All in on Altium?

Autodesk’s bid — declined, so far — for Altium took me by surprise. In retrospect, it probably shouldn’t have.

As I’ve noted many times, I fully expect Altium to be acquired. It’s just I was looking more in the direction of Dassault and PTC, the big mechanical CAD (MCAD) players. I should kept Autodesk in my field of view, especially after it acquired Eagle five years ago. I think I was lulled to sleep, as that was a small acquisition and Autodesk hasn’t made much of a push since to burrow into the ECAD space.

The proposal was hefty, valuing Altium at $3.91 billion. That’s not much lower than Siemens paid for the considerably larger and more profitable Mentor Graphics in 2107. Yet Altium thinks it can do better.

It just might. Autodesk’s bid prices each Altium share at AU$38.50, a 41.5% premium over Altium’s closing price on Jun. 4 and a premium of over 47.4% to the one-month volume-weighted average price. Prior to the offering, however, Altium’s stock had peaked at a 52-week high of AU$39.34 in last October. So at $38.50, Autodesk was actually underbidding a bit.

An Autodesk-Altium merger wouldn’t change the face of the ECAD industry immediately. Altium would still run neck-and-neck with Zuken for third place in revenues behind Cadence and Mentor. But it would give Altium the backing of a industry leader in 3-D CAD, and accelerate the inevitable MCAD-ECAD merger.

Checking Moore’s Law

Folks,

Moore’s Law was developed by Gordon Moore in 1965. It predicted that the number of transistors in integrate circuits would double approximately every two years. Surprisingly, it has held true up to today. Figure 1 shows some of the integrated circuit transistor counts as a function of time. The red line is a good fit.

Figure 1. A plot of transistor count in selected ICs as a function of the year.

A reasonable equation for the red line is Transistor Count = a*2^(b*(year-1970)). What should “b” be if the count doubles every two years? To the first person that can solve for “a” and “b” using the red line and the equation above, we will send a Dartmouth sweatshirt.

Cheers,

Dr. Ron

New Semi Group Needs to Talk Bigger Goals than Just Subsidies

“You never want a serious crisis to go to waste. And what I mean by that is an opportunity to do things that you think you could not do before.” ? Rahm Emanuel

Indeed.

In the wake of the latest components inventory crisis, the lobbyists are out in full-force trolling for subsidies for the semiconductor industry.

And if the usual suspects weren’t enough, many of the blue chip (no pun intended) companies that make up the Semiconductor Industry Association and SEMI this week launched yet another industry organization, the Semiconductors in America Coalition. the group supports the allocation of $50 billion by the US government (read: taxpayers) to fund advanced semiconductor manufacturing. The announcement came at almost the same time – coincidence? – IBM reported successful development of 2nm process using a 300mm wafer.

That prompted a longtime friend and industry observer to suggest, “rather than spending money directly, the US and state governments offer the same deal to the supply chain as a whole as do the South Korean, Chinese, and Taiwanese governments. A holistic response is needed. Maybe a carrot to keep 2nm tech onshore.

“We need to bring a number of critical technologies back; chips, packaging, HDI, transposers and even certain components,” he went on.

“Apple has been using black solder mask for decades now to prevent piracy and it has worked. Their keiritsu approach works. Keeping key technologies within the kimono, as the Japanese say, and bringing those key industrial components back, would help to reaffirm North American industrial security and protect our supply chain.”

I can see where he’s coming from, but Apple really doesn’t have the scale of the other communications and computing OEMs; it’s share of the worldwide smartphone market is about 15%, and it has only 8% of the PC market. It’s probably not the model to emulate in that regard. More interesting is its recent decision to go full bore with its own M1 processor, which is made by TMSC.

I know Samsung and TMSC are also working on (close to?) 2nm. I don’t think IBM alone has the scale anymore to be a difference-maker, which is where the other fabs need to step up. They all smell an opportunity, and it’s hard to blame them for trying to get their hands on “free” money.

What I haven’t seen is an overarching policy proposed by the various trade groups/lobbyists promoting onshore wafer production. It seems more piecemeal to me, with new associations stacked atop legacy ones, all promoting the same message (subsidies) but with no promise of tangible returns.

I’m not against government subsidies for critical tech – and semi is absolutely one of those – but it seems to me they should start with a goal and then fill in the rest (processes, funding, etc.).

Sans a clear objective, the game plan will not only be expensive and a hard sell, but doomed to break down.

