Laminate Companies: On the Move

It took until the second business day of the new year for the chips to start falling in the US printed circuit laminate industry.  On the same day, Isola changed hands and Park Electrochemical announced it was putting its PCB unit up for sale.

As the East Coast braced for a winter blizzard of epic proportions, Park Electrochemical sent a cold shiver down the spines of more than a few industry observers with its announcement of a “strategic evaluation” of its core printed circuit materials business, one that could result in a sale.

Park has been paring its PCB operations over the past few years amid falling revenues and tighter margins. Said revenues have been falling despite a rebound in the overall PCB market: Even as aerospace revenues have grown, overall Park sales have fallen year-over-year in 10 of the past 11 quarters, more than half the time by double digits.

Although it generates most of its revenue from the PCB materials unit, sources indicate the firm sees more upside in its aerospace materials division, which isn’t as susceptible to the commodity pricing pressures of board-level laminate. The sale or closure of the division could further disrupt the North America supply chain, however.

Park’s long history is heavily intertwined with that of the North American PCB industry, and one of the last remaining “family” firms. Cofounded in 1954 by Jerry Shore, his son Brian is now CEO and grandson Ben a senior vice president. Its sale, whenever that day comes, will truly mark the end of an era.

Meanwhile, in Arizona, Isola completed the transfer of its equity ownership to an investment group led by Cerberus Capital Management. This deal was not a surprise: Isola had reportedly been trying to restructure a debt load of more than half-a-billion dollars since last summer.

Isola was primarily owned by the investment firms TPG Capital and Oaktree Capital Group. It’s unclear at present how the stakes in the company are now divided. No doubt Isola won’t be one of the bidders for Park, however.

Couple this with the changes at Arlon over the past two years, and the US laminate industry continues to be in flux. Many of the other major players appear stable: Kingboard, Shengyi Technology, Nanya, Panasonic, Ventec (which merged with TMT in 2016). Among US-based vendors, Rogers’ position at the high-end has enabled it to remain financially sound. It may be the only one.

Demand for lower-tech materials isn’t enough to sustain footprints in higher-cost markets. M&A can result in stronger, more viable companies. Let’s hope that the future for Park (or whomever buys it) and Isola are brighter than the present, as the North American supply chain depends in large part on their success.

Jan. 5 update: Investment bank Needham & Co. says the Electronics unit could bring $50 million to $80 million in a sale.

How the Chips Have Fallen

The history of consolidation in the semiconductor industry, in one slide:

Source: Fortune

The Foxconn Model

Here’s a good recap and summary of the state of Foxconn today, including some thoughts on its future. The sense that Foxconn does not believe in competing with customers is outdated, given its foray into phones, among other devices.

5 Traps to Avoid When Changing from Hand to Machine Assembly

In the past, it was usually pretty easy to find chips in both surface mount and through-hole packages. Somewhere in the past decade or so, component manufacturers stopped introducing through-hole versions of their newest chips as standard practice. In many cases, new components can only be found in tiny QFN (quad flatpack, no leads), or wafer-scale BGA (ball grid array) packages.

The maker community, never shying away from a good hack, found ways to work with many of these parts while still hand building. There are very few components used in the pro-design world that are still unusable by a creative DIY maker.

But what happens when a maker has a great design and wants to mass-produce it?

Sometimes the techniques that make things work when hand soldering, will completely break a machine assembly process. To cure that ailment, I’ve compiled five common traps to avoid when moving from hand to robotic assembly.

5. Consider moisture sensitivity. 
It may not seem logical, but plastic does absorb moisture. And, it doesn’t have to be dropped in the sink for it to happen. Just sitting around exposed to the air, plastic chips will absorb humidity. In a reflow oven, these parts can end up acting a bit like popcorn. The moisture turns to steam, and if it can’t outgas fast enough, may split the chips open. Often, the damage isn’t visible to the naked eye, but with show up as an unreliable product in the field.

When we DIY folks hand-build boards, we tend to open the component packages and then just let the parts lie around without giving thought to proper storage. If you are going to send your project off to be machine assembled, you can do two things with moisture sensitive parts.

