Peter Bigelow
Be judicious when studying “game-changing” technologies.

Over the past several years a host of individuals and companies have made major strides to “simplify” the manufacturing process associated with the fabrication of printed circuit boards. These process eliminations, consolidations, re-engineering – or whatever you want to collectively call them – have been intended to reduce variation during production, as well as reduce the cost of manufacturing. Both are worthy goals.

As you might expect, not all these innovations have had the same impact. If you look at the glass as half full, some have been more successful than others. If you look at the glass as half empty, some have been less successful than others. And which way you view the glass usually depends on the type of product you manufacture and if you design, fabricate or assemble the board.

Certainly some of the new, simplifying technological breakthroughs appear to be becoming new industry norms. Direct imaging is one such case. Historically, one of the biggest opportunities to reduce variation on manufacturing has been where film meets panel. Imaging has been possibly the biggest single area to make or break a design, due simply to the accuracy and consistency of registration. A challenge in the days of 12/12 lines and traces, this is almost impossible with the new norm of closer to 3/3. The continual shrinking cost of capital equipment combined with rapid technology improvement enabling longer equipment life and lower maintenance costs make this a prime example of where the glass is half full, and industry benefits from a universally applicable process simplification.

I wish everything were transitioning as smoothly.

From my vantage point, it seems many simplification efforts, no matter how well planned, have not panned out quite as intended. Instead of simplification the result too often is complication in the form of repetitive processes, or an application-driven decision tree, leading to virtually every permutation and combination a bright designer could imagine.

Take surface finishes. Ah yes, in the days of tin-lead the decision was simple: Do you use tin-lead or, because the military has no budget constraint, gold? The options were few and relatively simple.

Then came RoHS and the lead-free movement. We as an industry are all still working our way through all of the ramifications of this not-sought-after “simplification.” The process of identifying a single option to replace the one tried-and-true plating scheme that worked has proved elusive and anything but simplifying. The problem is that in tin-lead’s place came at least five different potential replacements, each with its own nuances depending on the supplier and application. Each supplier, being a champion of its specific formula, provided the best available research and data possible. And of course the research that each provided was initially inconclusive, so customers were left to their own devices to choose which surface finish they thought might work best in their application.

When customers are left to their own devices in a non-value-adding decision tree, the one thing you can be assured of is that each and every branch of that decision tree was climbed before they decided not to make a universal decision. So fabricators responded in the only non-value-added way they seem to know how: by adding all the surface finish options hoping one might become “the” definitive replacement.

Sadly, none has. What has resulted instead is a far more complicated manufacturing process as customers combine different surface finishes in search of a bulletproof option, and try to standardize despite the inherent differing qualities of each option, with none universally appropriate. In the case of surface finishes I would argue the glass is indeed half empty.

In an industry inherently and continually under pressure to reduce cost, shorten cycle time, and eliminate production variations, we collectively need more wins, such as direct imaging appears to be, rather than exponentially increasing the number of options – and the resultant costs and variations – that the problematic surface finish challenge has saddled us with.  

There are lessons here, lessons we all need to pay attention to.

First, when intelligent people harness new technology on a common limiting process such as imaging, very promising improvements can be realized. There are new ways to skin the old cat, and these improvements can be game-changers, as well as potentially cost-savers. Truly, with simplification the glass can be half full.

Second, improvements that aren’t universally applicable but pitched as being the elusive “one size fits all” breakthrough, as impressive as they may sound – or are in some situations – may well be an Achilles heel that will hinder the manufacturing process in terms of costs, variability and value. We must be diligent, using rigorous analysis and verification, to avoid processes that are oversold but underperform.

Third, the ability to provide variability in manufacturing processes may in itself be a value-add opportunity rather than a costly problem. Let’s face it, between different materials, customer requirements and demanding end-applications, a flexible manufacturing offering may require some processes have greater variability. Sometimes, how that variability is managed is more beneficial than eliminating it completely. We must choose wisely when embarking on simplifying manufacturing processes.

Finally, if a process simplification does not improve overall quality, add to overall capability, or have a measurable, favorable impact on cost, it most likely is not worth the effort.

Many very interesting – and promising – technologies may be game-changers for us all. Some, such as conductive inks, have been around for decades but to date are just not ready for prime time. Others, such as 3D printing, are emerging, and may transform the industry in ways unimaginable just a few years ago. We need to be aware and inquisitive about all but not allow ourselves to become too mesmerized by any until they demonstrate tangible and proven value. A glass half full will continue to fill, while the half empty one will drain!

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

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