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Nolan Johnson talks with Brian Hess of Calumet Electronics and Mike Vinson of Averatek about the new, insertable additive processes that the companies are working on together to help factories running primarily subtractive processes to quickly convert to very high-density interconnect (HDI) features, including trace and space from 2.5-mil line and space to 1-mil line and space and below.
Nolan Johnson: Gentlemen, it’s a pleasure to have this conversation. Averatek and Calumet are working together to bring additive type processes out to manufacturing. Tell me about it.
Brian Hess: Averatek has developed A-SAP™, a semi-additive process, and Calumet has partnered with Averatek to implement this technology in a higher volume manufacturing environment versus in a laboratory. We are currently working through the various stages of process development and will soon be offering this additive technology from our production facility.
Mike Vinson: We’ve approached a lot of different shops with this technology, and they all basically said the same thing: “As soon as you get it going somewhere, let us know, and we’ll see if we like it.” Nobody wanted to take the first step until we got in touch with Calumet Electronics. They are forward-looking enough to be able to see that this technology can move them ahead. And by being a first mover, they can take advantage of that and get more market share in this fast-growing market.
Johnson: Tell me a bit about what’s comprised in this approach. Walk me through the pieces.
Vinson: It’s very simple. It’s the Averatek semi-additive process, along with the necessary chemistries to be able to execute that. We have introduced Calumet to our liquid metal ink (LMI). We’ve also introduced them to other chemistries around the LMI that allow it to be used in their shop as a drop-in process, such as different ways to re-treat and etch the boards, but they’re basically using the same equipment and same kind of process parameters; they’re just a little bit different and more tuned to the A-SAP™ process, which is largely what we bring to them. What they’re bringing to us is a pathfinder experience so that we understand the best way to implement these things into factories, where they’re coming from, and what kind of changes need to be made; as they go through those changes, we can work with them to implement that in the most aggressive manner we can.
Johnson: Brian, with this system in the Calumet facility, what can you achieve? What does this give you the capability to do?
Hess: Our initial goal is to be able to efficiently and effectively run it through PCB manufacturing. The end goal is to start picking up and building orders with this technology.
Johnson: Do you have customers who are asking you for capabilities that you can only deliver with this sort of a system?
Hess: Yes, there is interest from the OEM market, and, at the same time, we are trying to spark more interest by introducing this to our existing customers to let them know what this technology is an how they can utilize it in their design or manufacturing.
Johnson: What was the setup process like for you and your team? We’re talking about something with an ink product, using chemistry that surrounds it, that drops into an existing facility with minimal—if any—changes to equipment. How did that experience go?
Hess: It went pretty well. One of my colleagues and I went to Averatek and watched them do the process in their facility. They laid out a roadmap for the process steps that it has to go through, and then we visualized where we could fit this in. We added a prototype line, specifically for the electroless copper process. But most of the other equipment we have available and were able to utilize to get this process through. I’m still working bugs out, but we have come a long way since last August.
Vinson: And even the prototype line is more or less conventional—something that is isolated—so you wouldn’t disrupt your normal production. And it’s also pretty small in terms of area. It didn’t take up a lot of factory space to install.
Hess: Not at all. It’s just a series of tanks. Right now, it’s manual, but we could set it up to be automated.
Johnson: How much time did you schedule for setting up the system?
Hess: When we had equipment become available, such as the ovens, we moved into the right areas. When we got these tanks, we also moved into the right areas, dropped the water down, and dropped power; that didn’t take very long. We probably had it all in place in a week. Some of the other things that weren’t part of our standard process maybe took a couple of weeks to get something designed and laid out so that we could do the actual ink application. Other than that, we just did some trial and error with the first couple rounds and figured out what we needed to put these boards through so that they would survive.
Johnson: What I’m hearing is a month or so, you were set up.
Hess: That was the time frame in which we started talking about it until we were in and dipping product.
Johnson: What do you think your throughput is with this particular line?
Hess: For throughput, running it on a daily basis, I’d estimate we could probably get 50 panels a day through the facility. And with these being miniaturized for the parts that are going on them and the number on a panel, that would count for a higher volume, as well.
Johnson: And, of course, you’ve already alluded to the possibility of automating that process, which means you’d probably get greater throughput out of it. Mike, what kind of training is involved for a customer like this to put together this system?
Vinson: That’s a good question. There’s really not a lot of formal training involved; it’s mainly going through the examples and explaining the process flow, as Brian said. Most shops already have personnel trained in things like quality control, how to keep all the plating baths properly adjusted, and all of the metrics that they need. They’re pretty much all in place. It helped that they came into our shop and saw how that worked. Once you’re in the process flow, it’s pretty straightforward. It doesn’t require a lot of new techniques or technology to be able to implement.
Johnson: How are the acceptance and interest now that you have a new facility?
Vinson: We actually have two facilities now. And we see a lot more interest as a result of that. I think the interest is going to peak when Calumet starts shipping products to customers using this technology. We know that their management is behind it, and we feel like that’s going to go at the best possible pace that they can to get it out to the market for us.
Johnson: Brian, do you know when you think you’re going to ship product?
Hess: I hope that within the next couple of months, we will have live products on the floor.
Johnson: Anything else we should note, Mike?
Vinson: The biggest thing is that you could take a factory that’s running primarily subtractive processes and—with some advanced technology in place to do the lithography, inspection, and quality control—quickly convert it to be a very high-density factory without much effort using this approach. And we’re discovering more and more about how that can be quickly implemented. As we go through each factory, we’ll probably come up with a more and more condensed version of how to get started, which will allow factories just to take off quicker.
Johnson: I know this is a tipping point in our industry. Ownership started in the ‘80s, and many are looking to retire; they just don’t want to invest in the facilities. Yet, the facilities are on the verge of being left behind by the industry. What do these companies do—quickly and easily—to convert their facility into 21st century, cutting-edge competitiveness, as opposed to just shutting it down and giving it away? You seem to be sitting here with a product that could be a part of that.
Vinson: Yes. These products can help them make that transition. It still requires that they take on a more modern approach to building printed circuit boards than the buggy-whip manufacturer would have. A lot of these factories have taken on the low-hanging fruit part of that modernization and have implemented many new things. One of the interesting things about Calumet is we have younger engineers working within the factory, whereas a lot of PCB manufacturers in the U.S. have trouble attracting young people to their factories.
That will be an important point; you have a generation of people coming on board who are going to be able to take this forward, which justifies the investment. Then, more factories will be able to make the investment and go forward. The upfront investment for implementing the A-SAP™ process is basically nothing, but to take full advantage of it will require some changes in critical parts of the factories. Calumet gave us the proof point that indicates, “If I do make that investment, I’ll get a return.” This is important because PCB manufacturers are fundamentally risk-averse.
Johnson: When you can put something that is a minor adjustment to the proper industry, doesn’t change the facility, and allows them significant change and capability in their facility, that would be attractive.
Vinson: That’s how we see it.
Johnson: Any final thoughts?
Vinson: The two key points here are we’re starting to get traction now in the industry as a whole, and we are doing that in a way that is implementing as well we could have hoped.
Johnson: Thank you for your time.
Vinson: Thanks again, Nolan.