First, order the parts when needed, not before, and keep the packages sealed. Alternately, you can send in parts that have been exposed to the air; if you inform your assembly house that the parts are moisture sensitive, and ask that they be baked prior to assembly. Prebaking will remove the moisture safely.

4. Don’t skimp on solder mask. Some board fabricators offer reduced prices if you order your boards without soldermask or silkscreen. That’s not a problem when you’re hand building — you can regulate the amount of solder by eyeball.

However, when a stencil is used to apply solder paste and the board is run through a reflow oven, the solder will spread back on the exposed copper traces. This may leave your parts without enough solder on the pins to create a reliable connection.

Solder mask may add a bit of cost up front, but will increase reliability and reduce cost in the long run. Creative choice of solder mask color can also add some personality to your boards.

3. Silkscreen is important too. Lack of sIlkscreen isn’t a reliability issue, but it can make accuracy of assembly more difficult to achieve. In a perfect word, the CAD files would tell the assembly machines exactly where each part is supposed to go and what angle and orientation it needs.

Unfortunately, we don’t live in a perfect world (who knew?). It’s far too common to have footprints with errors in them, or components with ambiguous marking, to depend on the CAD files alone. Clear silkscreen will help to ensure that any errors in the data are caught visually.

If you don’t want to clutter your PCB with reference designators and polarity markings, put the designators and any other important markings in the document layer in your layout software. Then, tell your assembly house to look on that layer for the information.

2. No need to fear surface mount. One of the easiest ways to ensure that a board can be hand-built is to stick with through-hole parts. But doing so puts many limits on a design, and rules out a lot of new technologies.

Little breakout boards — a small surface mount chip pre-mounted on a PCB, with hand-solderable headers — are available for a lot of new parts, but not all. That’s helpful, but they take up a lot of extra board real estate and cost more that the part alone.

If you’re hand building a prototype, or a small number of boards for your own use, go ahead use a breakout board. But, when it’s time to get a thousand built up to sell, re-layout your PC board to use the chip without the breakout board. Just don’t forget the bypass capacitors or any other required support components.

As a bonus, many breakout boards are open source, so you may be able study and use a proven schematic and layout for that part of your design.

1. No open vias in pads. QFNs and BGAs have pins/pads under the part, often completely inaccessible. That’s fine for a reflow oven, but what if you’re soldering it by hand?

A common hand-soldering practice is to put large vias in the pad. Fix the part onto the board with tape. Then, turn the board over and stick solder and a small tipped soldering iron through the via. By doing this, you can hand solder almost any leadless surface mount part.

You can probably guess that I’m going to tell you open vias in pads will not work with automated assembly. The solder will flow down the via and end up on the back side of the board. You may end up with shorts on the back side, and parts that fall off of the front side, or just don’t connect with all their pads.

If you use the open via hand solder technique, you’ll need to re-layout your board without any open vias in the pads before sending it for manufacture.

0. Go for it! It wasn’t that many years ago when the tools and services necessary to get an electronic product manufactured were so complex and expensive as to pretty much make it impossible for DIYers to turn a hobby project into a small business. Times have changed, and with those changes, the hardware startup is back — and within just about anyone’s reach.

Duane Benson
Breaker, breaker, one nine, clear the line, we’ve got boards to build

Electronics Manufacturing Files: What We Need

Manufacturing is all about taking data from you and delivering some good working circuit boards. Well, it can be just data — as in full turnkey — or data plus some parts and or PCBs, as in a partial turnkey or a kitted job. Regardless of whether you’re sending parts and boards, or having the us as the EMS buy everything, we need good data, and a lot of it.

That data are the difference between the working boards you want and need and a random jumble of expensive paperweights.

We need a bill of materials (BoM), the job specifications (which you give us by ordering and describing any special instructions on our website), and the CAD design files. Fab and assembly drawings are always a good idea too. A little extra time spent on the files sent reduces risk, and that’s a very good thing.

