Designing User Experience for the Factories of Tomorrow

by Olga Zinoveva, Senior Software Engineer, Bright Machines

The User Experience (UX) discipline in the technology sector has evolved rapidly over the last two decades and we’ve all witnessed the changes.  For example, the transition from button-based phones and keyboard-only interfaces to increasingly powerful yet easy-to-use, touch-based smartphones and tablets. A parallel change has been happening in factories, with industrial Human-Machine Interfaces (HMIs) evolving from physical push buttons, lights and switches in the 1980s, to the multi-touch screens of today. And we are not done evolving yet!

I have worked on various consumer applications in the past, including games and websites, and was directly responsible for building the UX on a couple of those projects. My experience in consumer UX gives me some insight into the many exciting opportunities that lie ahead for industrial UX. Here are a few I’ve been thinking of.

Defining UX in the factory context

In a setting where a vast array of hardware devices are connected to each other in complex ways, and users range from operators on the factory floor to project managers in remote offices, UX goes far beyond a single screen. Instead, it encompasses the full experience of using the system, from any interface or device that connects to it. Industrial UX is a mix of software (dedicated touchscreen panels or apps) and hardware (buttons, feeders) interfaces controlling the machines on the floor, monitors giving real-time status updates about the production line, and services generating reports based on data collected in the cloud over many weeks. Almost every component we build becomes a part of the user experience, so we must approach design holistically. Every software and hardware engineer, product manager, and data scientist must think like a UX designer.

Increased software capabilities mean increased complexity

The role and responsibility of software in manufacturing is growing rapidly. But with more software capabilities comes more UX complexity. As more tasks move from hardware to software – whether running on the device itself, in a local server, or in the cloud – the number of ways that users can interact with the system and their complexity increase. Yet the UX we build cannot simply hide this complexity from the users. A core concept of UX design is that people always form mental models of how a system operates, whether we want them to or not, and if their model sufficiently differs from reality, it will lead to frustration and mistakes.  Therefore, the next-generation factory UX will need to be intuitive and straightforward, but never oversimplified. The goal is to design a UX that helps users build the right conceptual models from the start to maximize productivity and minimize training time and mistakes.

The high bar set by consumer devices

Almost every worker in a modern factory has used a smartphone or tablet – this year, global smartphone usage is expected to hit 2.5 billion (and it’s growing)! As a result, today’s factory workers have a high level of technical literacy and familiarity with certain interaction standards. This represents an incredible opportunity for industrial UX because it can reduce training time for any UX that follows these standards. At the same time, the ubiquity of thoughtfully designed consumer devices has raised the bar for the quality of user interactions, responsiveness, and UX clarity in the factory context. Workers now expect industrial interfaces to work as well as their personal smartphones.

Building UX for the factory of tomorrow is no small feat, but it represents a massive opportunity and an exciting time for UX professionals as they help inform the next wave of industrial innovation.

An edited version of this article also appeared in Design World on June 3, 2019.

Is Dangerous Dan Darting Down Your Hall?


How to deal with a loose cannon in a leadership position.


His team calls him “Dangerous Dan” for good reason.

Dan self implodes in a New York minute.

Perhaps it’s that inappropriate comment Dan is prone to blurt out. Or maybe it’s that significant lapse in his judgment that triggers the first domino. It doesn’t matter. The explosion is immediate and the outcome is far-reaching. And as Dan’s manager or teammate, you needn’t wonder. You will be blindsided by the flying debris.

Oh, he’s not a terrible person. In fact, Dan typically has the best of intentions. He’s just an eternal optimist. And he never seems to notice the aftershock following behind him. Dan has what you might call “intermittent blind spots.” And he lives in a constant state of denial. My, that’s a deadly combination!

To make matters worse, Dan’s boss can seldom anticipate the timing of Dan’s next calamitous move. Even more troubling, Dan won’t bring a brewing catastrophe to anyone’s attention. But in this age of the virtual water cooler, people still talk. And the delay between when Dan pulls the proverbial pin from a nearby hand grenade and the time his boss hears the explosion only adds to the collateral damage.

So why does Dan’s team tolerate him?

It’s simple. On nine days out of ten his contribution to his team is substantial. And every time he does something helpful, teammates are once again tempted to forget about his recent faux pas. But when Dan bungles it, he offsets every positive action he’s taken in one fatal blow! And it’s a vicious cycle.

The first time I met Dan he showed up at our house out of nowhere. He instinctively made himself as comfortable as a long lost friend. It was an unusually quiet summer evening.  Dan spied our spinet piano in the corner parlor. Impulsively responding to some mysterious melody in his mind, Dan lunged and launched into a loud, busy boogie that rattled our rafters.

