Coronavirus: Curse, or Blessing in Disguise?

I’m not one to make light of health epidemics, especially given that my college major was initially epidemiology. But the global slowdown in electronics demand — underscored by the earnings reports over the past couple months — is poised to worsen in the grip of the coronavirus outbreak, which started in China and has now reached more than a dozen more countries.

In response, businesses in Wuhan, the epicenter for the disease, have closed and Chinese government has effectively quarantined the entire city of 11 million. Wuhan is the capital of Hubei province, and between the two entities there are roughly 1,500 factories and related facilities.

Among the electronics manufacturers affected at ground zero are Avnet, Siemens, and Foxconn. After Hubei issued a mandatory shutdown notice, Foxconn furloughed more than 13,000 workers at its campus there. (The plant generates an estimated $300 million in revenue per year.)

As the disease spreads, so too have the shutdowns. IMI announced last night it is suspending operations at plants in Shenzhen, Jiaxing, Chengdu and Suzhou. The furloughs will last up to several days.

While electronics assembly plants can be brought back up to speed fairly quickly, the impact missing even a few days of revenues will be felt in the quarterly results. And here’s the possible silver lining.

Many companies have been reporting weaker results in the most recent quarter. For instance, Celestica’s revenues were down 14%, Amphenol’s dropped 3.3%, and Sanmina’s were off 16%. TTM went so far as to sell its entire mobility unit. Plexus saw sales rise, but is cutting an entire design unit. (UPDATE: Flex reported sales down 7%, adding to our picture of how widespread the weakness is.) Often the US-based firms see a slowdown in presidential election years as OEMs take conservative approaches to ordering ahead of potential administration changes. The outbreak, deadly and unwished for as it is, gives cover to management for any recurring revenue drops, at least for a quarter or two, and perhaps longer if the coronavirus gains a wider foothold. A cynical view, to be sure, but hardly an unrealistic one.

We need only look back to 2003, when the SARS outbreak came on the heels of a worldwide business slowdown and according to one analyst “accelerated that downturn and spread it to many other countries in Asia.”

Already, airlines are bracing for lower capacity utilization and Asian firms are fearing the worst as businesses enact travel restrictions. Again as with SARS, the timing comes as Asia (and most of the world’s major economies) is experiencing tepid growth, and the best way to stop a recovery in its tracks is to sever the flow of goods and services.

For everyone’s sake, let’s hope this virus burns out fast.

For Tom Hicks, Like Father Like Son?

Those who have been in the PCB industry since at least 2001 will likely remember the New York buyout firm known as Hicks, Muse, Tate & Furst. Better known as Hicks, Muse, they laid waste to the industry, buying up the largest fabrication shops like AT&T’s 400,000 sq. ft. plant in Richmond for dollars on the penny (you read that right), then attempting the same with EMS, before watching it all fall to pieces with multiple bankruptcies and revaluations. (The entity known as Viasystems eventually landed under the control of Tim Conlon, a highly capable executive who right-sized the company and made it profitable enough to sell to TTM in 2015.)

One of the beneficiaries of the merger mania in the late 1990s and early 2000s was Bob Herring.

Not once but twice, Herring built up and sold printed circuit board fabricators to larger bidders. The latter time, Herring sold Herco Technology and a second firm, Synthane Taylor, to Teradyne for about $122 million in stock.

You know how this ends. Teradyne’s stock collapsed, Herco was shuttered, and then came the lawsuits.

Herring later turned his sights to media, launching a news network that is popular in certain segments of the American public.

Tom Hicks of Hicks, Muse turned his sights on sports, buying — and bankrupting — the Dallas Stars hockey team and Texas Rangers baseball team, among others.

Tom Hicks’s son is now in the game. Under the eponymous billing of Hicks Equity Partners, Tom Hicks Jr. is apparently attempting to corral fellow money-men to pony up about $250 million to a certain news network.

And who owns One America? Bob Herring.

As the safe harbor warning every equities firm is obligated to announce says, past performance does not guarantee future results. But if I were one of Junior’s friends, I’d keep wallet in my pocket.

AR/VR: What’s New?

CES 2020 offers the latest augmented and virtual reality technology, creating immersive experiences across industries from health care to agriculture and manufacturing to retail.

The latest in AR/VR technology from CES 2020.

Dispelling The ‘Five Ball Rule’

Michel writes:

Dr. Ron, when if comes to SMT printing of solder paste, why do some people use the five-ball rule for rectangular apertures and the eight-ball rule for circular apertures?

Michel:

The “Five Ball Rule” is another metric that SMT assembly industry leaders believe, but it is difficult to find its origin. It states that when selecting a solder paste, five of the largest solder balls should be able to fit across the width of the smallest rectangular stencil aperture. See Figure 1a for a 0.2mm wide rectangular aperture.

