No New Lessons for 2014

Here we go again! It is 2014 and I have read the obligatory half dozen or so 2013 reviews about our industry. I searched for something unique, something significant, and something that would provide me with lessons learned that would indicate a direction to better face the future. I found none.

I then proceeded to read the rash of standard prognosticator “forecasts.” And I discovered what may be the treasure among the, well, I won’t say trash, but will say banal vague sameness. It is Dr. Jennie Hwang’s “New Year Outlook.” Hwang provides a broad look at the global and local economic impacts on our industry, notes (what I consider to be) a monumental event in the IC industry, provides a valuable perspective on China today – and tomorrow, itemizes important points to consider in hardware manufacturing, touches on print and optoelectronics, forecasts a PV market upturn, touches on regulatory environments, and proposes an interesting definition for “advanced manufacturing.”

My job is done. I no longer feel the compunction to generate a forecast. Instead, I will focus on assisting innovators to commercialize their products, solving business and marketing problems, helping companies to grow globally – and locally, and building a successful future for select participants in our industry. This includes evaluating existing and future supply chain strategies.

One must remember that China may not be the lowest cost source for various global markets, but it is certainly the best positioned site for providing products to its burgeoning domestic consumer market — the world’s largest — for automotive and wireless electronics. One must also consider what the renewed interest in regionalization may mean in terms of electronic manufacturing. It may be that another adjacent or nearby location would provide the best option in terms of regulation, taxes, labor, stability and infrastructure to serve the target market. It appears to me that if this were not so, then China would not be investing in operations in Europe and Latin America.

Do you remember when drilling services thrived in America to provide low-cost accurate drilling for PTH circuit boards? One would think that some astute businessman would create something similar to help companies get into the production of HDI boards. Well, it has been done — in South Korea. In 2013 Daewon Innovation started a laser drilling service for HDI boards with eight Sumitomo systems. Daewon is also a distributor of MacDermid’s specialty chemicals used in making holes conductive and filling vias.

Can America’s spirit and ability to develop an assembly line for high tech multidiscipline manufacturing be rejuvenated? Turn on your sound and watch the complete production of a complex system with over a million parts at the rate of one every 55 minutes – in early 1941!

The ‘Hole’ Truth about Drilling PCBs

Okay, here we go, blog number 3; but first allow me to do a quick review of what we’ve covered so far:

1.) Not everyone who says they can make RF/MW PCBs really can.
2.) High performance substrates act NOTHING like FR-4 in the fabrication process, and a qualified supplier must be a “Material Guru.”
3.) Just as RF/MW engineering is a specialty, so is RF/MW PCB fabrication.
4.) Don’t be hasty in starting relationships with RF/MW PCB suppliers. Do your homework and ask important questions.

Now, moving along. Let’s talk about drilling holes. Automated drilling machines are incredible, when you think about it. The X-Y axis accuracy of hole placement, the throughput, and the speed of the spindles are all truly amazing! When drilling FR-4 material, the bits cut through material like a hot knife through butter. When you throw some Rogers PTFE, or Taconic in the mix, however, a dramatic shift occurs. The drill operators start throwing back Red Bulls, and all that mindless trust in the drill’s amazing technology vanishes.

Again, remember the Material Guru analogy: for every substrate brand, composition, thickness and copper weight, there is a specific recipe—in this case a drill recipe. (Thankfully, these recipes are supplied by the substrate manufacturers.) The speed of the spindles must be adjusted to keep them from tearing up the softer materials and leaving behind chewed up hole walls. The drill bits must be changed frequently to ensure optimal sharpness. The feed speed must be altered as well, to ensure a clean entry and exit of the drill bits. If you don’t have cleanly drilled holes with smooth hole walls, you will be in deep water once the boards hit plating (no pun intended).

In addition to these adjustments, talented design engineers continually delight us with their ever-so-complex designs that require multiple drill operations (due to buried and blind vias). Sometimes, back drilling or controlled depth drilling is required. All these factors serve to compound the, already complex, challenges. (Yes, there is laser drilling, but that comes with another set of unique challenges — and requires a separate post!)

Needless to say, drilling is a critical step in the manufacturing of RF/MW boards. If you mess it up in drilling, expensive laminates end up on the scrap pile, along with any hope a supplier may have of making a profit. So, here is what I hope you will take away from this brief post: Drilling RF/MW PCBs is dramatically different than drilling standard FR-4 boards. It requires knowledge, skill and experience. It naturally costs more (due to drill bit usage and added labor) and is far more risky, from a profit standpoint, for the supplier. It can be risky for you too, but only if you have inadvertently partnered with an unqualified supplier.

For all these reasons, when you get an opportunity to visit an existing or prospective PCB supplier, keep these things in mind as you ask questions about their drill operations. If you see wide-eyed drill operators, a heap of drill bits and Red Bull cans … you are probably in the right place!