The CAD design files include Gerbers, a centroid (aka pick-and-place or XYRLS file), and intelligent CAD files, such as ODB++ or IPC-2581. In some cases, such as Eagle CAD, we can use the native CAD board file.

The ODB++ and IPC-2581 file formats are the future of electronics manufacturing. They come with more data, and more accurate data, than do Gerbers. If you can send either of these two, please do so. Even if you have those, still send us the Gerber files. Gerbers are the lowest common denominator, and provide a base that we and PCB fabricators can work from.

The Gerbers are a set of files used to create the various layers of the board. Each layer requires an individual file, so a six-layer board (six copper layers) will typically require at least 13 distinct files: one for each copper layer, top solder mask, bottom solder mask, top silkscreen, bottom silkscreen, the drills holes, and solder paste for the top, and bottom if the board has SMT parts on both sides.

The drill file is combined with the Gerber files to line up the via and through-hole component holes with the appropriate spots in the PCB. Then the pick-and-place file will tell the assembler where to put each component, what angle to place it at, and which side of the board it goes in.

Fab drawings hold a human-readable, often in PDF format, description of the board and any special instructions needed by the fabricator. The assembly drawing would be the same, but for the assembler.

Sometimes the parts are too densely packed for the reference designators and polarity marks to show up on the actual board, or for aesthetic reasons, the designer doesn’t want them on the board. In such cases, all that information would be put into a set of assembly drawings; PDF files showing all of the necessary reference information.

As of this writing, the ODB++ and IPC-2581 file formats aren’t universally accepted, but are getting more so all the time. Use of these new intelligent CAD output file formats helps to reduce the number of manual steps and human interpretation, and will eventually lead to better quality and faster manufacturing times.

Duane Benson
What do we need?
What does it really matter?
Matter converts to energy
E=(what we need)C2

Intermetallic Growth Rate is Strongly Temperature Dependent


In a previous post, I discussed that, contrary to popular belief, intermetallic compounds (IMCs) formed in soldering processes are not necessarily brittle. I reviewed some literature that indicated that failure modes are usually at interfaces between the IMCs themselves, the IMCs and the copper or solder and often in the bulk solder itself. The perspective that IMC growth may not significantly affect reliability is also supported by work performed by Lee, et al. Figure 1, from Lee’s paper, shows that aging for 250 hrs at 150°C does not significantly affect characteristic life in thermal cycle testing.

Figure 1. Aging for up to 250 hours at 150°C did not significantly affect characteristic life in thermal cycle testing in Lee’s referenced paper.

However, it would be prudent to minimize the thickness of IMCs. So this raises the question: how quickly do IMCs grow at any given temperature? Work performed by Siewert, et al[i] holds the answer. In this paper, Siewert supported past work that the thickness of IMCs grows as X=(kt)0.5 and added new data to support modeling using this equation. In this equation, X is IMC growth distance, k is a constant dependent on temperature, and t is the time. One might expect that X is strongly dependent on temperature (T) and it is. Using data from Siewert’s paper, I was able to generate values of k as a function of T and plot them in an Arrhenius plot. See Figure 2.

Figure 2. An Arrhenius plot for k.


I next used Figure 2 to obtain a value of k at 70°C and plotted the IMC growth X in microns as a function of time in hours. The result is in Figure 3.


Figure 3. IMC grow as a function of time at 70°C.

Note that about 40 years are required to obtain a little over 10 microns of growth. Figure 4 shows the results for IMC growth at 200°C. In this case, only 100 hours are required to obtain about 10 microns of growth. So going from 70 to 200°C produces an acceleration factor of over 30,000 in the effective IMC growth rate to 10 microns.

Figure 4. IMC growth as a function of time at 200°C.

These are theoretical calculations from data collected at different temperatures. Let’s see if the formulas work in real life. In another paper [ii]by Ma, et al. his team aged some solder joints at 125°C for 120 hours. The equations used above would predict IMC growth of 2.2 microns under these conditions. From Figure 5, we see about 2 microns of growth consistent with the calculation estimate.