Typically, the largest solder ball diameter is assumed at the 90th percentile. See Figure 2. So, in this example, a type 4 solder paste would fit the five ball rule as the largest solder ball is 0.038mm. Five times 0.038 is 0.190mm, just a little less than the aperture width of 0.2mm. It should be remembered that this is a “rule.” not a “law.” So let’s say you had 4.5 balls across the aperture with instead of 5, it would most likely be OK. 

Figure 1. A comparison of the Five and Eight Ball Rules

Figure 2. Solder Powder Sizes

A generation ago, the advent of circular apertures to support BGA and CSP packages necessitated a new “rule.” Figure 1b shows why the five-ball rule is inadequate for circular apertures. Although five type 3 solder balls fit along the 0.275 diameter, off the diameter, there is not enough room for many solder balls.  Hence, an insufficient amount of solder paste would be printed.

For the same aperture, if a type 4 paste is used, 7 or 8 solder balls span the diameter and the amount of paste printed would be much closer to the volume of the aperture.

For a little more on this topic, see a past post.

Cheers,

Dr. Ron

At AltiumLive, Lots of Sun (and One Big Cloud)

by Brooke Anglin

One of the first things I heard when I arrive at AltiumLive last week was was how much they loved the recap of the event my colleague Chelsey Drysdale wrote last year. They added that Chelsey truly captured what AltiumLive is about. Talk about pressure!

Let’s start at the beginning.

The Piano Arc contains a total of 12 PCBs.

Drinks are on Them. The week (well, three days, but they really pack a lot in!) kicked off with a great reception on an outside terrace at the Loews Coronado Bay Resort.  Dave Starkey, the engineer who designed and built the Piano Arc — the circular piano used by Lady Gaga’s pianist, among others — was there. So was the pianist. They displayed the unit, a 360-degree custom keyboard, with one of the panels removed, exposing the PCBs.  Altium director of community engagement Judy Warner met Dave at a user group meeting in San Diego, heard his story and recruited him for the event.  In case anyone wants to know the piano has 288 keys, a total of 12 circuit boards and only cost $57,000.

I saw our customary PCB West speakers Suzy Webb, Rick Hartley, Gary Ferrari and Eric Bogatin and met a lot of engineers.

Getting Younger. One of the things you note about AltiumLive is the demographics. It’s a younger crowd than you typically see at industry events. Eric Bogatin noted this in the first keynote (AltiumLive had not one, not two but three keynotes). He brought some of his students, had them stand up for recognition and encouraged hiring companies to talk to them.  That drew a good laugh from the crowd.  In his talk, he pointed out that while many designers will be retiring in the next 10 years, AltiumLive gives us reason to think a new generation is coming on strong.

Keynote #2 featured a celebrity from outside our industry. Jor Grand of Grand Idea Studio has a short-lived TV show called Prototype This! on the Discovery channel. The concept, which was similar to Mythbusters, was about the viability of gadgets and technology and how engineers feel a since of winning when a product doesn’t work the first time, but they don’t give up until their creation finally works successfully.  While the show lasted only one season, Grand shared several clips and generated lots of laughs.

Finally, the main event: Altium rolled out its much-anticipated Altium Designer 20 ECAD. VP of marketing Lawrence Romine detailed the new “push and shove” capabilities that enable routing of complex HDI boards and ramp up design times over 20%. (For more on the tool, click here.)

Cloud in their Eyes. This was the third year of AltiumLive, and the multi-city event (another is being held in Frankfurt this week) draws 500 designers. The company grow is equally impressive. Last year 2018 Altium saw over 8,000 new users for its Designer PCB CAD tool, and on average Altium users do over 10 designs a year.

Looking ahead, Altium wants to move toward the cloud, something the industry has been avoiding for years. Its has added real-time collaboration, and hopes to bridge the gap between manufacturers and designers.

Not surprisingly then, AltiumLive focused as much on tomorrow as on today. The highlight of the event was the Robot Build and Battle. Attendees split into teams of six or more. Ours had nine; eight engineers, from all of the country, and me. I was cheerleader, motivator and general handyperson. (They said I sounded like each of their bosses … I beg to differ!) Team Sierra beat last year’s record, but we weren’t far behind.  Amit Bahl of Sierra Circuits told me he didn’t realize just how geeky our industry was until the robot build. Such a fun and educational event!

Brooke Anglin is senior sales associate with PCD&F/CIRCUITS ASSEMBLY.