He never asked if we cared. He never considered our toddlers asleep in a room nearby. After all Dan was on a roll entertaining us, his new friends! In his mind’s eye he was Billy Joel the Piano Man! In our remembrance, he set off pandemonium.

I painfully learned over the next few years that Dan was and is semi-oblivious to the world in which he lives. He careens off the walls of life like a drunken bull in your mother’s precious china cabinet.

Sure, Dan’s technically awesome. But on a practical level, Dan is blind to the subtleties of his behavior. He doesn’t mean any harm. He’s just being Dan.

So, is there a Dangerous Dan Darting Down Your Hall?

Don’t answer too quickly. The ramifications are worth considering.

When it comes to business, Dan is amazingly self-assured. He’s a problem solver. In those magical moments when Dan saves the day, you want to hug him. But when the stakes are most high and you can least afford a miscue; the carnage Dan creates is legendary.

How can you spot a Dangerous Dan before he wreaks havoc in your living room or lobby?

Answer these ten questions and you’ll know if you have one.

Think of the person you know who most resembles Dan. Ask yourself:

  1. Do his jokes often strike a jangled nerve in an unsuspecting bystander?
  2. Do you see evidence that his family’s patience has worn thin?
  3. In the past, have you considered promoting him but decided against it each time?
  4. Do you feel sorry for the fact that he frequently undermines his own success?
  5. Do you continue to discover new and different things that he can do?
  6. Are you often tempted to give him just one more try?
  7. Do your team members frequently surprise you with startling new stories about Dan?
  8. Are you allowing your soft heart to guide your logic?
  9. Has he randomly cost you a small fortune in unintended consequences?
  10.  Would you say “NO!” if he asked to marry your daughter?

If you answered yes to seven or more of these questions, here’s the inconvenient truth. You can’t afford to have Dan on your payroll. No matter how much you would love to rehabilitate him. It’s not worth it.

Here’s an even more sobering thought. You will likely have to fire Dan if you don’t take action. So what can you do now if you are dead set on keeping your Dangerous Dan?

Here are five suggestions listed in order of importance:

  1. Reassign any people who report directly to Dan so that you limit his legal liability.
  2. Put Dan in charge of special projects with limited downside.
  3. Role play any important customer interactions before Dan leaves the office.
  4. Check behind Dan to ensure he’s following agreed upon processes.
  5. Avoid any temptation to promote Dan. He will be even more lethal with more responsibility.

Remember… A little power goes a long way in the mind of a Dangerous Dan!

I ran into Dan’s ex-wife not long ago. She and I laughed about all of the good times we had enjoyed with Dan. They were many. But there was a deep sadness in her spirit as she relayed her decision to finally divorce Dan. He, of course was off on a new adventure leaving his former family far behind.

I’d like to say Dan will learn how to handle life one day. And I’d like to say I’ll soon leap tall buildings in a single bound.

 But I’m reminded of the time a good friend approached Dan and begged him not to apply for another promotion. “Dan, you’ve tried managing people on two other occasions and it didn’t work out. What did you learn from those experiences that will help you be more successful this time around?”

Dan turned. He stared upwards in thought. The he asked, “What do you mean???”

His team calls him “Dangerous Dan” for good reason.

Dan self-implodes in a New York minute.

Don’t let him shake your confidence in you!

Keith Martino has a passion for helping engineering executives achieve stellar results. Martino authored the book Expect Leadership in Engineering. In addition, the team at Keith Martino has designed and launched Leadership Institutes at multiple engineering firms across the US. Martino is quoted in Young Upstarts, Entrepreneur Magazine, NewsMax Finance, Hotwires, Circuits Assembly, and Printed Circuit Design & Fab. For more information visit: www.KeithMartino.com.

The Inevitability Of Software-Defined Manufacturing

From 2003 to 2006, I worked at a contract manufacturing company as a robotics engineer. I was the first software engineer hired by the company, an opportunistic hire by a visionary CEO who saw the importance of automation in manufacturing. The CEO wanted to reduce downtime in manufacturing, improve quality, and empower the folks on the factory floor to be more efficient.