US Semiconductor Independence Comes a Little Late for EI

Rebuilding the US packaging industry would not only insulate chip companies and their customers from political risk, it could also help them break free of the long cycles involved in creating new chips, said Tony Levi, a professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Southern California.”

Reading that, I can’t help but think of Endicott Interconnect Technology and what might have been.

It must have been 15 years ago when I toured EI, the one-time IBM campus where bare board fabrication, assembly and chip packaging all took place. So self-contained was the operation, in fact, they had their own laminate treater.

EI was where the HyperBGA and CoreEZ high-speed flip-chip BGA packages were invented, as well as custom laminates for semiconductor packages. The engineering talent was second to none. They really could do it all.

What they never mastered, however, was the right scale. Agreements to license their products went nowhere. The layout complicated process flow: I remember having to duck to avoid banging my head as I would my way through the partially subterranean assembly facility. Dwindling revenues coupled with the high cost of doing business in New York ultimately scuttled the company, and the assets were sold to TTM in 2019.

With today’s emphasis from President Biden on down on rebuilding the US semiconductor industry, however, one can’t help but wonder whether EI was the right idea, just 20 years ahead of its time.

Tin: The Foundation Metal of Soldering

Folks,

The vast majority of solders used in electronic assembly have, as their base metal, tin. There are some specialty gold solders, like gold-copper or gold-indium, indium based solders, and a few others that do not contain tin. Although these solders have important applications, the sheer volume of tin-based solders is overwhelming in comparison.

Tin was a metal known to the ancients, and it led them out of the Copper Age into the Bronze Age. Ten to twelve percent tin in copper yields bronze, which is much stronger than copper (see Figure 1) and has the added benefit of melting at about 950°C vs. copper’s 1085°C.

Figure 1. The addition of alloying elements, such as tin and zinc solid solution, strengthen copper. Note that about 8% tin in copper increases the copper yield strength by two and one half times. The solid solution effect also lowers the melting temperature. Find the image source here.

This difference in temperature is significant in that with primitive heating technology, 1085°C is hard to achieve. In addition, since bronze freezes at a lower temperature, it fills molds much better. This property enabled the casting of much more complex shaped objects. See Figure 2. All of these benefits resulted in a dramatically increasing demand for tin. This demand established much more sophisticated trade routes for tin and its most common ore, cassiterite; this enhanced overall trade and accelerated the spread of civilization and learning.

Figure 2. The addition of tin to copper created bronze, which is much harder and also easier to cast than copper. This castability enabled complex designs like this dirk. Image: Wikipedia

Back to solder. Soldering is a technology that has existed almost as long as the copper age. It is thought to have originated in Mesopotamia as long ago as 4000BC. Soldering was used for joining and making jewelry, cooking tools, and stained glass. Today, in addition to these applications, plumbing, musical instrument repair, and plated metal are common uses. However, electronics assembly is the largest user of tin-based solder by far. See Figure 3.

Figure 3. More than 50% of tin is used in solder. Source: Wikipedia 

One of the greatest benefits of solder is its reworkability. This property enables rework of electronics assemblies, plumbing, jewelry, and musical instruments. Without the ability to rework electronics, the industry would struggle to be profitable. Another benefit, of course, is the miracle of soldering I discussed in another post.

So, the next time you stare at your smartphone, tablet, TV, etc., remember tin-based solder and soldering are fundamental to its existence.  

Cheers,

Dr. Ron

The Labor Honeypot

Plexus, annually among the highest-ranking performers in the CIRCUITS ASSEMBLY Top 50 EMS Companies list, yesterday announced a new plant to be built in Thailand.

In its press release, the company touted the facility as an example of “Plexus’ commitment to Environment, Social & Governance (ESG) best practices.” And on the surface, much of this sounds great: green building initiatives, an exterior green zone for employees, and other features.

But the Plexus Code of Conduct goes further than just green initiatives. There’s talk — lots of talk — about corporate and individual ethics, core values and leadership behaviors. And ESG criteria are more than green initiatives: the “social” component is tied to standards for managing relationships with employees, suppliers, customers, and the communities where a company operates.

From the Plexus website: plexus.com/en-us/corporate-social-responsibility

Plexus specifically cites its adherence to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, a proclamation by the United Nations General Assembly in 1948, which in its preamble notes history’s uncomfortable past with free speech:

Whereas disregard and contempt for human rights have resulted in barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of mankind, and the advent of a world in which human beings shall enjoy freedom of speech and belief and freedom from fear and want has been proclaimed as the highest aspiration of the common people

And commits its signers to the following:

Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.

