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Striking a Balance Amid Risks in PCB Material Usage

by: May 16,2014 1465 Views 0 Comments Posted in Engineering Technical

printed circuit board quick-turn PCB PCB Material

Formed after a successful management buyout of Viasystems’ Special Products Group in 2001, Invotec Group has become one of the leading quick-turn PCB providers and one of the top 10 PCB companies (by turnover) in Europe. Invotec delivers end-to-end PCB manufacturing services—from design to the finished board—working with its customers and applying a wide range of PCB technologies and applications using advanced materials, technologies and finishes.

Invotec Managing Director Tim Tatton discusses some of the latest developments and technology challenges in the PCB manufacturing industry, and how PCB materials have advanced to address the high-performance requirements in today’s applications.

How was business last year, and how is 2013 looking?

Overall, 2012 was a record year for both revenue and profit for Invotec Group. However, as with most businesses in our sector, we saw some softening of the market in the fourth quarter. Defense spending in particular has been squeezed, with programs moving out of short-term commitments becoming uncertain.

More than ever, getting medium to long-term visibility from our customers remains challenging. However, the general consensus seems to be that there is more confidence in a second-half recovery this year. That said, we have made a good start to the New Year; we’re bringing on new customers and programs that are aligned with our strategic direction.

We expect this well-publicized downturn in activity in the industry will lead to some weaker players struggling, and will also lead to increased M&A activity. Invotec is well positioned due to our financial strength and performance; and of course we now have a larger parent behind us in RG Industries.

What technology challenges are you seeing in your end-application markets?

Invotec has a wide variety of high-end customers; some are very conservative with designs and some are cutting edge. However, they all require very high levels of quality and service. In the current environment, it is inevitable that we also face constant cost pressure. The challenge is to further our technology offering while also maintaining our reputation for high quality, reliability, and service standards.

We have invested heavily in HDI facilities in recent years, especially in 2012, so we now have the capability of digital imaging throughout the entire manufacturing process. We have also focused on flexible automation that suits a high-mix, low-volume environment. This allows us to redeploy resources to more value-added functions such as quality, product and process engineering.

Many of the product types we see are becoming more complex; they are more bespoke with a merging of solutions and material into one PCB. Historically, we might have seen programs that contained RF/microwave boards, flex-rigids, HDI, etc. More often now, we see the different technologies converging into a single PCB solution (e.g., flex-rigid, which is also HDI, contains RF/microwave portions). We have also experienced similar products containing buried capacitance and resistance both as truly embedded and as discreet buried components.

We are also watching with interest the embedding of active components, but we expect some of our high-reliability/mission-critical applications will wait for this technology to mature before a significant adoption.

Which end-applications segment do you see driving demand for your PCBs?

There are a number of sectors. Key areas of growth include security and encryption. Drivers here tend to be miniaturization, usually entailing HDI, coupled with high-frequency performance.

Space is also a big growth market for us. The technologies are of course important, but the big driver is absolute reliability, which is proven by an extensive testing methodology such as IST testing. Satellite systems do not usually have the space for multiple redundancies and servicing of failures is virtually impossible.

Defense and aerospace applications will continue to drive demand for high-technology PCB solutions, especially in growth applications such as UAVs and drones.

What considerations best determine the selection of an appropriate material for a particular board application?

There are several key criteria to satisfy. Functionality and density are key aspects in terms of material selection. This has to be backed up with a reliable solution. For example, Invotec has experience in excellent high-frequency materials, which perform well. But when they are embedded into sequential HDI structures, they become less reliable. The choice of material for electrical functionality and performance has to be backed up with a heritage of performance. Often, we have to establish the reliability of the structures using test methods such as thermal cycling and IST before we can truly be confident of a robust engineering solution.

How can a realistic balance be achieved between functionality, reliability, manufacturability and cost?

A tricky question! In reality, Invotec makes high-specification products in low volumes. The functionality and the reliability are paramount to the success of the customer’s product. If the cost to do this is acceptable, we can offer a solution. We will always advise our customers of the commercial consequences of their choices. Clearly, we work towards a design that will be manufacturable with good yields and repeatability.

Where we will not compromise is promising our customers immature technology that has not been proven in terms of the ability to consistently manufacture serial products or any risk of reliability issues. We sometimes lose business to competitors promising such solutions, but quite often it ends back with us after the risks become reality.

What are the latest advances in the technology of dielectric materials and copper foils, and how can a PCB designer best exploit them to meet performance demands?

New dielectric materials are appearing on an almost weekly basis. It is very easy for designers to pick up on the hype and target a new material without understanding the risks. It is a difficult balance to manage the customers’ desires with the vast array of materials available. Ultimately, we have to be sure a demand justifies the resource required to professionally establish a new material.

Copper foil development is slightly less difficult to manage, but again any changes in the profile of the foil or the treatment has an impact on manufacturability—especially as many new materials tend to have low peel strengths in combination with these foils. This hits sequential lamination products more so, particularly as the extra handling and processing steps involved add in more risk of damage.

What about the impact of lead-free soldering? How did your company address that trend?

Lead-free has been a relatively pain-free transition. Many of our customers are still exempt from RoHS; however, they are increasingly driven to lead free by component availability issues. We decided several years ago to use lead-free compatible FR4 materials in all applications to offer our customer a more robust solution, while allowing us to maintain a sensible stocking policy. We also have a wide variety of surface finishes to support the lead-free requirement, in addition to continuing to offer both leaded HASL and reflowed tin/lead.

What would the future of PCB look like? Do you see embedded passives—or capacitance—proliferating in such products?

Embedded passives have been talked about for a long time. We don’t tend to serve the markets where the uptake has been more prevalent, such as server boards; however, we are seeing demands from defense and aerospace customers to encompass the technology into more advance products. But as discussed earlier, this approach is conservative and not in repeat products in these sectors in any significant numbers yet.

We see some future in the convergence of different PCB technologies into the same single structures, especially those containing high frequency applications and of course the continuation of miniaturization.

Invotec also has an active interest in printed electronics with a stake in Printed Electronics Limited. We do not see this as the end of PCBs, but more of a complimentary offering to put electronics where they are not currently practical or cost effective.

What challenges will continue to face PCB makers this year and next?

The same challenges as always: unpredictable economies, markets, and of course, cuts in key areas such as defense. Capital investment levels to support the technologies required is intensive and it will become increasingly difficult for the smaller players to keep up.

In Europe, the PCB manufacturers have to demonstrate continually that we can provide the technology, quality, service and reduced lead times that the market demands. We must continue to invest and be mindful of the downward pressures on cost—a difficult balance.

Finally, can you share some details on technology and/or business initiatives for this year?

This year, Invotec will push its digital imaging capability further. We aim to facilitate 100% LDI solder mask in our Tamworth facility. This will support the technology and the short lead time requirements of our customers using the dynamic registration capabilities that cannot be realized easily with artworks, even with our camera aligned printers.

QTA is a big focus for us in 2013, and we already have a good QTA segment to our business. The initiatives above with digital imaging, the expansion and ongoing development of our front end capability and capacity are pivotal to this change. We have already had significant success in growing this particular sector of prototyping/NPI, etc.

We’re also in the process of increasing the number of our overseas sales employees and the first appointment in February will open up exciting new business channels. We hope to recruit additional engineering resources to support our overseas agents and employees with more customer-facing technical support capability.

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