That period of my career was a fascinating experience. I was coming from a Fortune 500 energy company, where I had been a database programmer working with many highly capable engineers on scaling large data models. In that environment, continuous improvement through software automation wasn’t aspirational, it was our explicit mission. I took the role in manufacturing because I wanted the opportunity to define and deploy a software roadmap from scratch. I learned a lot during that time. As successful as the company was, software didn’t really exist inside the company, aside from an arcane enterprise resource planning (ERP) system that was poorly supported and badly used. I did everything from programming robots by hacking into them (APIs in manufacturing equipment didn’t really exist at the time, and still don’t), to developing web-based workflow software, to educating employees on how to use not only the tools I built, but software such as Microsoft Excel. Along the way, I discovered these existential truths, so to speak, as they applied to manufacturing as a whole:

  • Everyone saw the benefits of automation and wanted to automate as much as they could
  • Very few people understood the role software played in automation, even at the highest levels of the company

Fast-forward 16 years and much to my astonishment, manufacturing as a whole has not progressed. In learning about Bright Machines and our opportunity space, I encountered a lot of the same problems I faced 16 years ago. In manufacturing, the bulk of inspection remains largely manual. Instead of data being collected across the factory to be analyzed, it is mostly hostage to a particular machine, or worse, not collected at all. The concept of transforming data across the factory floor into actionable information that enables building higher quality products faster is at best an ambition. From designing a product to setting up a job, there is very little automation throughout the process of building physical products. In fact, setup and deployment take weeks, sometimes months, leading to significant product delays. That’s just the beginning of the list of problems with manufacturing today. It’s a very long list indeed.

When we compare manufacturing to other industries that have not only embraced technology, but pushed its boundaries to innovate and succeed, we can’t help but wonder why this key economic pillar remains stuck in time. I posit that this is for several reasons. Manufacturing is a demand-driven industry with low margins. For most manufacturing companies, it has simply been easier to throw humans at any given problem, knowing that labor costs can be scaled up and down based on demand. At first blush, the calculation seems rational. Investing in sophisticated hardware powered by equally sophisticated software at an industrial scale carries a lot of expense, not only in upfront costs, but maintenance, ongoing upgrades, support, and so on. Then, there’s the problem of time. Customers want things manufactured quickly. Who has time to invest in equipment set up, calibrating machines, setting up networks, securing the data, etc.? Human workers, on the other hand, can be deployed on an as needed basis.

Except that things really don’t work this way anymore. Humans, rightfully so, decided they are no longer willing to work in arduous and monotonous jobs, leading to reports of “voluntary turnover rates exceeding 300%” in some parts of the world. That is an astonishing statistic. The cycle of innovation in industry has evolved and sped up so much that having the ability to not only deliver product in near-real time, but perform meaningful reactive as well as predictive data analysis is an absolute must in order to operate efficiently in manufacturing. The increasing sophistication of the products being developed require the precision of machine automation and the power of not only software, but artificial intelligence, for higher product quality and predictability.

Which brings us to today. Manufacturing is crippled by these pain points, but ill equipped to solve them, for the same two fundamental reasons I encountered 16 years ago: manufacturing companies certainly understand the value of automation but have not historically utilized software to implement automation. Manufacturing companies are, after all, not software companies. And until now, the lack of demand for software-defined manufacturing has led to few external companies that are actually positioned to deliver holistic software solutions that act as both immediate relief as well as business accelerators to manufacturing companies. Thus, we are at a critical inflection point where manufacturing as an industry is not only ripe for disruption, it is virtually begging to be disrupted in order to save itself.

So what does disruption look like in this space? In fact, what is software-defined manufacturing, really?  Is it artificially intelligent robots? Is it data platforms with state of the art business intelligence? Is it cloud-based platforms, remote deployment and troubleshooting, machine-learning driven analytics? These things definitely comprise the concept, but Software-Defined Manufacturing is really just the beginning.

Software-Defined Manufacturing will happen simply because it has to – it is the immediate cure to manufacturing’s already existing pain points. The true disruption in manufacturing will involve not disrupting manufacturing per se, but actually disrupting the very idea of software-defined manufacturing itself. And it will happen by industrializing all the technologies that make up software-defined manufacturing, deploying them as a scalable platform and delivering them to customers in a service-based model that grows and modulates with the needs of the business. True disruption is extending software-defined manufacturing to a hardware/software ecosystem, with minimal to nonexistent single points of failure, where multiple components work harmoniously with the single purpose of enabling fast, high quality delivery at lower cost; where data is assembled, collected and turned into predictive analytics, and artificial intelligence is effectively used to solve repetitive human tasks.

When will this happen? At Bright Machines, the call to innovation has been answered, and the transformation in manufacturing has already begun. For us, software-defined manufacturing is just the beginning, the building blocks of delivering an ecosystem of products that will not only disrupt but redefine an entire industry. It’s an extraordinary challenge and truly a generational opportunity. And it’s Day One of our own journey to change the world.

