ESI’s Chris Ryder: There’s More to Choosing a Laser Than You Think
At the recent HKPCA show, I sat down with ESI’s Chris Ryder, director of product management—HDI—to discuss considerations for choosing a new laser system, and how ESI uses its decades of flex and rigid-flex drilling experience to help guide customers in their decision-making process. We also discussed ESI’s newest, granite-less, Geode CO2 laser drilling system for the rigid HDI PCB manufacturing market.
Barry Matties: First, can you talk a little bit about your role at ESI and what ESI offers?
Chris Ryder: My role at ESI is to develop our HDI platform. ESI is a big player in the flex and rigid-flex market with our UV products. Several years ago, we started some product development on the rigid board manufacturing side of things. My job is to support continuous development into the HDI, substrate-like PCB and ICP space.
Matties: HDI is obviously an area that is growing. We're seeing HDI in more and more places. I think I was at a conference not long ago where Lee Ritchey, an iconic designer and instructor, said, "If you're not doing HDI now, you're about to be."
Ryder: That's a fair statement. It’s one of the reasons why the market is so attractive to us. Having come from HDI manufacturing myself, I've watched the market mature over the past decade and a half, and I've seen the HDI process demonstrate its merits—commercial and technological, as well as applications outside of just the handset market. This is where the technology got its initial foothold. Watching HDI develop into the automotive and industrial applications market, as well as being an element of the packaging market, has been a very interesting process.
And you're absolutely right, it's becoming very commonplace now, which is clearly reflected in the upshot of companies we're seeing across Asia and other markets. These are companies that start and upgrade to HDI; the base is rapidly growing.
Matties: When we look at HDI, there's a lot of conversation. You have a lot of experience, so what's your take on if HDI costs more or less generally speaking?
Ryder: Ultimately, you have to understand what the most important focus of your product is. Is it performance, size, cost? What is going to sell your product? For example, it’s relatively straightforward and obvious why miniaturization that you get from HDI would be a clear winner in a smartphone. When you look at other areas of application, it's not always as obvious. Especially when you talk about PC or automotive electronics, sometimes they have space for a PCB that doesn't have that dense of a fan-out or via structure.
But then when you look at material and real estate costs, as well as the utilization in panel manufacturing, these numbers start to change. Again, it depends on the overall product scope that you have. How much HDI do you have in your stack-up? Do you have a 1-n-1 or a 3-n-3? How much advantage can you take of that real estate reduction?
The major new drivers right now are areas like IoT and automotive. You have high-frequency applications calling for very specialized chipsets that fundamentally need to be fanned out through HDI-type structures. To some degree, your limitation is coming from the chipset or applications manufacturers. In essence, you're being forced into HDI design rules. Maybe that's what Lee Ritchey means when he talks about, "If you're not doing it now, you will be very soon.”
Matties: When we look at the definition of HDI, there are some evolving definitions.
Ryder: That’s true. It's an intriguing dynamic. Having been in the HDI industry for a while, it used to be just synonymous with laser vias. In the meantime, even in our own company at ESI, when I talk with management, customers, and suppliers, we try to reach an understanding of the product differentiation in that market. You end up having to apply different terminology such as HDI, SLP, ICP, or FCCSP, etc. to distinguish the design rules and materials necessary for those products.
With those distinctions come a host of other things that apply to us in the laser drilling industry such as via size, via quality, accuracy demands, and automation demands. It’s interesting to follow and see how the nomenclature has developed into these submarkets. It helps us to orient ourselves as to where our systems are being used, but like anything, it's a constant motion.
Matties: And the rate of change is accelerating.
Ryder: The rate of change accelerates with the rate of acceptance of HDI or the laser via as a nominal construct for an interconnect.
Matties: As a circuit board fabricator looking at HDI as a new market space, there's an investment of technology that they'd need to make—laser drill being one of those. What advice do you have for those people?
Ryder: The best advice I could give is to understand precisely what you want. I know that sounds trivial, but what you want comes down to what is ultimately going to earn you money. Is it going to be speed, yield, a diversity of materials, or a focus on one specific product type? Coming in from the laser drilling perspective, one of the things that we try to do is guide customers in that decision-making process. There are many different lasers and ways to guide and steer that beam. Further, many different platforms mechanically manipulate the product that you're cutting and drilling, so there are many options to explore.
Talking with your supplier about the options that you have is going to help optimize your return. Is it going to be yield focused? Yield focus might not be the primary driver for a prototype shop, for example. Meanwhile, relevancy might be more determined by the diversity of base materials that you're seeing. An HVM manufacturer clearly is going to focus on the highest amount of throughput they can get and the highest degree of automation. Again, understanding what you want and what's going to make you money will help us facilitate that need.
Matties: Now, there are options in the technology of laser drills. What technology considerations should they have?
