Not All Plating Lines Are Created Equal
Barry Matties and Happy Holden met with CEO Michael Ludy and CMO Sarah Großmann from Ludy, a company specializing in galvanic plating equipment for PCBs. During one of I-Connect007’s visit to GreenSource Fabrication, the team found Ludy equipment being utilized there, so Barry and Happy traveled to their factory in Germany to learn more about the company.
The following interview gives an overview of Ludy and their latest advancements in PCB plating equipment.
Barry Matties: Let’s start with a little bit about your product.
Sarah Großmann: We produce galvanic plants for PCBs. That’s our main task. We have a highly specialized way of having the galvanic tanks and the geometry of the tanks, where the plating and the aspect ratio is much better. We tried to focus mainly on PCBs in the past years. We fulfilled the demands and ideas of Alex Stepinski and what he thought could work. We are flexible and gave him a plant with the newest technology. He can fulfill his plating demands and multiple processes internally.
Generally, this is the main thing we do, but we also do the research for waste-air-free and wastewater-free galvanic plants like the GalvanoMat® PCB. That’s our main idea of fulfilling a complete green fabrication in one. You have one container where the galvanic plant is inside, and one container getting the waste air, wastewater, and energy recovery, and everything goes in one circle. You don’t have to waste that much and fulfill all the green fabrication requirements that are needed.
We have it for metal finishing and PCBs. We’re trying to get back in the U.S. market. We were there already. The lines are still running, and it’s going more and more to green fabrication. This is why we mostly do R&D for the GalvanoMat® PCB.
Figure 1: Overview of the latest generation of Ludy plating line with split-tank hoist access.
Happy Holden: People would probably buy brand new plating equipment because of high-density interconnect (HDI) and substrate-like PCBs (SLPs). All of which have very tiny holes and a much higher aspect ratio, which the conventional anode to cathode and one-axis agitation or area agitation is not sufficient for the throwing power and things like that.
Großmann: The anodes are inside, and every one of those segmented anodes is separately controlled by a rectifier.
Holden: Can you do pulse plating too?
Großmann: It would be possible, depending on the chemistry. The problem is that in the galvanic plant area, the people stick to what they know and don’t want to invest high amounts of money for testing around. This is a problem. That’s why the research steps are not very fast compared to other machine areas. They know that the chemistry is also influencing this area, and if Atotech says they’re not sure, then nobody will invest money on that. That’s why we are pretty happy that our solution worked and was inclusive with a 3D agitation drive. We have a very good distribution overall of the PCB on both sides. Those are the main benefits of the system.
Holden: The North American market has the common board, but then they have leading-edge things for medical, aerospace, or radar, where they want to go to a much higher aspect ratio both on through-holes and on blind vias. The problem is typical galvanic equipment isn’t there yet. Some believe the Ludy equipment will take them there, which means adopting the old way. There’s a big difference in productivity between four hours and 50 minutes.
Großmann: Correct. If you look at the process times, there’s much more inside from the vibrators to get the gases out of the holes. We don’t vibrate the flight bar. The side waves correctly go through the hole. It goes through the flight bar and has a very special way to reach all of the areas. It’s not vibrating on the top. It’s controlled, and all those little things put together in one tank make up this special ability to get much smaller holes plated and more even plating.
Holden: That differentiates you from everybody else, which is good because you can’t hold back advancing design rules because the semiconductors demand that. We didn’t invent it; the semiconductor companies are driving us. Now, they’re down to seven-nanometer transistors that turn on and off very fast, which means everything is a transmission line, and with the critical distance, you had to treat it as a transmission line shortens, etc. People want everything to be smaller, including their holes and their lands. But you have to get metal into them. The old way to do it was to put it in the tank for three or four hours, which works but is not necessarily very productive compared to a different way of doing it. Then, you have what we call the boundary conditions. You have this waste treatment and air minimization, which is kind of the boundary part of the cost. It’s not part of getting metal into the hole, but it’s still about the total cost.
Großmann: The total cost includes that.
Figure 2: Ludy modular-integrated plating cell.
Figure 3: Ludy uses sealed tank covers to minimize ventilation and solution loss as well as optimize rinsing, blow-off devices, and drip shields.
We have to worry about the environment.
Großmann: Yes. The wastewater gets vaporized, the water gets extracted, and since this is fully deionized water, it gets back to the process. Water is also very expensive, especially processed water. What remains is much less to take care of compared to the wastewater itself. This can all be additive, so you get the overall mostly green area. You still have something to throw away, but it’s much less.
Holden: How does the Ludy equipment minimize the need for ventilation and fume scrubbing?
Großmann: The closed-system solution sucks in the exhaust air, feeds it into an energy storage unit, and reinserts it into the system as a bath heating.
Figure 4: A compact, modular, integrated heat pump is at the center of batch cooling/heating and water evaporation to eliminate water emissions.
Holden: There will be people that are going to spend $100 million this next year on new equipment for HDI and SLP, but they’re going to be driven by the demands of the next five years. Also, they have to be cognizant of using less water as well as air minimization. The air has to be scrubbed and contributes to the water. These are all part of the picture that is where you shine out. But the story is not told that way. Right now, people think all plating lines are the same, but they’re not. There’s an education business about why they’re not all the same, though.
