AT&S: Working With Designers on a Global Level
Barry Matties recently took a tour of AT&S’s Austrian factory, which is developing new circuit design strategies surrounding embedded and active components. Gerald Weis discusses the company’s focus on serving and educating PCB designers around the world, as well as their plans to embrace the latest technology and Industry 4.0 processes going forward.
Barry Matties: AT&S has a long history as a leader on many levels. What is your current revenue?
Gerald Weis: We’re proud that we hit $1 billion in the last financial year. At the moment, about 10,000 employees work for our company. What’s interesting is that people are working an average of five to seven years within AT&S, which is longer compared to the industry average. Especially if you look to China, that’s really good.
Barry Matties: Because every Chinese New Year, you tend to lose people. Is your facility in Shanghai?
Weis: Our headquarters is in Leoben, and we have a production site in Fehring; those are all plants in Austria. In Nanjangud, India, we run standard multilayer PCB constructions. Chongqing essentially focuses on substrates; we do small PCBs and substrates there. We do HDI build-ups at AT&S Shanghai, and Ansan is one of our smallest plants, which is responsible for flex PCBs.
Matties: Do you do a lot of flex?
Weis: Yes. We do rigid-flex, full flex, and flex to install, where we use prepreg instead of polyimides. It is bendable for about five or 10 times. Customers usually use it for installing purposes in their fixture.
Matties: How long have you had the facility in India?
Weis: In 1999, we acquired Indal Electronics Ltd., the largest Indian PCB plant in Nanjangud.
Matties: Is there some advantage to the location of your headquarters?
Weis: Based on Austrian economical history, this area around Leoben largely focused on the steel industry. A big iron ore mine was largely exploited, so there are hardly any resources left. In the early ‘80s, the government realized that the steel industry should not be their only focus, so they decided to invest in other industries; they came to the electronics industry to offer jobs for the region. With that, the first plant was built, doing PCBs for IBM. About 25 years ago, AT&S became a privately owned company. The company’s success also came from management decisions.
Matties: When it was privatized, how big was the company?
Weis: At the time, we only had three locations in Austria. There were about 1,500 people overall, which meant €70 million turnover per year.
We have had immense growth over the past 25 years. And our growth is also connected to the success of handheld devices in the early days; that was a big driver.
Matties: Nokia and Research in Motion were big in Europe.
Weis: We have played a major role in the success of these two companies. Last year, I was in the U.S. at the IMAPS Device Packaging Conference, and I recognized that Nokia and its outstanding supply chain is still in developers minds. Nokia has somehow driven the electronics industry in many production-related areas, especially in miniaturization.
Matties: When you say the supply chain, describe what you think it should look like now.
Weis: Embedding of components inside a PCB requires a special surface finishing on the electrically conductive connections. The wafer manufacturer or a third-party supplier usually applies it directly on the wafer. The traceability plays a big role, as the whole supply chain needs to be adapted accordingly. We, as a PCB manufacturer with the ability to embed components inside the PCB, also need to ensure that a reliable interface to the wafer fab is established. It is also essential to trace which silicon die is assembled in which card. To ensure an efficient throughout, you need to understand the whole value chain. A focus on your specific item only is not enough. That’s why we always look at what’s happening one step before and one step after our part in the value chain.
Matties: I would even go further and say you have to look at the first and last step and understand every other step because they’re all connected.
Weis: By wafer manufacturing, you get a wafer and a wafer map indicating all good dies. There is surface finishing, which may be aluminum, but aluminum cannot be connected to copper in a reliable manner. How do you ensure an electrical connection? Usually, you use a redistribution layer to connect the aluminum or gold chip pad to a copper surface, which we can connect directly to the PCB structure. To apply such structure, a wafer manufacturer, a third party, or an in-house process are possible. Those are the scenarios we are thinking of, and that is where we try to get the work done as quickly as possible. Sure, a third party could be the fastest, but it’s also the most expensive way to get it done. In the end, you have to decide based on the project and the layout of the chip as well as the PCB. Typically, we wants to have the fastest and cheapest way, but some compromises need to be taken into account. Additionally, we think about the assembly, as we are able to do direct wafer assembly as well as assembly from tape and reel.