Ryder: It’s important to understand the range of applications that you have. For us, that typically means the range of via size and the typical aspect ratios bound to those via sizes. The types of materials you plan to process are also very important. Are these high-frequency materials, standard FR-4 materials, or ABF materials? Are they copper clad? If so, does it have 12- or 2-micron copper? Is this an mSAP process or a subtractive PCB process? Is it going to affect copper or glass? What kind of spot size is going to facilitate the via size that you need? I would say those are probably the key product technology distinctions and decisions to consider because ultimately, that tells us what laser regime is going to work best for you.
Matties: What I'm hearing is there are a lot of considerations and variables that you really have to weigh because this is not a small investment.
Ryder: By no means is it a small investment, but it is an important one.
Matties: Yes, so you want to get it right the first time.
Matties: Tell us about a little bit about the new technology you’re introducing here at the show.
Ryder: We're launching a product at the HKPCA called Geode. The Geode system is a CO2 via drilling system for the rigid HDI, SLP, and FCCSP market. The CO2 via drilling space is challenged at the moment with an influx of new materials with a broad range of market applications. As we discussed earlier, companies entering the market and making their first foray into HDI are really being pushed to the edge of demands in terms of via structure, count, and size from the OEMs. We've worked on devising a system that addresses that broad market without having to over-configure each individual system for each customer.
With this particular system, the way we do that is by leveraging the decades of experience we have in via drilling in the flex and rigid-flex market. That knowledge has given us a very detailed understanding of what our options are in terms of optics, beam steering, and laser power control. We’ve been able to harness a lot of these lessons that we've learned on the way from customers into a CO2 system package, which is quite unique for the industry. A lot of the things that we're doing for the system go above and beyond what the current competition is aiming to achieve. With that, we're trying to match customers' roadmaps and give them a system they can use for years to come, depending on their roadmap needs. We want them to get more out of the system for a longer time.
Matties: I looked at the system yesterday, and it looks great.
Ryder: Thank you.
Matties: It’s a beautiful design. It's rare that you walk through and say, "Wow, that's a pretty piece of equipment." The full window view on the front, the angles, the color look great, but looks are by far the least important in a decision. You've also managed to build it without a granite platform, which reduces the weight substantially.
Ryder: That's correct.
Matties: How do you get past the thinking that granite provides a higher degree of accuracy?
Ryder: Firstly, thank you for the compliments on the system design. I wish I could take credit for all of it, but this has clearly been a process of working directly with our customer base and our amazing engineers. As smart as the system looks, a lot of this is designed for ease of use, so the open space that you feel when you open the chamber is all geared towards easy maintenance and cleaning, less downtime in manufacturing, etc.
Again, it really has been a cooperative effort between our customers and in-house engineers. Part of that is the system footprint and dimensions, which includes weight. The granite-based via drilling system in CO2 is partially a legacy from the mechanical drilling days when these laser via drilling systems were adopted onto existing platforms. By no means is it something that's unnecessary; you have a lot of stability required when you move the stage at certain speeds, so there's certainly no reason to discount the granite-based platform as such. But we’ve found ways to move around this.
When we talk to customers across the world, we see a struggle to increase capacity with such a limited footprint. We see struggles to build up instead of out from a factory and the limitations you have when you put a 6.7-ton system on the second, third, or fourth floor. ESI has been manufacturing non-granite-based via drilling systems for decades. The question here is, “Why should this be fundamentally different with CO2?” So, we went back and did the engineering homework to figure out how to do that.
To your question on how we show the customer that this is indeed a possibility for them and something that can work for them, well, ultimately we're going to have to prove it to them. That is why we're here at HKPCA. We need to engage with our existing and future customer base. We'd like to show them through sample demonstrations and let them see themselves how the system works. We're an engineering company and have data to back up what we do. There's a strong legacy of this type of manufacturing that ESI brings to the table, and I think that's probably the single-most significant evidence at this point.
Matties: The other thing that I noted in my tour yesterday was the improved cycle time where I think you mentioned a 30% gain. Is that in time or total cost?
Ryder: We're looking at reducing both, so our premise is that reduced cycle time saves the customer money. With the system and the way we've aimed to configure it, we see a significant decrease in cycle time through drilling. The drill time is less, and how we're doing that is very unique in some cases. I won't go into detail at this time on how we do it other than to say that ESI is clearly an experienced manufacturer and leader in terms of optics and laser power delivery through the optics. We've been able to harness a lot of what we've learned in our UV system platform into the CO2, which gives us very unique capabilities to manipulate the CO2 pulse as well.
In the end, we're all dealt the same cards. You have this pulse—some are longer and some are shorter. ESI has the optics knowhow to really take out every little bit that we can from this pulse. We can harness the full pulse, so to speak. Again, without going into detail, what this translates into for a customer is increased throughput, flexibility, and power management capability. We want to help you get the energy to the work surface that you need and not just what you have.
Matties: This has been great. Chris, is there anything that we haven't talked about that you feel we should cover?
Ryder: We're very excited about this platform. This is a concerted effort to demonstrate to our customers the gratitude that we have for them working with us to help develop a system that makes their manufacturing better. We're thrilled to have this opportunity to show it off at a venue like this.
Matties: Thank you very much.
Ryder: Thank you for your time.