Speeding up the PCB Manufacturing Process


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Lino Sousa of Pluritec discusses the next generation of equipment that's speeding up drill room processes. He also explains how technologists can now coat soldermask, tack cure, and be ready for imaging in 25 minutes or less. Sousa says a three-year ROI can be found in reduced electricity consumption alone.

Barry Matties: Please begin by telling us a bit about Pluritec.

Lino Sousa: Pluritec has been in the business of drilling and routing tools since the early '60s, so it’s basically been in the market for more than 50 years. The market has fluctuated, as we know. Now, with the research in North America for drilling tools, and not just normal drilling tools, but tools of multiple vision types, surface vision, X-rays, etc., we're drilling, we're slotting, we're pocket routing and we're doing much more than just making holes.

Matties: In North America, we have well-established drill companies. Pluritec hasn't been represented for a while, I don't think. How will you overcome that challenge?

Sousa: We have an advantage in that during the last 15 years Pluritec has spent a lot of resources in the X-ray and vision arena, where other drilling companies have not. Though we are a smaller presence in the drill arena, we have probably 98% of the X-ray arena. Almost every board built by the large manufacturer is run out of Pluritec Inspecta X-ray system, but that's not seen. We're playing off that by saying “Okay, you have to use this tool before you can even use your drill. Now we have drills that work seamlessly with the X-ray system.”

Matties: So then it is incorporated in as one unit—the drill and X-ray. Is there any other machine out there like this?

Sousa: Not that we know of.

Matties: That may not be a long-lasting advantage that you have, I would think.

Sousa: Correct, but with that same tool we can make our drilling systems ‘lights out’ because of the information and the capabilities that the tool provides. The future is lights-out drilling. Auto load, unload, and tool bit management. Your iPhone will tell you when to change the tool library.

Matties: You turned drilling into IoT. How many Inspecta combo X-ray machines have you placed in the U.S.?

Sousa: We currently have about 100 Inspecta systems in North America. We have installed six in just the San Francisco Bay Area this year. These are customers that already have their first one and now they're buying their second one.

Matties: That's a testament right there. How do you see the market and how far this goes?

Sousa: How small a circuit board are you going to make? Here is the issue. All of your other tools, your LDI, have vision or put things based on looking at something. There are thousands of drills out there that can't see anything. They work off of a hard tooling system. Once the product cannot be produced by errors in tooling, vision is required and that machine becomes obsolete.

We have three other areas that Pluritec is invested in. You're looking at the name company, but Pluritec also purchased EcoSpray. The other big advantage for North America, and worldwide, is we've been applying soldermask differently than the rest of the world for the last 10 years. Now you've got to make it smaller, you've got to make it accurate, and it's starting to bite people in the butt basically. Globally outside of North America, the common application of soldermask is either curtain coat or spray, meaning you never touch the board to apply the material. North American has been primarily hand screen, or automated screening like Circuit Automation, did a great job and sold a lot of DPs.

So now with tighter tolerances you've got overcome obstacles like  board warpage, topography, copper weight, etc.  To add to difficulty, screening can add ink in the holes, uneven deposition and is operator dependent (experience counts).  EcoSpray applies ink only where you want it. It doesn't shove it in the hole nor requires expertise to operate. Heck, you or I can operate the system, it’s that simple. When you put a board in the coating process at noon, you can coat both sides, tack dry and have it ready for imaging in 30 minutes.

Matties: Is this an inkjet technology?

Sousa: No, it's a full spray coat system using your existing materials. In the screening process, if they start at noon, it's two to two-and-a-half hours before they’re imaging. In a market like North America or California, that's huge.

Matties: How long does it take to go through the spray process itself?

Sousa: Spray process is two minutes, but the tack is 15, so I'm saying 25 to give them some cushion, because if I told them 2 minutes to spray and 15 to tack, they wouldn't believe me.

Matties: So 25 minutes and they're processing the board. That should be a pretty easy sale.

Sousa: Yes, we've sold 13 so far in the last 18 months. Here's the other thing, every two minutes I can give you a different color. In screening it's an hour to an hour-and-a-half setup for color, so if you've started with green, went to blue, went to red, went to white, and went back to green, you've done ten panels and you've just shot the day, whereas I've done all four in 30 minutes.