— Nick Ciubotariu, SVP software engineering, Bright Machines

Profits or Politics: Where’s Your Company’s Focus?

On paper, Bryce was a rock star.

In person, Bryce was a costly mistake.

When Bryce strolled through his company’s headquarters sipping his gourmet triple latte and waving to the little people (as he dubbed them), every front line employee noticed. They snickered at his confident strut leftover from his days fronting a band. They recognized his disdain for real work. And they were appalled by his self-serving power plays. Sure, Bryce flashed plenty of smiles. He slapped high fives and offered up empty promises like a candidate running for mayor. But poor follow-through was Bryce’s legacy. He seldom kept his word. In short, Bryce was a leadership disaster!

How does one spot an emerging “Bryce” before his decisions crater your company?

Here are five ways to detect a political player like Bryce in the making.

1. Political players fixate on the wrong numbers.

Take our buddy Bryce for instance. Bryce kept “real-time stats” on the total number of employees who reported into his organization. Bryce frequently boasted that a significant portion of the operation reported to him or one of his people. That’s how Bryce boosted his shaky self-esteem. He added people while he talked a great game and tried hard not to mess up in front of his boss. Bryce figured as long as he had an adequate number of people to throw under the bus at the opportune moment, he would be too big to fail. Bryce fixated on employee count, not profitability.

2. Political players recruit, hire and promote people like themselves.

It’s true. Birds of a feather flock together. Self-absorbed power junkies are obsessed with protecting their titles at all costs. Consequently they try to hire people who are singularly loyal to them. Often they find themselves at odds with an underling more loyal to the company. When they do, they will quickly take any measure imaginable to rid their team of those who are looking out for the good of the whole.

Fortunately, oil and water don’t mix. Employees and leaders who are truly concerned about the welfare of the whole are turned off by those who seek to play the system. Case in point. Bryce’s demise began when his peers became as disillusioned with him as his front line employees were. Bryce’s hiring and promoting of other politically minded employees initially went unchecked because his colleagues were immersed in their own immediate concerns.

3. Political players manage up and cover up.

After all, the Bryces of the world tend to perform for an audience of one. Their boss! Political players will often freely (and unnecessarily) sacrifice their team’s welfare for the sake of keeping the boss happy or shielded from the truth. This is not always a reflection on their boss. He or she may have been misled about the details two or three levels down. The political player likes vagueness and fuzzy business practice. Transparency is not typically part of their game plan. They operate in the shadows where almost no one has insight to their treatment of the people.

4. Political players encourage a zero sum mentality.

Some got to win, some got to lose. That’s the chorus to every song for a corporate politician. In their world, there is no such thing as a win-win outcome. And their department heads also propagate this win-lose mindset. The political player seldom takes the time to seriously evaluate a balanced option. They want to win at all cost.  And their politically-motivated direct reports know instinctively not to cross the boss. It wouldn’t be prudent. Political players win by short-changing the organization.

5. Political players come with plenty of hidden costs.

As I later met with the CEO’s management team, we inventoried the true cost of having Bryce in power. It became apparent that he had made dozens of unnecessarily costly decisions. Bryce built a division that could never reach profitability. He pushed technology that he preferred versus exploring for new IT solutions that would best serve the company. Bryce delegated all authority to managers who were either asleep at the switch or pandered for his favor. As a result, the company was paying extraordinary sums for expensive logistics initiatives that delivered a poor customer experience. Bryce’s salary and benefits were only a tiny fraction of his real cost to the company.

Sooner or later the results speak for themselves. The results of Bryce’s self aggrandizing moves were draining the company’s balance sheet and delaying success. Once realized, Bryce was given a fair severance package and hustled out the door.

Avoid the heartache, headache and howling that political players bring to their companies. Ask yourself these five questions about each member of your management team:

  1. Does _____ fixate on the wrong numbers?
  2. Does _____ overlook or ignore loyal company employees who do good work?
  3. Does _____ recruit, hire and promote individuals who pander to them?
  4. Does _____ quickly adopt the easy solution that best serves their self-interest?
  5. Does _____ make costly decisions because s/he is self-absorbed?

If any of your leaders (or employees for that matter) cause you to answer “yes” to three or more statements, you have an opportunity to lower your operating cost substantially. Consider replacing that person with a competent leader who really cares about your company. If you must, look outside your company. Remember… hire for character and train for skills.

Ironically, Bryce’s follow-up gig gave him the spotlight to swagger like an actual rock star. You can catch Bryce and his new band playing weekends on the Jersey Shore. At least now the only cost for watching Bryce perform is the cover charge.