Matties: Are you talking about high-current applications?
Weis: We are not only talking about converters, inverters, and voltages up to 1,200 volts that are needed for lithium-ion batteries. Now, the automotive requirement is 48 volts for the high-power board net. There is a change from 12 volts to 48 volts for start-stop systems and auxiliaries like electric climate control, electric power steering, and more. We also work in the segment of Industry 4.0 and machine-to-machine communication. The industrial sector is more or less concerned about high-performance computing, which involves impedance controlled transmission lines, small line and space requirements, less copper heights, and high layer count. For automotive, the focus is more on high copper weights and large areas to get rid of the heat while a high current throughput is needed.
Matties: Do you see any trends in those areas right now?
Weis: In general, we see automotive as a challenging area. From a European perspective, with the automotive industry being difficult, the whole industrial area is not the easiest one to be in either, but everyone has to cope with that situation. We still benefit because cars are becoming more and more digital, and we are playing in this field. Medical is doing well, and another driver is the mobile device substrates market. Hearing aids, for example, are small. Embedding help to find novel solutions to pursue further miniaturization, enlarge the battery, and extend the overall lifetime. That is an interesting sector for us as well.
Matties: What’s your role here, and what does a typical day look like?
Weis: My role involves hardware development. I work together with customers to optimize actual solutions, develop new ideas, and miniaturize PCBs. I also help to establish new technologies at the customer’s side. My daily bread is to do designs and electrical simulations. For simulations requiring multi-physic approaches, I do those with our in-house simulation department. Together, we try to indicate warpage issues before production. First, we calculate the build-ups, and then we simulate it to ensure proper behavior. If we agree with the results, the production starts.
Matties: And more and more simulations come into play.
Weis: Electrical simulation only is often not enough. Thermal considerations are also interesting, especially for converter and inverter applications. For example, if you have a transistor embedded inside a PCB, you might need some simulation to figure out thermal resistance and compare standard packed devices in terms of performance. Therefore, we have various flexible software packages and experts to ensure fast and reliable simulations, figuring out the results of electric and thermal characteristics. For electrical ones, we focus on H-field, B-field, E-field, and S-parameters for RF-applications. In principle, we simulate solutions for high-performance switching as well as high-frequency transmission.
Matties: But the simulation is only as good as the variables that you input.
Weis: I fully agree. Before starting a simulation, we characterize the behavior of the base materials used. We know exactly how the base material performs. At the front-end simulation of PCB constructions, including plating ensures good results after production. Usually, we do more than one simulation, as there might be some uncertainties after a first run. We also need to consider a production tolerance depending on the layout of the PCB and the material used. In addition, the machine park places a big role.
Matties: What about thermal simulation?
Weis: It is application-dependent. For high-power applications, we usually go for polygons to optimize current carrying capability. For such cases, simulation won’t cover signal processing. If the customer want us to take it into account, we also model these parts, but a little bit more time is required. To optimize simulation, we remove not-needed parts before simulation. For sure, there is a trade-off between fast simulation speeds and accurate results. Based on our experience, we optimize it as well as possible.
Matties: To shift gears a little, let’s talk about the embedded application. When should a designer consider utilizing this technology?
Weis: Extreme miniaturization needs enough space for components. That’s why embedding introduces more assembly layer. Additionally, the housing of the silicon die can be spared as the PCB itself replaces it. A rule of thumb says that the silicon is about four times smaller compared to traditional, overmolded packages. It’s clear because it adapted the density between the chip and PCB. There are some requirements for our connections to the copper structure of the PCB, but they are much smaller compared to solder joints. That’s why miniaturization is the first trigger for embedding. Currently, we also see trends toward 5G. Customers need optimized designs to transmit high-frequency signals in a reliable manner.
