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Peter Bigelow

The technologies that succeed will likely be variations on our current ones.

A new year is always exciting. Thoughts of embarking on new initiatives provide opportunity and inspire everyone to dream big and make them happen. When the new year happens to coincide with a new decade – in this case, the ’20s, or as some of my business colleagues are calling it, “the roaring ’20s” – one can’t help but dream extra big and forecast events that should or could impact our industry in the decade ahead.

Rather than focus on the geopolitical and global economics that clearly impact everyone, too often in an irrational or political way, I will focus on the area I am probably least qualified to opine on: technology.

In the rearview mirror of the past decade(s) have been notable technological disappointments. By “disappointments” I am not saying failures, but technologies, materials and processes that have, so far, not lived up to the hype garnered when first released. Organics, especially OSPs, showed great promise. After many years of refinement, however, the short shelf-life of these surface finishes still makes them too problematic for general use. Yes, they work great in a high-volume, rapid fab-to-assembly-to-OEM application, but for high-mix or ruggedized environments they aren’t ready for prime time.

Ditto conductive inks. While still promising, widespread application of conductive inks to replace traditional plate-and-etch processes that have been the bedrock of the industry seems to have stalled. They may get there, but don’t hold your breath for them to replace plating. And then there is printed electronics. Once touted as the disruptive technology that would replace printed circuit boards as we know them, it too has fallen short of the initial hype. Printed electronics is evolving but in areas and configurations that augment rather than replace traditional printed circuit boards.

If history offers any insight into the future, it appears technologies initially hyped as instant gamechangers or “the” disruptive technology or “must-have” processes usually do anything but live up to their hype. However, what appear to be incremental steps toward refining existing technologies, processes and materials more often “suddenly” become the difference-makers that propel the industry forward.

One such example of this is direct imaging. What started as tweaking and rethinking the tried-and-true laser photoplotter led to laser direct imaging (LDI). And the LED folks keep tweaking the brightness and focus of lighting, which ended up being a viable alternative to lasers for direct imaging. Slowly and (relatively) quietly refining existing technologies suddenly became a game-changing imaging tool for fabricators of all sizes and technology focus.

Looking forward, I see similar evolutionary refinements resulting in that wow! factor. Clearly sensor technology has evolved and is still evolving. I am not so sure the much-touted Industry 4.0 will be the result of the merging of sensors and software. I expect the goal of a connected factory will be the same at the end of this decade as it was at the end of the past one, not to mention the five before that. Improvements will be made, but various communication gaps will lead to a technological let-down for the connected factory.

On the other hand, I predict sensor technology will be harnessed like never before to manage discrete processes many feel are not suited for automation. Batch plating lines, for example, may be the biggest recipient of creative adoption of sensors and software. Applying sophisticated process management via sensors and software may result in long sought-after precision, speed and consistency of short-run plating processes, enabling the trifecta of lower cost, faster throughput and tighter tolerance (read, higher technology) in the competitive North American specialty fabrication segment.

Enhanced sensor capability yoked to more sophisticated software should enhance other aspects of manufacturing printed circuit boards. I expect that over this decade we will see these improved temperature sensors used to better control lamination presses, temperature rise and cycle temperature stability so that new, higher-temperature and enhanced laminates, prepregs and bond films can be deployed more easily and robustly, especially as extremely high Tg laminates become more common.

Similarly, I expect redeployment of sensor technology will radically change drilling equipment. Sensors should be able to displace x-ray technology as the tool of choice for registration control, enabling drills to make rapid adjustments more easily, accurately and consistently – regardless of material movement – to drill with tighter tolerances without the need for human oversight. Yes, such machines are currently available, but by the end of the decade such machines will cost less and maintain exponentially better tolerances.

And, progress will continue with ink technology. Printed electronics will evolve and nibble at the fringes of circuit board applications, and scientists will continue to work on environmentally friendly surface finishes.

None of this is either radical or rocket science, and that’s just the point. Over the years ongoing, persistent evolution has enabled our industry to produce awe-inspiring, cutting-edge technology. Everyone looking for the proverbial holy grail of new and disruptive, yet consistent tweaking and modifications has led to game-changing processes, equipment and materials that propel us forward. I predict just such evolutionary progress continuing during this new decade, the roaring ’20s, as it has over so many of the past ones.

I look forward to seeing how it all transpires over the next 10 years. I expect it will be challenging times for all. However, I know it will be equally exciting to see what technologies emerge and thrive, and dare I say, it will be fun to be a part of.

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

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