbook of standard capabilities, two critical aspects of technological transformation are all too often minimized or outright ignored. The first is clear communication to the designer or engineer who, even with the best due diligence, may not realize the nuances that could derail a great design. By nuances, while designers often focus on an emerging new technology offering much improved performance in a specific aspect of their design, they often are not aware of the collateral issues to consider to incorporate that technology: materials that change thermal characteristics that alter fabrication and assembly; tolerance issues that may compromise an overall design; material compatibility, especially in multilayer construction, etc. These finer points, the ones that give manufacturers fits, need to be communicated effectively so designers can be fully aware of the opportunities, as well as challenges, to meet their design spec. This communication is complicated, as often no two fabricators will achieve the desired results the exact same way, and often the results will be achieved but not quite as the material supplier’s website may explain it.

The good news here is that way more fabricators can provide much more complicated technology than some may think. The bad news is that everything is a compromise, and understanding those compromises requires significant communication among all parties involved.

The second critical aspect of new technology too often discounted is the availability of cost-effective and flexible capital equipment. Some kudos are due to the maintenance department, which often makes the difference by modifying ancient workhorses to achieve bleeding-edge results. Much like the Transformers of movie fame, almost every PCB fabricator and more than a few EMS companies have been able to modify older equipment and processes in creative ways to achieve results said equipment was never intended to deliver. This phenomenon may be the single reason much new technology has been commercialized.

When dealing with “new” that is being requested by “few,” it is difficult to warrant spending precious capital dollars to experiment. However, a relatively inexpensive existing piece of equipment combined with a clever maintenance staff can make possible new technological opportunities.

At what point will technology demands be too extreme for conventional equipment and processes? And if technology cannot be cost-effectively delivered on in-place manufacturing platforms, at what point will the designer need to seek a truly disruptive alternative option to meet their requirements?

Our industry has dodged this latter bullet for decades. Creative people breed innovation, and cost-weary end-customers resist change just for changes sake, instead embracing advances when they yield margins. That said, our industry needs to address how to bring the next-generation of creative thinkers into the fold so we can continue dodging the “obsolete” bullet and fuel the technological engine of advancement. Ditto for equipment manufacturers, which need to recognize that overly complex or single-focus platforms may actually retard long-term innovation and flexibility.

And let’s not forget the need to continually communicate with those who are designing the future. Only when everyone is fully aware of the mutual challenges, tradeoffs, and varied roads to achieve success will we as an industry maximize our collective success.

Peter Bigelow is president and CEO of IMI (imipcb.com); pbigelow@imipcb.com. His column appears monthly.

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