The Gold Crush Print E-mail
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Written by Peter Bigelow   
Saturday, 05 March 2011 00:20

A low-cost, reliable surface finish would be worth its weight – and then some – in gold.

The more things change, the more they stay the same. I think you need some gray hair to fully appreciate that saying. Over the past year, while dealing with one specific aspect of my business, I have found myself mumbling that over and over – far more often than I’d like to admit. While doing so, I also have recalled a time before I had those gray hairs, the outset of my business “career,” and chuckled at how, despite the decades, things really are quite the same.

Back then was the 1970s. I began my career in the connector industry with one of the then industry leaders, Burndy Corp. At that time, Burndy had just turned the industry upside down with its patented “GTH concept” (Gas-Tight, High pressure), which revolutionized electronic connectors. Until then, all edge-card and socket connectors had gold plating. GTH enabled “non-noble” metals, such as copper, to provide a reliable interconnection replacement to expensive gold-plated connectors. With the launch of GTH, Burndy’s product offering and financial success grew exponentially. The development of GTH took considerable effort and time and was a direct result of listening to customers who were all eagerly, if not desperately, trying to reduce the cost of connectors, especially in consumer electronics. Back then, the exorbitant price of $36 an ounce for gold (imagine!) as a surface finish on connectors was considered too costly for commercial applications. Burndy saw an opportunity and ran with it.

Flash forward almost 40 years. The No. 1 question I get from customers is, “How can we reduce our cost for circuit boards?” In almost every case, we look at the design and print notes and then respond that if they could reduce or optimally eliminate gold as their surface finish, they could see a significant cost saving. The reply is usually, “Can’t do that; the alternate surface finishes are not as good.”

So, here we are. Gold prices have increased 30% over the past 12 months and fourfold over the past decade, and show no sign of retreat – and are 40 times more expensive than they were back when connector customers were demanding a lower cost  robust solution! Today, just like the early ’70s, many customers clamoring for lower cost and high-reliability still consider gold the best way to go. The more things change, the more they stay the same. Or, put another way, opportunity is again knocking!

Clearly great strides have taken place with surface finishes, resulting in far greater reliability, robustness and cost-effectiveness. With the adoption of RoHs, however, on the cost front at least, the industry has taken a giant – and growing – leap backward.

Over the years, many surface finishes have been developed or refined in an attempt to replace the now verboten SnPb as a cost-effective alternative to gold. Regrettably, for a number of reasons unique to each, nothing has emerged as the universal finish of choice. Between whiskering, shelf life or surface smoothness, incremental improvements have been made to less-than-optimal finishes. What has not occurred is an outside-the-box approach, the kind that typically results in quantum improvement.

In an industry that supports radical creativity with technically innovative solutions, we cannot seem to effectively address the biggest cost-driver in our manufacturing processes. If our engineers can create nano technologies, clone cells and even get The Beatles on iTunes, surely we can come up with a cost-effective, robust and environmentally sound alternative to gold. Given overall demand, ongoing commodity price increases and extraordinary global technical bases from which to draw, I am surprised that no one has developed a cost-effective surface finish option to replace SnPb or gold. Simple logic would indicate that whoever develops a solution first will take the industry by storm and profit handsomely. However, simple logic does not always work.

When I ask friends in the chemical supply industry about this, answers vary from the generic “we’re working on it” to “the market is not big enough to support the necessary R&D” to the “we already have something that works pretty well in many applications.” My guess is that many of these companies are not really listening to their customers, and others can’t grasp the concept of radical change. And it is radical change that is required.

Maybe we need to become more vocal. Maybe we can’t afford not to become more vocal. Most customers won’t put up with the price increases commensurate with higher raw material costs that make up today’s PCBs. Most fabricators balk at raising prices enough to cover their higher costs and provide a satisfactory margin to support prudent reinvestment.

There is no issue more pressing than ensuring we can supply cost-effective, reliable, green products. For PCBs, that means trying to convert from costly raw materials to ones that are more widely available and lower cost. On the top of that hit parade is replacing gold as a surface finish. If I were an R&D head in the chemical industry, I would be on warp speed trying to do whatever it takes to, say, increase the shelf life of organic finishes, eliminate whiskering on tin, or develop an entirely new approach – concept – for surface finishes. A single solution, not just another “almost” option for some applications. Like I saw in the ’70s, whoever commits the time and talent to successfully accomplish this feat will be rewarded with the all the treasure a hungry industry has to offer.

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

Last Updated on Monday, 07 March 2011 15:59
 

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