Matties: With embedded, you also improve reliability.
Weis: Correct. Our in-house laboratory can do reliability tests according to IPC standards. We can show that embedding can achieve longer lifetimes compared to standard molded packages. Prototypes are usually tested electrically only, and reliability is an interest in product development and mass production.
Matties: But it could be a part of the impetus for moving to embedded because people want more reliable products.
Weis: Definitely. Reliability, to some extent, can be simulated, but this is a process that is starting to get implemented. Automotive is one of the main drivers for reliability. It needs to be clarified at the front end before a product will be used in cars or trucks. As packaging is extremely material-dependent, daily life in the lab is to gain information about material combinations, copper layer structures, and PCB specific values to ensure quality and reliability in all of our products.
Matties: This is a new era of circuit design, and you mentioned how people who’ve been doing this for 30 years. That may be a struggle for them.
Weis: To get an understanding of embedding and an optimized PCB layout, people need to start thinking in three dimensions. Usually, two assembly layers require some mechanical drills. An HDI board has laser drills included as well. It is no longer possible to drill a through-hole at every location as there might be an embedded component preventing this. We also developed a check at our site to ensure that through-holes are in non-assembled areas only.
Matties: Do you do additive as well?
Weis: Manufacturing technology is related to manufacturing sites. In Austria, for example, we do semi-additive and subtractive manufacturing. In our production facilities in Asia, we also do modified semi-additive, which is similar but optimized for mobile applications.
Matties: Is that driven by the mobile device industry?
Weis: It is. It’s about processing line and space requirements. Now, this is the only way we use it. In addition, a different semi-additive process is installed in Chongqing, where we produce IC substrates because of ultra-small scaled line and space requirements.
Matties: Are you combining embedded and additive as a process as well?
Weis: We do. Embedding is an additional processing step. In general, it can be combined with nearly all production processes.
Matties: Is that commonplace now?
Weis: Yes, especially for signal processing it is. For power applications, it can become challenging because the high currents require high copper thicknesses. There are several process steps possible. We also develop solutions in this area. It is a work in progress.
Matties: The other part of manufacturing today is Industry 4.0. How digital is your manufacturing now?
Weis: We are evaluating that right now and doing some implementations. Now, several concepts are available for the machine park here in Leoben-Hinterberg, Austria. The problem is that we do high mix at low to mid volumes. A highly flexible concept is unavoidable. Also, new tools are needed, as it is not possible to upgrade all used machines. For embedding, it is even more challenging. I can tell you that we kicked off several projects underway on the topic of Industry 4.0 and the digitization of smart factories. We have a specific department working on these topics, evaluating variants, and making sense of the lifecycle of machines and if they should be replaced.
Matties: Are you working primarily with the system designers and layout people?
Weis: We work closely with the customer’s technical department to ensure fast and reliable PCB layouts. There is knowledge on both sides, which is combined as good as possible to find the optimum.
Matties: Densities are getting smaller. The load is being put on the designer right now, and many don’t have the historical knowledge or all of the education required.
Weis: A PCB is designed according to many mechanical and electrical rules. The computer is doing automated design rule checks during layout as well as after it. Checklists ensure good data quality. Additionally, we introduced design review meetings to indicate issues before production. As in-house data transfer format, we use ODB++, which contains nearly all necessary information for manufacturing.
Matties: You’re making a case for the digital factory because the questions that you’re asking are the recipes that your equipment needs to process the work. Once you have that done, then it’s easy to route it to your etcher and say, “Adjust the pressure to this level.”
Weis: That’s true, but for high mix and tailored solutions, you even need to have several gates to apply checks. Humans still need to check the automated work of the computer. On the one hand, computers do work fast, but, on the other hand, your operator understands the behavior of the machine if it is not a standard solution. When optimizing production steps, you can only use artificial intelligence if you have operators who have been working for years.