Don’t let a political player on your payroll. Today is the day to shine the spotlight on each of your leaders and objectively evaluate their performance.

Keith Martino has a passion for helping engineering executives achieve stellar results. Martino authored the book Expect Leadership in Engineering. In addition, the team at Keith Martino has designed and launched Leadership Institutes at multiple engineering firms across the US. Martino is quoted in Young Upstarts, Entrepreneur Magazine, NewsMax Financial, the FedEx Worldwide Manager’s Pak, and several metropolitan business and industry trade journals. For more information visit keithmartino.com.

Think Like the Owner (and One Day You Will Be!)

How to Maximize Your Value to the Boss

Jerry wasn’t your average engineer.

While his college classmates fascinated on academics, Jerry raced down the sidelines snagging sizzling passes for the Baylor Bears. Soon he scored a much sought after intern offer from NASA and bought an acoustic guitar to serenade the boot scooters. What could have been more thrilling than to see an inspired young man from Shreveport, LA reaching for the stars and achieving success?

But, ultimately talent is finite, youth is fleeting and good looks are quite common.

As he rose through the corporate ranks, the traits that made Jerry his company’s most valuable player year after year had little to do with his athletic prowess or his love for a catchy tune. Jerry’s secret formula was his priceless perspective. His worldview.

Jerry thought like a business leader. Every day. In every situation. And when the opportunity presented itself, Jerry overcame all the challenges of an economically distressed childhood to buy majority ownership in his company. Jerry thought like an owner and became one.

Could you do the same? Could you propel yourself into another universe by changing the way you approach your job. We believe you can. We hope you will. But, hope is not a strategy.

As it turns out, there is no average engineer. There are only engineers who think like employees and engineers who think “like a boss.” The daily choices you make are indicative of the path you’re on. So test yourself while there’s time to adjust and ramp up your game.

Here are 12 questions you can quietly ask yourself to predict your outcome.

True or False:

_____ I do what is right for my customer, company, and team regardless of personal sacrifice.

_____ I press forward with good ideas, even if they are unpopular.

_____ I aim for goals higher than any manager will set for me.

_____ I do not give in to group pressures simply to avoid confrontation.

_____ I consistently give truthful feedback to customers, superiors, and teammates.

_____ I adhere firmly to a code of business ethics and moral values.

_____ Change always brings opportunity. Stagnation limits opportunity.

_____ I practice a disciplined approach to self-improvement.

_____ I have a method for prioritizing my opportunities today.

_____ I successfully make others enthusiastic about opportunities that require extra effort.

_____ I transmit a sense of purpose about all that I do.

_____ I am accountable for my actions and accept responsibility for my mistakes.

If you answered true to nine or more of these statements, you are on the right road to wind up steering your own endeavor. If you answered false to three or more of these statements, you’ll likely always report to someone else. It’s all a matter of your objectives.

Jerry knew from early in life that he wanted to reach his full potential, whatever that might be. I have no doubt that if you asked him today, he’d tell you that he’s still in the relentless pursuit of excellence. In other words, he isn’t done! He’s still streaking for the goal line.

Baylor University recently built a stunning new stadium in Waco, TX, with world-class amenities. On any given Saturday night, you’ll find Jerry up in the stands. His heart is always in the game. And if you wander up to Jerry, ask him if you should aspire to own your own company. He will likely chuckle, wish you much success and suggest that you will have to make that decision for yourself. But regardless of your goals, Jerry will say, “be the best YOU that you can be.”

 

Keith Martino has a passion for helping engineering executives achieve stellar results. Martino authored the book Expect Leadership in Engineering. In addition, the team at Keith Martino has designed and launched Leadership Institutes at multiple engineering firms across the US. Martino is quoted in Young Upstarts, Entrepreneur Magazine, NewsMax Financial, the FedEx Worldwide Manager’s Pak, and several metropolitan business and industry trade journals. For more information visit keithmartino.com.

 

 

 

 

It All Adds Up at Count on Tools

When you work from a home office, nothing is more enticing than an opportunity to “get out” and see a customer and take a facility tour. So, last week, “get out” I did and hit the road from Fayetteville, GA, up to participate in a tour of Count on Tools in Gainesville, GA.  (For those unfamiliar with Georgia geography and traffic – yes, that is a bit of a drive, but, thankfully, I-85 has been repaired.)