– Universal Declaration of human rights, Article 18

And Thailand is complex. It routinely jails citizens, including minors, for speaking out. Defaming the monarchy is punishable by up to 15 years in prison per incident. God save the king, but don’t badmouth him.

This is going to sound like I’m picking on Plexus. In fact, this is a problem facing numerous multinationals. One thing they have in common is membership in an official sounding organization called the Responsible Business Alliance (RBA). Formerly the Electronics Industry Citizenship Coalition (EICC), RBA is a group of companies that “share a commitment to ensure working conditions in the electronics supply chain are safe, that workers are treated with respect and dignity, and that business operations are environmentally responsible.”

Fancy words aside, the RBA is a crock. The companies that make up its membership include Apple, Amazon, Foxconn, Pegatron, Wistron and other OEMs and ODMs that are routinely singled out by NGOs, in social media and the mainstream media for disregarding worker health and local labor laws. In my view, the RBA is used as a shield: listen to what we say, don’t look at what we do.

I can’t argue with Plexus’ decision to locate factories where the labor is skilled and generally cheap. But I can’t rationalize how Plexus’ lofty goals of good corporate citizenship fit with Thailand’s pattern of state-sponsored oppression.

Just as we thought the bloom was off the rose in China. Will the EMS industry trade one labor honeypot for another?

SMT Assembly is an Optimization Process

Folks,

SMT assembly is an optimization process. There is no single stencil printing process for all PWB designs. The stencil printing parameters of stencil design, squeegee speed, snap off speed, stencil wipe frequency, and solder paste for assembling all PWBs will not be the same; just as there is no single reflow oven profile for all PWBs. Fortunately, most solder paste specifications give good boundaries for all of these parameters, but typically some trial and error experiments will be needed when assembling a new PWB design that is not similar to past assemblies.

The need for optimization is most obvious when trying to minimize defects. As an example, minimizing graping is often facilitated by using a ramp to peak reflow profile. However, the ramp to peak profile may acerbate voiding. See Figure 1.

Figure 1. The ramp to peak reflow profile may minimize graping, but acerbate voiding.

Figure 1. The ramp to peak reflow profile may minimize graping, but acerbate voiding.

Thankfully your SMT soldering materials and equipment suppliers deal with these optimization issues on a daily basis. So if you are ever stuck with some challenging SMT assembly process, contact these solder materials and equipment experts first.

Cheers,

Dr. Ron

Is Quantum Computing Emerging to Solve Practical Problems?

Folks,

I read with interest Zohair Mehkri’s SMTAI 2020 paper titled “How Quantum Computing (QC) will Revolutionize Electronics Manufacturing.” I will start by saying that he gives a very good Quantum Computing 101 overview. This is no easy feat, as QC is a difficult technology to understand. I will humbly state that I still struggle to understand the basics, and I’m sure I don’t understand QCs as well as he does.

Figure 1. IBM is a leader in QC. Image source: https://www.ibm.com/quantum-computing/

However, I have two main concerns with Zohair’s paper. One is that it may give the impression that QC is becoming a practical technology and will soon be widely available — to the point that we can use it to solve electronics manufacturing problems.

QCs are rare; there are about 30 worldwide, 15 of which are owned by IBM. Although to be fair, Shenzhen SpinQ Technology gave this recent announcement: “On 29 January 2021 Shenzhen SpinQ Technology announced that they will release the first-ever desktop quantum computer. This will be a miniaturized version of their previous quantum computer based on the same technology (nuclear magnetic resonance) and will be 2 qubit device. Applications will mostly be educational for high school and college students. The company claims SpinQ will be released to the public by the fourth quarter of 2021.”

Since the device has only two qubits, it will more than likely be for educational purposes not intended to solve real problems. It will be interesting to see how it emerges later in the year. 

Almost all QCs are superconducting, meaning that they require very low temperatures to operate as cold as -460°F, which is colder than liquid helium. They are also extremely delicate; even slight vibrations causes them to fail.

So, we might be able to rent time on a useful QC sometime in the future, but QCs won’t be common any time soon.