Matties: I think what you’re saying is you have to transfer the knowledge of the operator into the computer because the 20-year operator is going to retire.
Matties: But you’re still making a case for a digital factory.
Weis: Yes, and that is also what is work in progress. Nearly all scripts are static in programming; machine learning will be the next step.
Matties: The AI part will come in with the digital recipe. If you start on the front end with the designer and have all those questions answered, the equipment can adjust it. We already know this can happen because it has been done in other industries, so there’s a definite shift in thinking occurring.
Weis: Yes! AT&S is also hiring people who studied engineering, designing, and electronics. Together, we will keep track of AI and work on a concept to optimize production as much as possible.
Matties: You have around 10,000 employees, which is as big as some cities. Talk a little bit about the company culture.
Weis: The AT&S culture is very customer-oriented and future-oriented. If a customer asks to develop a challenging product, we can find a solution in a very short time at a reasonable price. With our “more than AT&S” strategy, we are working to turn into an interconnect solution provider and offer highly integrated solutions to our customers going forward.
Matties: The other part of being an organization is being a good corporate citizen. Can you tell me about your green efforts?
Weis: We are trying to reduce our wastewater and CO2 footprint, and we have defined a roadmap. In addition to what I mentioned earlier, the culture of the company is not only to maximize the turnover and have optimized financials but also to have a deep look into environmental friendliness into water conservation and CO2 reduction. For example, our location in India has more or less a largely closed water circuit because the water that comes from the river is already polluted. We have to clean the water before we use it in the production process. We use it in a circuit, and when it leaves the factory, it’s cleaner than when it came into the factory. We are putting a lot of effort into that, and we are also driven by our customers to meet environmental and ethical standards. We are also keeping the production floor and other areas as clean as possible. We want to avoid chemical residues on the floor. It is part of AT&S strategy toward the highest quality standards in our industry.
Matties: Your air quality is good too.
Weis: The factory in Leoben is ventilated by temperature-controlled filtered air. We only have humidity-control at the manufacturing sites in Asia.
Matties: What patents are you pursuing?
Weis: We are covering a variety of things, from the production of PCBs to the separation of PCBs, 5G, high power, line and space requirements, and more.
Matties: With these patents, is this technology that you then license to others?
Weis: At the moment, we use them to protect our technologies, but we are thinking about licensing these to others as well. The process is to make sure we keep track of our inventions and ensure that if we have an advantage, we keep it.
Matties: Let’s talk about where you’re headed in the future. Embedded seems to be one of the areas that you are looking to carry out to the marketplace.
Weis: I’d call it embedding in combination with every PCB technology possible, such as embedding with insulated metal substrates (IMS) or flex circuits. Also, with packaging technologies, if you implement one die, you can call it a package. If you embed more components, you can call it a heterogeneous package. If you see the bigger picture, you can also call it a substrate or PCB. In boards, you may also include more components, so the technology is easily scalable.
Matties: All the things you described are incredible challenges for the design community.
Weis: It’s not only for the design department but also for suppliers of design software. Implementing new technologies become a challenge for them, as well. They need to have a detailed understanding of the production. That’s why we also work together with them. It is a challenge for our sales department as well because we need to be cost-effective. Designers develop fancy designs, and sales need to arrange with the customer to optimize the cost.
Matties: Do you offer design services if a company wants to hire you for that?
Weis: We offer these services from the beginning; we do it from scratch. The process typically starts with component management and schematics and ends with the PCB layout, simulation, and data check.
Matties: How many customers let you handle their design?
Weis: We are working with a wide range of customers, from startups to global players. It is always a matter of discussing how the design process is applied to a certain product. Our approach is flexible and can be adapted accordingly.
Matties: Thank you for everything. Best of luck to you.
Weis: Thanks for visiting, Barry.