This tour was organized by the Georgia Manufacturing Alliance. This group serves manufacturing businesses in the state and provides monthly plant tours, educational sessions and networking opportunities  “designed to help make profitable business connections for our members.” They put on all sorts of very cool tours throughout the state – including one I was sorry I missed of the KIA plant. Jason Moss, the founder and CEO of GMA, has, in fact, been a great supporter of our local SMTA Atlanta Chapter as well as a featured keynote.

But, I digress. Back to Count on Tools – longtime CIRCUITS ASSEMBLY friend, supporter and 2017 Service Excellence Award winner for Automation and Handling Equipment. I was greeted warmly at the door by Curt Couch, president and CEO, and we chatted about how nice it was to see each other outside the confines of a busy trade show.  He and his wife, Rene, started this business about 26 years ago literally in their backyard. And what an amazing success story from such an unassuming but obviously visionary guy. He said he never expected this level of growth, but here they are today with about 40 employees and a 20,000-sq. ft. facility.

For those who may not know, COT is a precision component manufacturer specializing in CNC Swiss automatic machining using standard to exotic materials including stainless steel, titanium, Inconel and PEEK. They are a global supplier of precision engineering components to a wide range of industries. And, of course, in our industry we know them for their nozzles and tooling, automation tooling and component handling equipment. Just this month, they finished an expansion of their manufacturing facility.

The consistent comment from the tour group (which was comprised of professionals from other manufacturing and service facilities throughout Georgia) – “what a beautiful, clean facility, well run and organized.”  And, the camaraderie among the Count on Tools employees was evident as well.

Zach Shook, operations director, Marketing and IT was also on hand, and we discussed our upcoming travel plans for SMTAI and Productronica. I caught up with my friend Tom Foley from ASM, who is a customer of COT. Prime, a contract manufacturer here in Georgia, was also represented as well. (Shameless plug  – our next SMTA chapter meeting will be held at Prime, and our speaker with be Jeff Timms, managing director of ASM Americas.  He will speak on “Enabling the Digital World” which highlights many of the upcoming and future technologies which will drive the electronics assembly industry into the future.)

All In all, Count On Tools is an impressive manufacturing success story and a day well spent!  Thank you Curt, Rene, Zach and the Count on Tools team for your hospitality.

Frances Stewart is vice president for PCD&F/CIRCUITS ASSEMBLY.

Rethinking the Supply Line

The PCB fabrication industry is older than most of us still working. It is overdue for modernization. We have not seen transformational manufacturing changes in the PCB bare board industry during the past 15 years.

What we have seen is the installed capacity moved to China. It has been reported that 60% of global board fabrication now comes from mainland China or Taiwan. This move created a forced shift in how boards are purchased, and consequently created new demands in communication and logistics. Specifically, language, time zone, and cultural considerations. Bigger companies with China-based feet on the ground could adapt easily; the rest of us had to learn new skills.

I am suggesting that the rest of us modernize and rethink our supply line strategy.

Some may remember the evolution of the electronics component industry. First, component manufacturers sold directly to OEMs. Gradually, customers and component manufacturers found that a better path was through a local distributor. Arrow, Avnet, Future, DigiKey, and many others were born out of this efficiency. Today, it is an exception to buy directly from a component manufacturer.

PCB fabrication is difficult for distributors because every board is custom. Repeat: every board is custom. Custom equals high potential for error, which equals close technical review required.

So, buyers must go to China directly and slog through the variety of China sources. With this come the multiple challenges of accountability, communication, logistics and culture. The most dangerous of the challenges is having picked a supplier that occasionally (or often) sends subpar boards and provides no recourse or no response to your complaint. Do you really want to commit such a critical part of your BoM to the lowest China bidder?

The modernization of the PCB industry is not in processing, but in supply chain. A new category of value-added distributor is evolving in the same way the component distributor evolved … to make things easier. We call it “Managed Manufacturing Services.”

Think of it as a value-added distributor of printed circuit boards. This concept can greatly improve the supply chain for both customer and China manufacturer, but only if they really add value.

What are the important values, and how does this approach add value?

Technical support. The value-added distributor must be your expert design reviewer, capable of counseling you and quickly fixing the errors.

Only technically trained PCB teams really understand the manufacturability challenges of bare boards. With the technology of new IC packages pushing toward smaller geometries, new thinking is required about designing for manufacturability. So, your value added distributor has to be technically trained to provide this service.

Communication. The value-added distributor must be capable of clearly and cleanly communicating with a factory in a different country.

We have been working with offshore factories for a long time. We learned through hard knocks that developing a strong relationship with your counterpart in Asia is critical. I call it “Pitcher-Catcher.” Whether a fastball or a curveball, the two communicate in one cohesive motion. This takes time to develop and not every factory gets it.

