The New Technology Spin Print E-mail
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Written by Peter Bigelow   
Friday, 28 September 2012 15:31

When “enabling” really signifies the gap between design awareness and manufacturing ability.

More often than not over the past decade, the various new technologies, processes and options we fabricators have been asked, begged or threatened by customers to add to our repertoire of offerings have appeared to be ones that might best be considered “disruptive.” Less well understood is just how disruptive these technologies are, because while appearing benign to the casual observer – often the technology – or process – that is most disruptive is a simple one.

Indeed, some disruptive, cutting-edge technology is nothing more than the rebirth of an older, tried-and-true, albeit significantly tweaked, process. RoHS certainly has caused much disruption, and yet most of the surface finishes being used to replace good old HASL are nothing more than highly refined formulas of older plating technologies such as ENIG and tin.

Old or new, disruptive technologies tend to be challenging for several reasons. The first is just understanding what and how to use the technology so
it works as intended. Second is figuring out what equipment will be needed to cost-effectively and robustly bring the new technology in-house. Finally, there is finding enough customers to consistently order product utilizing the technology so everyone remembers what and how to process it!

And then there are truly new, paradigm shifting technologies that hit the scene as a “must have” so that a product can function. While being disruptive to a manufacturer, in some ways the more off the wall a technology seems, the easier it is to either embrace it – or wait and see if it sinks under the weight of its own hype. More typically, these technologies challenge one’s understanding, not only of how to apply them, but how to measure success so that yields and costs can be determined.

In all cases, what makes disruptive technologies so, well, disruptive, boils down to two issues: First is affording the learning curve and capital investment to provide the technology; second is attaining customer consensus that the technology is a better alternative to more traditional ones, and that they will purchase in sufficient quantity to warrant the human and capital investment. Probably the most frustrating aspect for fabricators comes from learning a buyer is pushing a new technology for no apparent reason other than “because.” When all you want to do is supply a customer with quality product that you understand and can safely and consistently produce, the last thing you want to do is inadvertently become their R&D center, bearing the risk and cost.

But there are two sides to every story – or new technology.

At a recent industry gathering, while asking a supplier about one of what, to me, appeared to be the latest disruptive technology we were having difficulty working our way through, he commented that it was in fact just one of a slew of new “enabling” technologies available to the industry. Enabling? My first reaction was, “Not to me.” That’s when the communication gap between application of design and manufacturing competence once again became evident. In a few short minutes, I heard a different spin to why a particular new technology was being specified. Understanding what the benefits were from the end-product perspective made great sense and indicated why this customer would have specified it, as well as why it may become even more widespread in the future. The tutorial was strictly from a value-add design perspective, and it was compelling. When asked if the design community knew of the fabrication challenges the new technology caused that impacted yield and lead times – as well as cost – the answer was an honest “probably not.”

“Enabling” to one can be “disruptive” to another, unless, of course, both parties understand risks both may suffer, as well as the rewards both could achieve. We fabricators all too often do not understand the nuances of pushing design to meet more challenging performance objectives, but we fully understand robust, time-proven manufacturing techniques. Equally, when a designer chooses to move toward a new technology, they may be excited by the functionality that the new technology offers, but most likely is unaware of the difficulty in manufacturing the board that could lead to lower yield, longer lead times and ultimately higher costs.

The real issue for all is understanding the risks involved with embracing – or ignoring – new technology. The risks include whether it will work, or whether it will only work if executed flawlessly. Will the new technology be robust to pass the test of time? And most important, will the widespread use of the technology lead to cost-effective processes and/or equipment to assure consistency from one application to another and from one supplier to another. As a fabricator, it is more important than ever to be in touch with customers’ designers, so I really understand what they are trying to do. And it is essential for designers to be in contact with all of their circuit board suppliers, especially the behind-the-scene process gurus, so everyone understands the manufacturability of new technology in the real world of the shop floor.

This gets back to the need for suppliers knowing their customer and customers knowing their suppliers, and not just at the buyer/sales rep level, but at the designer/manufacturing engineer level. Knowing the intended end-result a new technology enables, as well as how disruptive that technology may be when introduced to manufacturing, is the best way for customers and suppliers, working together, to accomplish a cost-effective design solution. Too often this communication is assumed to be taking place when, in fact, it is very absent. As much as frequent two-way communication should be taking place when all is perking along with traditional technologies, it is critical that the communication be taking place when a new approach is contemplated that may be enabling for one, but not necessarily so for others.

The difference as to whether a technology is enabling or disruptive really is determined only by the degree in which customer and supplier decide to communicate and work together. As our industry finds ways to tweak older, tried-and-true technologies or think outside the box and develop paradigm-changing technologies, understanding the enabling benefits, as well as the disruptive nature of the technology, will make the journey mutually rewarding.

Peter Bigelow is president and CEO of IMI (; This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it . His column appears monthly.

Last Updated on Monday, 01 October 2012 13:42


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