Großmann: Yes. Also, you can’t present all your newest technologies. It’s pretty difficult. You have competitors that have many more people compared to us. In China, they can get hundreds of engineers working on it. If you present those technologies in normal advertising with all the information, then you would find multiple plants like this. It’s a little bit of a difficult step to reach into the market and reach the people who are in need of those new technologies. Our newest line is working, and we are pretty happy about it.
Matties: Many of the potential customers already have existing facilities, and this is a rather large expense. What are the obstacles when you’re trying to sell that to people, or what are the reasons they may not buy your equipment?
Großmann: Most companies that got offers from us and postponed the order were especially from the U.S. market. The U.S. market may be a little bit frightened ordering from Germany because of long service times or delivery, and the whole problem in the process until the machine is running. Also, in combination with green fabrication, they’re waiting and watching to see what will happen, but they still have to fulfill the orders they have. This is why we are trying to understand the U.S. market so that we can step in much better. Hopefully, we get more insights into that area.
Matties: When you went to IPC APEX EXPO 2019, you said you picked up quite a few leads and gained a lot of interest. What was driving that? What was their consideration for even looking at your equipment?
Großmann: The first thing was because they knew us from our installed equipment and that the machines run very long. This was the first step to ask us, and then we offered them special equipment. We still have a name in the U.S. from the companies and all of our PCB distributors. The main thing was mostly from the past plants we have built. For this new project, people are still asking us for equipment.
Matties: Are all of your lines exclusively using this technology?
Matties: So, you offer traditional also?
Großmann We can. It depends. This system is a little bit more expensive than the regular one, but the advantage is huge. The customer needs to find the middle ground for what they need to fulfill their requirements and what they will invest in order to make high-quality boards.
Matties: My thinking is you’re not selling new technology, but you are providing them substantial cycle time reduction and improved capability that will let them find new markets. Is the price differential so great that they fall back to the traditional?
Großmann It always depends on the site and the time requirements the customer gives us. We cannot offer the newest technology if they don’t need to buy it. If they say they don’t need it because it doesn’t have to fulfill millions of PCBs, then they will buy the regular one.
Holden: How many different chemistries have you built for, and do you have to make changes in the design to optimize it with the chemistry?
Großmann We look at the chemistry that the customer wants to use. You cannot take every chemistry for it, so you have to look at the chemistry itself and see if it’s working with the process or not.
Figure 5: Automatic chemical analysis, control, and dosing systems are Ludy options.
Matties: Are you doing the principal engineering?
Großmann: The main idea is coming from Mr. Ludy and his background of nearly 40 years in the PCB area. His initial ideas will get discussed with the engineering team. Then, looking at the demands of the customer, we can combine his knowledge of the past and invent those new technologies. First, he learned Atotech, which was called Schering in the past. Then, he started his own business in 1990, producing the first galvanic plants for the antenna-less mobiles; the first was Dynatech from the U.S., and then Siemens and Hagenuk. The PCBs became thicker, and the aspect ratio is scanning higher to fill the holes. In combination with this demand of the customer, we tried to find and invent solutions.
Matties: Does he have an engineering background?
Großmann He was a technical electrician. He worked at Atotech, building plants. He became more and more specialized information about PCBs.
Matties: Where do you see the company headed?
Großmann We want to reach all those small facilities and PCB platers in the U.S. Ludy is often in the Silicon Valley area where there are galvanic plants or test tanks for copper cells and prototyping. To get the information flow for green fabrication and all the benefits, Mr. Ludy’s opinion is that there still lots of galvanic plants in the U.S. are, and from the technology side, they’re not very advanced. He has seen lots of people still lifting the flight bar up and letting it fall down to get rid of the air bubbles as well as walking with rubber boots through the copper cell doing work. This is something Mr. Ludy wants to change with information flow, and it will take some time, but we hope to get into the U.S. market with our technology. We doubled the company’s size and efforts to reach that.
Matties: It’s interesting that you mentioned the manual tanks. That’s something we see a lot in the U.S. with people using plating racks, etc. Happy was recommending that you sell the single cell.
Holden: When the customer only orders one or two panels, it’s not even on a flight bar.
Großmann The big thing in the past was building everything smaller and more compact, as well as the technology, such as a higher AC current on the area, to reach those small companies who don’t have that need to produce mass volume to get their amounts also fulfilled. Mr. Ludy’s recommendation is if they want to get higher technologies, it’s a huge benefit because you dry the panels in a much more environmentally friendly way. For drying the panels, we mostly use 1.6-kilowatt drainage. For one model, we need 2.3 kilowatts. We have an adjusted temperature of 21°C instead of 60°C of the hot air blower.
Matties: As you said, the old way is throwing money away.
Großmann: Right. We have a decent drying time, and with the drainage, some remain in the drilling holes. In this system, we get the complete moisture out of every corner of the panel.
Matties: How do you achieve that? What’s the significant difference?
Großmann Right now, we have a regenerator. We use the air and dry it completely. There’s nearly 0% moisture in the air. Then, inside of the tank, we have special inlets and outlets so that we don’t blow the dry air on the panel. We use different dynamic pressures to achieve and extract as well as blow. There’s blow and vacuum from two sides—the back and the front. Even the water that remains in the small areas can move because of the different directions. Compared to the old way, this is also very green. This is already patented by Ludy, and right now, we have 13 plants of PCBs using this technique.
Matties: It sounds like you are doing some good work. We appreciate you taking the time to speak with us today.
Großmann: Thank you for making the trip out here.