Figure 5. Images from Ma’s paper of IMC growth at 125°C for 120 hours.

So although IMCs are not that brittle, it is wise to limit their growth. Hence, limiting exposure to very high temperature aging is wise, but certainly minimizing solder rework is advisable, as the molten solder enables very fast IMC growth.


Dr. Ron

[i] Siewert, T. A., et al, Formation and Growth of IMs at the Interface Between Lead Free Solders and Copper Interfaces, IPC Apex, 1994.

[ii] X. Ma, et al Materials Letters 57 (2003) 3361-3365.

Power Distribution – To Route, or to Plane PCBs

Power distribution on a PCB can come in a number of forms. The three most common methods are:

  • Route power and ground.
  • Use surface layer floods.
  • Use internal planes.

After component positioning, you’ll need to look at power and ground distribution. With a two-layer board, your options are limited to individually routing power and ground, or using a polygon fill, also called a flood or pour.





For simple low-speed layouts, it’s common to route power just like any other signal. You’ll typically use a wider trace, which you can set manually, or with design rules. Drawing a polygon in the board shape, and giving it the same name as your power or ground signals may make the job easier. Keep in mind though, that you can end up with parts of a ground plane disconnected from the rest of the board. This is called an orphan. Some CAD error checks will spot such a problem and some won’t.

I made that mistake not long ago, as describe in this blog post.

If you have a four (or more) layer board, common practice is to designate one of the internal layers for ground, and one for power.







Doing so can leave more room for signal routing, can reduce EMI, and can leave a cleaner-looking, easier-to-debug board. It also reduces the chances of having orphan ground or power areas, as I warned against in the prior post.

Duane Benson
Chocolate layer cake with coconut frosting will not help with EMI

The Monster in Munich

Productronica was, as usual, slightly surreal. The enormity of it cannot be overstated. Attendance at the Munich-based event was up 20% from two years ago to 44,000, per exhibition officials, although it’s not clear how many of those visitors were for SemiCon Europa, which colocated  with the biennial show for the first time. Still, for those in the market for new equipment, or just perusing to see the trends, there was more than enough to keep them busy the four full days. For a full report, click here.



Basic Layout — Aligning Components

Not long ago, I designed an Arduino compatible clock board. The board has 12 NeoPixel (digital addressed RGB LEDs) arranged around the board to act as hour hands. The minutes and seconds are represented by an external ring of 60 NeoPixels.











How did I go about positioning the 12 NeoPixels, and what does it matter? For aesthetic reasons, I do want each NeoPixel in the proper place. If any are off a bit, I’ll notice every time I look at the clock.

I created a triangle, with all of the correct distances, and drew in in my CAD software’s Document layer. The Document layer looks just like a silk screen layer, when visible, but it won’t be printed on the board. You can use this layer to put in extra information for yourself, or for the manufacturer.











You’ll notice that I also wrote in the document layer “No tabs here.” That’s an instruction to the board fabricator to not put a panel tab where the micro USB connector goes. If it did, the board wouldn’t be buildable when panelized.

Some create a fabrication document layer and an assembly document layer. An example might pertain to reference designators. If the board is too compact for reference designators, of if, for aesthetic reasons, you want to leave them off the finished board, You can put the reference designators in an Assembly Documentation layer. Then be sure to let your assembler know what you’ve done.

The other things I did here is to keep all the LEDs aligned with the baseline of the PCB. In theory, you can place a component at any rotation angle you want. But, like any system, manufacturing works better when there are fewer variables.

You reduce the probability of error if you keep components aligned at factors of 90 degrees. It also helps to keep polarities oriented the same way, as much as possible. For example, if you can, have all the diode polarities facing the same direction.

Duane Benson
Time flies like an arrow; fruit flies like a banana

Productronica Recap, Day 1

From the floors of the Messe International Fairgrounds in Munich, home to the Productronica, Mike Buetow reports on the biennial trade show and the latest equipment inspecting electronics assemblies. And it is everywhere: There are more than 40 companies offering surface inspection, 28 showing AOI, and another 20 with x-ray machines.