Time zones can work to your advantage. We pitch everything to China by 5 pm Pacific and have answers at 6 am the next day. Your distributor must know the factory requirements well enough that only a few questions (EQs) come back, lessening the need for middle of the night conference calls.

Accountability. Your value-added distributor must have carefully vetted and audited the factories they use. They must be US corporations with financial accountability to their customers.

Slogging through a variety of factory options is not a good idea. Jumping from one to the next based on price and email pressure is also not a good idea. It wastes time and invites disastrous quality issues. Customers with little or no knowledge of what makes a solid factory are at particular risk. Yet most customers fall into this category.

If you have someone on staff with experience in this area, you can send them to China to visit multiple factories, but unless this person has in-depth knowledge of what makes the difference between okay and fantastic at the granular level, it is waste of $10,000. It takes deeply experienced people to see the difference. It takes board manufacturing experience.

From the China manufacturer’s side, it is just like the component manufacturers of old. It is much more efficient to deal with a small handful of companies who service the US market than it is to staff and service everyone. The culturally smart ones are beginning to see this and actually do view us as distributors for them. It is a proven supply-chain solution.

Following the model of the component distributors, we can modernize this PCB industry. We can improve efficiency, quickly adopt new technologies, and capture lower costs all by modernizing the supply chain. Welcome the value-added PCB distributor, or as we call it Managed Manufacturing Services.

Thomas Smiley is president, Precision PCBs; tsmiley@precisionpcbs.com.

Straightforward Explanation of MIL-I-46058C for Conformal Coatings

During your selection of conformal coating you ran in to a specification that you have seen before but not fully understood.  Conformal coating choices are vast, but with so many available, how does a user pick the correct one? Are there minimum standards that define what a conformal coating is supposed to do? Thankfully, yes there are. This column will focus on one such standard: MIL-I-46058C.

The official title for the specification is MIL-I-46058C, “Insulating Compound (For Coating Printed Circuit Assemblies).” The standard serves as a material standard, used to evaluate and document that a particular coating meets a list of specific performance attributes (more on those later). MIL-I-46058C was developed to define a uniform set of test methods and performance requirements for conformal coatings and gives users confidence that the material they select will perform.

MIL-I-46058C is managed by the Defense Logistics Agency (DLA).

DLA manages the standard and maintains the associated Qualified Products List (QPL). For a coating to be placed on (and stay on) the QPL, it must be tested annually by a DLA-certified laboratory. The data are reviewed annually by DLA to ensure that each coating proposed for inclusion on the QPL still meets the requirements of the standard. The latest version of the Qualified Products List is available from www.dscc.dla.mil.

MIL-I-46058C evaluates conformal coatings to an extensive list of properties. The tests are:

  1. Curing time and temperature: Coating must meet the requirements of the standard when cured according to the manufacturer’s instructions.
  2. Appearance: When cured per manufacturer’s instructions, coating should be smooth, homogenous, transparent, free of bubbles, pinholes, etc.
  3. Coating thickness: The recommended coating thickness shall be 1-3 mils for acrylic, urethane and epoxy coatings; 2-8 mils for silicone coatings; 0.5-0.7 mils for parylene coatings.
  4. Fungus resistance: The coating cannot support the growth of fungus.
  5. Insulation resistance: The average insulation resistance of all coated specimens shall be a minimum of 2.5 x 1012 ohms, with no specimens having a measured value below 1.5 x 1012 ohms.
  6. Dielectric withstanding voltage (DWV): Coated specimens subjected to 1500 VAC for 1 minute shall exhibit no disruptive electrical discharge (spark over, flashover or breakdown). The measured leakage current shall not exceed 10 microamperes.
  7. Q (Resonance): The resonance values for the coating, measured before and after immersion in DI water, must not change beyond specified limits.
  8. Thermal shock: Coating materials are subjected to 50 cycles of thermal shock. After thermal shock, coating must meet the Appearance and DWV requirements.
  9. Moisture resistance: The insulation resistance of the coating is measured under high temperature and humidity and must meet minimum specified values. After temperature / humidity exposure, the coating must meet the appearance, insulation resistance and DWV requirements.
  10. Flexibility: Coating is applied to a test substrate, cured per manufacturer’s instructions and bent 180° over a 0.0125” diameter mandrel. There shall be no evidence of cracking, crazing or adhesion loss of the coating.
  11. Hydrolytic stability: Coated specimens are subjected to four 28-day exposure of 85°C / 90% RH. After this exposure, the coating can show no evidence of softening, chalking, blistering, cracking, tackiness, adhesion loss or reversion to liquid state. The coating must also remain transparent enough to view nomenclature and color codes used to identify the components over which the coating is applied.
  12. Flame resistance: Coating shall be self-extinguishing and non-burning when subjected to a flame test.
  13. Shelf life: Coating must meet appearance, insulation resistance and DWV when tested after storage for six months at 25°C.

