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Circuit Automation’s Tom Meeker joined me for a conversation at productronica 2017 in Munich, to update me about what the company has been doing in solder mask coating equipment.
Patty Goldman: Tom, it’s good to see you and Circuit Automation at productronica.
Tom Meeker: We like to exhibit at productronica because we see a worldwide mix of customers, and as a small company a lot of people come to us from parts of the world where we wouldn't generally go prospecting. It’s very efficient to exhibit here. It’s a good value for us.
Goldman: For our reader who don’t know, tell us a little bit about yourself and Circuit Automation.
Meeker: Circuit Automation has been in business since the early ‘80s. In 1990 we developed the double-sided solder mask coating machine. For the last 27 years, we have focused strictly on coating and drying liquid photoimageable (LPI) solder mask. We make a variety of models, but our sole focus of the company has been in that area and we've been able to develop additional products, and keep making the product much more mature as the needs of the customer changed. The machines can be either semi-automatic or fully automatic. In today's market, the fully automatic machines make sense for the people doing long runs of high production, which translates to most of those machines that are now in China. The semi-automatic ones are very versatile, so we see a lot of the demand for those in the rest of the world.
Goldman: How has business been?
Meeker: This year will be the best year for Circuit Automation of the past 10. We've seen increasing demand and customers are buying more machines. We divide the world into three spectrums: Asia, North America, and Europe. This year, a lot of the increased demand has come from the U.S., which there hasn’t been for a long time. This is partially newer technology machines replacing the older technology machines. We have extremely high market share in North America.
Goldman: And the liquid resists, I would guess, are becoming more and more ubiquitous, shall we say?
Meeker: Dry film solder mask is done for PCB. Everybody is using LPI solder mask, and there are several ways to apply it. Our method is a double-sided screen printer, which gives us several advantages, obviously, from only handling the panel once as opposed to with other methods where you do one side then the other.
Goldman: How does it work?
Meeker: It coats top to bottom, both sides at once. Especially since a key target market for us is thin panels and FPC, by handling the product one time, the handling damage is greatly reduced, and we are able to coat two sides of very thin panels.
Goldman: Now, when you say you can make it fully automatic, what all does that include with regard to before and after?
Meeker: Fully automatic means with a dryer. The panel comes from a loader or a stacker, or an automatic clean line straight in horizontally to a centering device. It's picked up, put into the vertical position, it's coated vertically, a robot takes it out and puts it into a hanging oven vertically, and at the end of the oven it puts it back to the horizontal position so that it can be developed or rack or stack or whatever.
Goldman: So how thin of material can it handle?
Meeker: Under 1 mil.
Goldman: Of course, the next step will be imaging, and you don't get involved in that.
Meeker: Right, but what we've seen is the DI imaging systems work better with more even coating. And our machine is coating very evenly across the whole panel. It has better distribution than our older technology, as well as better than flatbeds or spray coaters. So when people are investing the money in expensive DI systems, having a repeatable thin coating with very low variation shows them a big benefit for the other machines they have purchased.
Goldman: Do you also sell the dryers?
Meeker: We sell a variety of dryers—either stand-alone dryers or as part of the system, fully automatic. And that same dryer can also be used in final bake.
Goldman: Is the load and unload part of your system also?
Meeker: It is on the fully automatic ones, yes.
Goldman: I keep hearing that business is booming over here, so that ought to translate to some good days for all our equipment guys.
Meeker: Yeah, we're happy. We got a purchase order from a European customer here yesterday for another new machine. So that's a plus.
Goldman: And I see that a lot of the equipment on the floor here at productronica has already been sold either before or after the show.
Meeker: Yes, the machine we're exhibiting was sold to another customer.
Goldman: That's great!
Meeker: It's good, you know? There seem to be people wanting to invest in new technology and spend money to upgrade their capabilities, so that's good thing for us.
Goldman: It's nice to talk with you, Tom.
Meeker: I appreciate the opportunity to speak with you.