Features Articles

Mike BuetowThe arrival of a new stock exchange for Silicon Valley tech companies raises the profile of the tech industry’s best and brightest (and perhaps notorious) even more – as if that were possible.

It also is a significant reminder of what – or whom – is not represented in the public markets: the printed circuit sector.

Has it really been 20 years since the investment banks surrounded our industry, sniffing out hot new buys and running up hearty banking fees – along with tremendous amounts of debt – while encouraging players to buy or sell? Scale and exit strategies were the name of the game then. It made multimillionaires out of folks who only years earlier were pumping gas on the graveyard shifts.

Reality was bound to re-clutch those out-of-body experiences, and it did.

In the years since the Tech Crash of 2001, however, something approximating sanity has returned. If anything, perhaps the pendulum has swung too far the other direction. The number of publicly traded PCB-related companies has been trending down for years. Often, this has been due to merger activity. Valor was acquired by Mentor, which in turn was consumed by Siemens, which previously nabbed UGS Tecnomatix. Amphenol digested Teradyne’s PCB operations. TTM now owns the formerly public DDI, Coretec, Merix and Viasystems. Circuit World disappeared as part of a reverse merger with Firan Technology Group.

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Peter BigelowOld fabrication equipment never dies. It keeps getting reengineered for the future.

How far can you push the envelope? I have asked myself that question for years as I watch the advancement of technology and the fabricated PCBs that anchor that technology. And just when it appears a new and insurmountable challenge has come along, our industry devises a creative solution that catapults us even further ahead.

So, I continue to wonder. I have seen processes and equipment developed when 12/12 spacing was cutting-edge honed and dialed in to reliably produce 2/2 spacing. Drilling equipment that once could drill no smaller than 12 mil holes now regularly forms holes half that diameter. “High aspect” was once defined as 5:1. Now 10:1 is low aspect. All this on old equipment. Install the latest generation of equipment and capabilities exponentially improve.

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Sue MuchaThe flow of migrants from south of the border is choking supply-chain routes.

As we enter the middle of 2019, it appears to be shaping up as a good year for many in EMS. Anecdotally, I’m hearing the best reports in years on firm backlog from the providers I regularly talk with. I think this is part function of a good economy, but also due to the material constraints the market has experienced for several years. OEMs recognize that having orders in place can be critical to parts availability. Hopefully, this is actual demand and not the double-booking phenomenon seen in previous constrained markets.

The materials market appears to have good news as well. While a few commodities are showing longer lead-times or allocation, the bulk of component lead-times and prices appears to be stabilizing. A few have even decreased lead-times. This is good news for EMS because component availability has impacted companies’ ability to grow. This is a good time to check customer forecasts, since if orders have been inflated, stabilizing material availability may translate to a pushout
in demand.

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Greg PapandrewIt’s time for an industry program to train board buyers.

A printed circuit board is unique to every different application or customer, has over one hundred separate required manufacturing processes, and may come from down the street or halfway around the world. In other words, PCB purchasing is a complicated business. The traditional way of board buying can lead to costly mistakes and may expose companies to financial liability.

I am on a mission to fix that.

PCB buying has changed a lot since I started as a salesman in this industry more than 25 years ago. Back then, purchasing departments were larger. Buying was broken down into specific commodities, with buyers assigned to manage only one or, at most, a few of them. Buyers had the time and available resources to be well-versed in their assigned commodities. Many buying teams resided in the very facilities that designed the boards’ products and used the parts.

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Clive AshmoreWhen it comes to components, the devil’s in the details.

The interdependency of all elements of stencil printing to achieve a high-yield result can be overwhelming. When you consider just the things we’ve addressed in this column – from tooling to warped boards to stencil tension to solder paste types and everything in between – it’s clear controlling the printing process is a balancing act that takes a fair level of expertise (or at least a robust self-learning system!). Nothing underscored this reality more than a recent experience with a customer.

When printing a relatively high-mix board that contained a range of components from 01005s to large QFNs, the customer was experiencing different results from the front and rear print strokes. One direction printed relatively well. But the reverse direction left smearing on the stencil and, according to SPI results, non-optimal paste transfer efficiency. The assembler tried troubleshooting the issue, but nothing seemed to work, other than applying different print pressures on the front and rear strokes in order to get the same output from the process. This, of course, is not normal for solder paste printing.

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Akber RoyThe basics of bare board laminate selection.

Selecting the right materials for a printed circuit board assembly is essential to ensuring the robust reliability of the product and circuitry throughout the entire life of the equipment. In other words, it’s not just how you build it, but what you construct it with. A wide range of substrate materials is available, with different specific properties, and these properties are tied to the expected performance and environment for the circuit being built. Will the PCB assembly be a high-power circuit? Harsh environment capable? High-density?

Engineers specify the material for PCBs with great care and detail. TABLE 11 lists laminates by their industrial names and material types, and specifies material characteristics related to each type. However, to reach that level, it is necessary to understand the various characteristics such as thermal decomposition temperature (Td), glass transition temperature (Tg), dielectric constant (Dk) and dissipation factor (Df) related to PCB materials. Although such tables are important, it is easier to start with a higher-level perspective of selecting materials depending broadly on their actual use, based on a comparison of PCB materials.

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