MIL-I-46058C was declared “inactive” in November 1998. This deactivation meant the standard was “inactive for new designs, except for replacement purposes.” This certainly does not mean MIL-I-46058C disappeared from the landscape. Today, MIL-I-46058C persists for coating users and specifiers due to its requirement for independent third party certification and remains the only published conformal coating standard with an associated QPL.

Caution!  As a user you have many choices of conformal coatings. Many materials claim to “meet the requirements’”of MIL-I-46058C. These are coatings have probably not been fully tested to the rigorous standard required to obtain and maintain MIL-I-46058C qualification. Treat these coatings with caution: “meets” does not mean “is” on the QPL. There is only one way to verify this and that’s through the DLA website.

The conformal coating selection process involves a check list of many variables. One of these variables is the need for MIL-I-46058C qualified coating. We hope that this article helps you understand not only how to find such a coating, but also what is behind this qualification.

Jeff Sargeant
www.humiseal.com

Simple Recipe to Avoid Conformal Coating Blush

Your conformal coating film is supposed to be clear and transparent, but it’s cloudy-white and dull … it’s blushing. This condition is an indication that your coating film is trying to tell you something, and it isn’t that it’s embarrassed.  This blog will help you better understand why your conformal coating film is blushing from acquired moisture contamination and help you eliminate this defect.

Coatings appear cloudy because they have inadvertently acquired moisture, either due to their hygroscopic nature or by artificial means (a cooling mechanism created by solvent evaporation), which then reacts negatively with the coating resin –  exhibiting itself as a milky, colloidal-type substance.  Many different types of conformal coating chemistries can be sensitive to blushing under certain circumstances.  These circumstances are usually related to specific ambient conditions, application, cure, condition of the assembly/substrate/associated components, storage environment and/or equipment under use.

blush-conformal-coating-example

These conditions include:

  • High humidity, ~70% or higher
  • Low (or cooling) temperatures, ~16oC or below
  • Assemblies and associated components exposed to ambient moisture during storage prior to coating, can significantly increases the chance of blushing.  To overcome this, baking is often recommended. Not baking your boards after cleaning is a prime source of moisture uptake into assemblies
  • Storage conditions (opened containers, inside pressure pot, RH resident in the charging gas of the application equipment) and interaction with moisture already on the assembly.

blush-conformal-coating-example-1

In conjunction with this variety of circumstances, certain solvent-borne chemistries can aggravate this condition due to the fast evaporation of internal solvents.  This creates a cooling mechanism as they volatize from the film.  This cooling mechanism will condense any moisture vapor that may be present in the immediate atmospheric area.

High solids, low volatile room temperature vulcanized, or UV conformal coatings (with secondary moisture cure functionality) may also show some degree of “blush.” They are more sensitive, possibly hygroscopic, to the presence of ambient moisture vapor as this is utilized to activate their primary or secondary curing mechanisms.

Problems that can be created due to moisture vapor intrusion/blushing:

  • Surface tackiness/incomplete cure
  • Below standard aesthetic quality
    • Coating discoloration
    • Poor gloss retention
  • Poor adhesion
  • Wrinkling during second coat application/over-coating.

Here are some simple steps to start with … DIY:

  • Maintain nominal ambient humidity in the production environment between 45% and 65%.
  • Maintain nominal ambient temperature in the production environment between 18oC and 27o
  • Increasing the flash time between coating application and cure may help, as moisture vapor in the wet film may have the potential to re-evaporate
  • Use different thinner to change evaporation rate.
  • Use desiccated air/nitrogen to push coating through applicator
  • Post-bake assemblies after aqueous wash (if applicable) to eliminate any entrapped (under or between components) moisture.
  • Ensure that all partial containers are properly sealed when stored. Nitrogen purge in partially used container helps to eliminate moisture.

We hope that this helped you understand what blushing is, how it occurs, and how to prevent/alleviate it from occurring.  Remember that moisture is the root cause of cloudy or blushing conformal coating.  With many potential sources of moisture contamination, following our simple recipe will lead you back to a crisp, clear, and transparent film, and zero defects.

Nick Naumovic

www.humiseal.com