Submit an Abstract to SMTA Pan Pac

Folks,

This coming February will be my third SMTA Pan Pac. Pan Pac is a very enjoyable and rewarding conference. It is small enough that you can get to know all of the speakers, yet large enough that there is a full venue. For those of us in the northern part of the US, it is also a nice break from the winter weather. The first time I went I was surprised that it wasn’t very expensive. For this coming conference, air tickets from Boston are as low as $600 and the hotel is about $200 per night.

The conference will be held on the “Big island” of Hawaii. If you come early or stay late there are many interesting attractions, including the active volcanoes and the Mauna Kea Observatories. So for sure come to the conference, but why not submit an abstract to be a speaker? If interested in submitting an abstract go to this site.

Cheers,

Dr. Ron

A view of part of the Big Island.

The Disruptors

In his most recent monthly column my friend Gene Weiner pointed out the irony of calling a printed circuit board a commodity. “When did printed circuits become mass-produced unspecialized products?” he asks.

As I told Gene, it’s true PCBs are custom, but in some (many?) instances they are highly mass-produced. Think residential LED lighting, or game consoles or the most popular phones, etc. My sense is that calling them “commodity” or “custom” is a bit of a red herring. Large OEMs call PCBs commodities even though they know each is specific to a particular program. I think to most its a catchall word for “volume procurement.” 

There is real tension on costs between customers and suppliers, and without artificial price bottoms I can see no reason that won’t continue. I think it’s highly unlikely sellers will be able to change the pricing model as long as the process technology remains essentially the same. It’s too entrenched, and often the buyers (which more and more often are EMS companies) have lower margins than the fabricators, so there’s no incentive for them to switch to a pricing model that will cost them more. A move to a different process technology (3-D/additive manufacturing) might well change the pricing curve.  

It’s not that simple, of course. As double-Ph.D. and former CTO of Multek Craig Davidson once said, “Never underestimate the tenacity of incumbent technology.” It’s perhaps the best quote on technology adoption I’ve ever heard.

I used to think that with the many brilliant minds in our industry, we would successfully disrupt ourselves — in other words, the ideas that obsolete our current ways of doing things would be conceived and implemented by one of our own — maybe some genius in the basement of Apple or Intel or IBM. I’m less confident of that now.

I now lean toward the notion that the true disruptive change will come from someone outside our industry who has knowledge of both hardware and software and who uses a truly novel process to develop a widget that the public embraces. The mass appeal of the product (not the process, to which the general public is ambivalent) will be the proof of concept. And the investment money will follow.

Selecting Reflow Oven Length

Folks,

You are putting in a new assembly line to assemble some large boards for which your company just received a three-year contract. The boards are 45cm long and you expect the cycle time from the component placement machines to be 40 seconds per board. Your boss is pressuring you to get another 5-zone oven, as they are cheaper and take up much less space than a 7- or 10-zone oven. But, you are concerned that a 5-zone oven may not have the capacity that is needed to keep up with the component placement machines. Let’s make some calculations and see if your concerns are justified.

Table 1 shows some typical reflow oven metrics:

Let’s assume that you will be using a typical modern SAC solder paste. By studying the reflow profile above, we see that the amount of time needed in the heated zone is about 4.5 min. or 270 sec.

So if we choose the 5-zone oven the belt speed will be:

Belt Speed = BS= Heat Tunnel Length/Time in Heated Tunnel = HTL/Time = 180 cm/270 sec. or 0.66 cm/sec

The component placers will be presenting a 45cm board every 40 sec., so the belt speed needs to be:

BS = Board Length/Cycle Time = BL/CT = 45cm/40 sec = 1.125cm/sec

So clearly a 5-zone oven won’t work. What about a 7-zone oven? Let’s calculate the belt speed for this oven.

BS = HTL/Time = 250cm/270 sec. or 0.926cm/sec

Now we can see that the 7-zone oven won’t do the job either.

How about the 10-zone oven? Let’s see if the belt speed is greater than the 1.125 cm/sec needed.

BS = HTL/Time = 360cm/270 sec. or 1.33cm/sec

Success! Since 1.33cm/sec is greater than 1.1125cm/sec, this 10-zone oven will work. The extra belt speed will permit a small amount of spacing between the boards. Let’s calculate what it will be:

BS = (BL + Spacing)/CT = 1.33cm/sec => BL+ Spacing = BS x CT => Spacing = BS x CT – BL

Spacing = 1.33cm/sec. x 40 sec – 45cm = 53.2cm – 45cm = 8.2cm

To summarize: For our 45cm board that has a cycle time of 40 sec., we need a 10-zone oven with a heated tunnel length of 360cm. There will be an 8.32cm spacing between the boards in the oven.

If you would like an Excel spreadsheet to make these calculations send me an email at rlasky@indium.com.

Cheers,

Dr. Ron