The other concern I have is what is the need for QCs? Most of the practical problems that face us can be solved by conventional computers. In addition, only certain types of problems can be solved by QCs. As stated in Wikipedia: “However, the capacity of quantum computers to accelerate classical algorithms has rigid upper bounds, and the overwhelming majority of classical calculations cannot be accelerated by the use of quantum computers.”

QC is an exciting technology and many wonderful discoveries will no doubt come from it. However, I am skeptical that it will solve practical problems anytime soon.

Cheers,

Dr. Ron


The Rule of 72

Four years ago, the big boss, 6′ 6″ tall, 350 pound Mac Savage, said that the goal for the sales of a new product was at least 20% growth rate per year. The team is in a room prepping for a review with Savage (sometimes called Big Mac or, in jest, “The Whopper”) when the person responsible for analyzing the data, Charlie, comments:

“Well in 2016, sales were 100K units and four years later in 2020 they are 200K. So, in four years, sales increased 100%. Therefore, the yearly increase was 100/4 or 25%. So, we beat the goal by 5. So, Big Mac should be happy,” Charlie says.

There is a murmur of agreement among the 10 or so people in the room. And a few comments like, “It’s always good when The Whopper is happy,” were quietly said.

Helen chimed in, “That’s not true; using the ‘Rule of 72,’ the growth rate is 72/4 = 18%. So, we are a bit short.”  

Fred, who was always a bit annoyed at smarty-pants Helen chimed in, “I think Charlie is right, 100% growth in four years is 25% per year.”

Helen responded, “With your logic, if the growth rate was 25% after the first year, sales would be at 125%, right?”

Everyone in the room murmured in agreement.

Figure 1. The Team: Helen is to the far left. Charlie is the bald guy with the beard holding a sheet of paper. John is the chap wit his laptop open. Fred has the red shirt on and June is to the right with the long blond hair. 

“But would second year sales be 150%?” Helen went on.

There was some mumbling, then John, a young new hire said, “You would add 25% of 125%. My calculator says the total would be 125% plus 31.25% equals 156.25%, not 150%.”

John, then got excited and did some more calculations, “The third year is not 175% with 25% growth per year, but 195.3%, and then the fourth year is 244.14%… much higher than 200%. The growth compounds.”

Everyone groans anticipating the disapproval of “Big Mac.”

Charlie finally asks, “is Helen’s 18% growth rate right?”

John makes a few trial and error calculations and says, “18% seems a little low; it’s more like 18.9%, but it’s not 25% or even 20%. But 18% was a pretty good first estimate.”

“The rule of 72 is an estimate, it gets more accurate around 8 years,” Helen chimed in.

“Jeepers, look at the clock, we only have 45 minutes before Mr. Savage comes to the meeting and wants our report,” June warned.

After a brief chuckle that June was the only one to call the big boss Mr. Savage, instead of Big Mac or The Whopper, the team got to work putting together Power Point slides for Charlie’s presentation. They finished with 5 minutes to spare, enough time to freshen their coffee cups or hit the restroom.

At 11AM sharp, Savage came into the room and Charlie started his presentation. Everyone was nervous about Savage’s response.

Charlie summarized that by using the Rule of 72, the growth rate was short of the 20% per year target, but was more like 72/4 or 18%. He pointed out that a more precise calculation showed that the growth rate was 18.9%.

The entire group expected that Savage was going to blow his top that the 20% target was missed. But, he calmly said, “Well, the 1.1% shortage is unfortunate, but I’m impressed that you didn’t say the growth rate was 25%. I am more impressed that that you knew to use the Rule of 72 and more so that you were able to fine-tune your work to get the more precise. Great work Charlie!”

Everyone in the room rolled their eyes, especially Helen and John. Someone from the group was about to speak up, when Charlie, red faced said, “Sir, I should point out that Helen suggested using the Rule of 72, and John did the more precise calculations.”

“Charlie, you are a good leader, giving credit where it is due. Let’s have this team develop an action plan to improve the growth rate. We should meet in a week to review your plan,” Savage said.

There was a palpable sigh of relief among the team.

Savage, ended with, “Who is this new guy John?”

John was introduced by Charlie as a recent grad of Tech.

“John, I got my MBA from Tech,” Savage said.

“John, I want you to derive The Rule of 72; it will be a good experience for you. See if you can do it without looking anything up,” Savage went on.

John was a bit shaken, but he was able to derive The Rule of 72. See his derivation below.

The derivation of The Rule of 72

Cheers,

Dr. Ron