Matties: What's this machine cost?

Sousa: Entry level, without the ovens, it’s under $100,000.

Matties: That's very reasonable.

Sousa: Mid-level, meaning not all the way up to a TTM or a Sanmina level, it’s in the high $100,000s with the oven included. Then for fully automated, lights out, you're probably in the $250,000 range.

Matties: Where are these being made?

Sousa: They are being made in Italy. Here's the real beauty about the whole system.  We all talk eco, we talk about green and we talk about all these trade-offs. The tunnel ovens that are being used today in the marketplace take an hour to bake, running at 95−125 amps, and three-phase at 480 volts.

Matties: The electricity consumption is huge.

Sousa: It is in the $40,000 a year range. This has one 18kW heater running at 208V, 25amps.

Matties: What you're saying is that in three years alone, ROI on electricity is there for the base model. Five years for the bells and whistles.

Sousa: Forget about whether the machine works or not, just what you save in electricity will pay for it. So why aren’t they knocking at the door?

Matties: That was my next question.

Sousa: The fear of changing a process is so dramatic for them because most companies have soldermask process controlled by tribal knowledge operators with years of manual screening type experience. As soon as we say we can change it, obstacles get thrown in the way. The best way to solve these is you put the whole process in a different room and you take someone with no mask experience and show management the results. Then you move it into the soldermask department, because that's probably the last department that still has tribal knowledge. Here's the problem, up until now I've been selling these under MorTech as a distributor. Then we all sat down and said, “Look, it's time to make a line in the sand.” I did this in 1998 with testers. Pluritec has the technology, Limata has the LDI side and we have IS for developers. We can make soldermask turnkey for a fraction of what it costs today. You only need one person there, not two or three, for operating. It's so dynamic of a change that people are afraid to look at it all at once.

Matties: Do you only need someone there to load a board?

Sousa: If you have a DP you have to have somebody run the DP. If you have somebody running the imager, the imager is in a whole different department because you can't put the DP next to the imager. The developer is usually in the plating department so they've got to cart the boards over there.

So here we can put everything in line. You can put the board there, through the oven, through the imager, into the room of the small developer and keep everything in that department, controlled. Then the next step is all about accountability. How about knowing what panel went through where, with what material, what serial number, all the way for your ITAR and your ISO and everything else. Nobody did anything, the machine just did what it did and everyone loved it. They're still doing it on clipboards, and you know how clipboards are.

Matties: You want the data to be a result of a function, not a workload that you have to create or manage.

Sousa: But then you get someone who has been doing it for 20 years, and you have to get over that obstacle.

Matties: How do you get past the obstacle? Is it a bottom-line logic decision that people can make based on the ROI?

Sousa: Of the 13 that were installed, cost savings were understood, but when jobs can't get out the door it has to come to a point of “Okay, these jobs are not getting through because the tribal knowledge can't make magic.” If you're shoving the ink in the hole, the only way to clear the hole is to wash out the dam, and then your tribal knowledge doesn't work. When you spray a board and it doesn't do that, then you say goodbye. Technically, even if you didn't need the technology for accuracy, if you would just go get a lease for a couple grand a month instead of writing one check for $4,000 to your utility provider, you write $2,000 to utility provider and $2,000 to your lease, and five years from now you get to stop the lease payment. The other advantages of everything else is free.

Matties: It just has to be a pain point that they want, an ROI, or another priority like LDI that’s in the way.

Sousa: Here's the beauty that I'm enjoying the most right now. With MorTech, as a distributor for Pluritec for three years, we did a really good job, I think. There was a lot of business operation stuff that I had to do to be a distributor. By taking all of that away, I’ve been given complete rein to sell it, install it, find out what we need and build it. I have two power houses at my beck and call.

Matties: It's great to have support like that.

Sousa: The neat thing is we're both big and small. We're big enough that we've been around for 50 years, we have thousands of machines worldwide, we have technology, we can build X-ray and micro-drilling machines, and we're small enough that if I make a call to the CEO and say, "I need it backwards, and I need it in three months," he can build it. We're not a Titanic that says, “Oh wait a minute, there's three years of politics that have to get done first.” I believe the next 12–18 months is our time now and the market is going to make a shift.

