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While strolling the aisles at productronica, I happened upon the booth of Hofstetter Plating. I was not familiar with this PCB company so I stopped to chat. It turns out they aren’t exactly a PCB fabricator, but provide a comprehensive plating service in Europe and occasionally beyond that, offering several exotic and unique plating processes.
Patty Goldman: Andy, please tell me a little bit about yourself and your company.
Andy Stuetz: Hofstetter does copper plating, nickel, gold, palladium, whatever. We have all available final finishes in-house. In Europe, the situation is special. Not all in-house manufacturers have enough capacity to run a process cost-efficiently. So, what we do is collect the material in Europe and process them at our site in Switzerland, where we’re based. Our company is 50 people, working in some departments three shifts, so we have a huge capacity and we are often also a good back-up. If there is a problem with the in-house company, they give the material to us and we process it for them.
Goldman: Are customers mainly European?
Stuetz: Most of them are in Switzerland, Germany, Austria, but there are a few from U.S. and UK, Italy, and France.
Goldman: That’s interesting because they have to send their boards a long way.
Stuetz: For the medical industry they send the boards from the U.S. to Switzerland to get them processed at our company. Because we process final finishes like ENIG, ENEPIG, EPIG, ISIG (immersion silver/immersion gold) differently. We have a special gold bath that is a semi-reductive gold bath. Others very often struggle with getting the right gold thickness, and since we are using a semi-reductive bath, we have the possibility to put even more gold if required.
Goldman: And because plating is your specialty, you're very good at it.
Stuetz: Final finishes are a big segment of our business. Since we are a job shop, usually we get the material when the in-house manufacturers have a problem. All difficult-to-plate material ends up in Hofstetter, and over the years we’ve built up quite a lot of experience for how to process them. We also developed our own pretreatment. For example, in earlier days there was only one polyimide material. Nowadays you will easily find 50 different polyimide materials and they are not all simple to process. We developed our own pretreatment called ToPI treatment of polyimide, and with this process we can make sure that with one go, the difficult-to-process polyimide material will be successfully plated.
Goldman: How's business of late?
Stuetz: This year was quite busy. The industry has improved a lot.
Goldman: I've heard that lots of the PCB shops are full to capacity, and so they must be sending you a lot of work.
Stuetz: We are getting over-capacity, but we also get boards if they have an in-house problem with the equipment or with the chemistry or materials.
Goldman: Or if they don't have that final finish, you have all the final finishes.
Stuetz: We do all kinds of PCB finishes. We do desmear, plasma, PTH, panel plating, pattern plating, and we have all the different final finishes and those that are not so much known, like EPIG or ISIG. These are nickel-free finishes. Nowadays, more and more boards go into high-frequency applications and nickel is a problem for these because of the magnetism of the nickel, and the medical industry doesn’t like the nickel for allergic reasons.
Goldman: You not only plate, but you take it all the way through final finish?
Stuetz: We get them for PTH copper plating and again at the end, when they have applied the solder mask, we get them for the final finish.
Goldman: That's interesting. And you say business is good this year and productronica has been good. Is there anything else you'd like to talk about?
Stuetz: Our company invests on average a million dollars every year on new technology, and we are the first and only supplier of through-hole plating. So, not only plating the barrel but plating the complete column with via-fill, with copper. We are not only doing this for the blind microvias, but we are doing this for the through-holes. And this will take maybe one or two more years, but it is quite an interesting technology. Because heat and heat management becomes more of a problem, so you plate the hole with copper to get better heat dissipation.
Goldman: Thermal management is getting to be increasingly important. Thank you so much for your time. It’s been a pleasure and I learned a lot.
Stuetz: You're welcome. Thank you.