Matties: This is great news. It's nice to see the brand coming back strong, and nice to see such an impressive lineup. Let's talk about the LDI series from Limata for a moment. This is an independent company?

Sousa: Yes, it's independent but we have some agreements where Limata and Pluritec work with each other in Europe selling and servicing each other. In North America, Pluritec already had a presence in New York for service and parts purely for the Pluritec line and they are sharing a marketing program. In the meantime Limata is building his own service organization in North America. MorTech was the EcoSpray and the Limata Service/Support provider. We have now separated EcoSpray which is part of Pluritec line and Limata is establishing their own parts and service department in Anaheim, CA.

Matties: It's a global market. What about the technology for Limata itself? There are a lot of choices out there now. How do you think it's going to stand up to the world known brands?

Sousa: We know that there's one brand that has 95% of the market. That means 95% of the job is getting done. If you want to sell an LDI for innerlayers or outer layers, there may be some opportunities with smaller companies. Of all the LDIs that are in North America, we could probably say 10−20% of the usage is on soldermask, but the soldermask transition is now coming. In the marketplace right now, everybody loves their LPI; they don't want to go to LDI. The only reason they go to LDI is they think they have to use it on an LDI, because the current LDI systems will take eight or nine minutes to image with an LPI material. Limata has a very unique patented process. We've introduced an IR laser in combination with a diode UV laser. Those materials that take eight or nine minutes are now two or three minutes, which is same time as an innerlayer and outer layer.

Matties: How much does a unit sell for?

Sousa: We can get you started at $250k for a small shop and about $500k to $600k in a big shop. Here's the beauty. You see those two machines right there? You can plug them both into one 20 amp circuit. Any other LDI that you see today that has to do soldermask, by the time you get all the DMDs, the LEDs, the chillers, all the heat generation, all the heat removal, you're talking 50–60 amps. You have to create an environment that heats things and then you have to cool them inside a room with air conditioning. All this does is say, "Look, take all the energy you need and just put it on the floor. Don't put it everywhere else." The little machine right there is three amps.

Matties: How many of these are in the U.S. now?

Sousa: We have now two in the U.S., with an installation coming in September, and two orders are now in the backlog for December/January installations

Matties: How difficult was it to make those first sales?

Sousa: Very difficult. Why? I was selling primary imaging. With the focus now purely on EcoSpray and soldermask, for less than what the competition sells an LDI I can make a whole soldermask department.

Matties: Is that how you're positioning your message?

Sousa: It's already been positioned. Because right now the cost to apply soldermask is not being monitored; they know they can't change it so they don't monitor it. You don't monitor what you can't change. If I tell you I can do it for a dollar, go find out what it costs them, and then they say, "Oh my gosh, it costs us $8." Yeah, when you didn't have an option you didn't care what it cost.

Matties: Have you received any studies where someone has come back and said, "This is our cost"?

Sousa: Not yet. Because the markets are so different, we've sold a lot of these in different kinds of companies. The things that tend to change are things like rent and utilities, but pretty much the soldermask application cost you can figure out without being in a company. Most companies won't share all those details.

Matties: I'm just curious if it is $8 or if it's more like $1.

Sousa: Take the three guys that make $30,000 a year, which is $100,000, that's 60k in savings. How many more pencils do we need to sharpen? They complain about 10 cents on a piece of laminate, but I'm saving them $60,000. It gets to the point that this is called napkin accounting.

Matties: I'm thinking more for the LDI. What about somebody who is looking for another LDI?

Sousa: That's very easy. Take the same panels and coat them on anybody's coater with an LPI material, run the image. Limata takes two or three minutes and competitive systems can take seven or eight minutes and some systems can’t image at all. This all changes if you use LDI type soldermask materials.

Matties: What happens with that?

Lino: Materials cost more and they have a smaller process window. Most customers will have expensive UL and customer approval process. Limata says, keep your current materials and use a system that does not require you to change materials.

Matties: That's right. Good, well it sounds like you're having a lot of fun and like this is a good move for you.

Sousa: I'm excited.

Matties: Thank you for spending so much time with us today.

Sousa: Thank you.

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