UK Electronics Manufacturing Alive and Kicking--Report from IEMRC Conference


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Harry Tee, Chairman of the Electronics Leadership Council, introduced his keynote address with the following statistics at the Third Annual Conference of the Innovative Electronics Manufacturing Research Centre (IEMRC) at Loughborough University, in the East Midlands of the UK:

  • The UK electronics industry is worth #23 billion a year, the fifth largest in the world.

  • The UK electronics industry employs over 250,000 people in the UK in more than 11,000 workplaces.

  • The UK is home to over 40% of Europe's independent electronic design community.

He reminded the audience that electronics, as a key enabling technology, underpinning virtually every other sector of economic activity, and represented 20% of the ex-factory cost of a typical product in any sector.

22084-Audience1.JPGAn eager audience listens to one of the many paper presentations offered at this year's IEMRC Conference. Tee explained that electronics was key to the convergence of traditional sectors like media and communications and the emergence of non-traditional sectors like energy, transport and financial services. He blew away the popular perception that electronics manufacturing was finished in the UK, while admitting that commodity manufacturing had migrated to the Far East. Tee told attendees that traditional markets were changing, and UK electronics companies needed to be more strategic in addressing skills and education if they were to increase productivity and compete effectively. This meant a step change in management and leadership expertise, technical and engineering expertise, general business expertise and procurement and supply chain management expertise--all of which are essential for the future survival and success of the industry.

Tee said the government also needed to target the available resources better to stimulate the take-up of training and education by employers and individuals in schools, colleges and universities and the workplace. Too few young people were showing an interest in electronics as a career, and needed to be encouraged. A big disincentive was the connotation with the labels such as "nerd," "anorak" and "geek!"

Tee's keynote address explained that the mission of the Electronics Leadership Council was to steer the UK electronics industry towards greater innovation and creativity, international growth and sustainable profitability--providing a vision for the sector, identifying national priorities on key issues facing the industry and setting strategic policy objectives. A particular aim is the encouragement of greater innovation and creativity throughout the industry and facilitating access to technologies from within academic institutions and throughout the industry to the benefit of the sector. If industrial competitiveness were to be improved through the development and exploitation of electronic technologies, it was necessary to examine the strengths of the UK's science base and how it compared to international competitors. The steps needed to improve the commercialisation of R&D spending and to identify the technology priorities of the UK electronics sector must also be understood and the industry must work to see them developed and exploited.

Tee's introduction was an appropriate preface to the conference. Professor Paul Conway described the objective of IEMRC--to establish a centre of expertise through which UK industry could access and influence research in electronics manufacturing.

He made it clear that although Loughborough was the hub, IEMRC was a distributed operation with the advantage that it allowed the most appropriate people to do the work for an industry that had become very diverse. Key elements were a high level of industrial involvement and a strong industrial steering group. The annual conference provided a forum for the IEMRC community and industry to share results and experiences.

The first paper presented was an update on the DISCOVER project, Design & Simulation of Complex Low Volume Electronics Production, the development of a software tool to analyze what goes wrong in manufacturing, using PCB assembly as the example, and to determine what can be done to prevent it from going wrong again. Dr. Andrew West described the progress of a consortium of industrial and academic partners in building a component-based representation of the lifecycle of electronics manufacture, applicable to low volume, high-value added products, to assist the industry in optimizing design for manufacture to improve yield, improve quality and reduce costs. The DISCOVER software is about to be tested in live manufacturing trials to enable the evaluation of "what-if" scenarios to visualise, evaluate and predict both product and process quality.

Professor Mark Johnson highlighted the significance of power electronics as an enabling technology throughout the energy supply chain, and key to the realization of potential annual energy savings of $400 billion, as he introduced the IEMRC Power Electronics Flagship Project. The project is aimed at enhancing the competitiveness of the UK power electronics industry through improvements to the design and manufacturing capability for power electronic modules--in particular those intended for high power-density operation, high-reliability applications and challenging environments.

Dr. Ian Cotton, in a paper entitled, "Partial Discharge in Power Electronics," investigated failures in power modules through localized discharge at interfaces between substrate metallization and silicone gel encapsulants. The incorporation of ferromagnetic filler, barium titanate, into the silicone gel had resulted in significant improvement in the performance of a 3.3 KV commercial module, with no specific impact on its manufacturability.

Professor Patrick Grant reported work in progress on the development of novel, high-energy-density, high-reliability capacitors for avionics applications. With the increasing electrification of aircraft, enormous amounts of power had to be handled--for example, a Being 767 generates over one megawatt. Electrolytic capacitors were essential components, but traditional types were heavy, bulky and prone to catastrophic failure. Polymer capacitors offered a potential alternative, but their storage capacity needed to be substantially improved. Grant said that dielectric nanocomposites were being evaluated, and a manufacturing process involving the spraying of a colloidal dispersion of barium titanate nanoparticles in a tripropylene glycol diacrylate solution had been developed, with encouraging results.

Robert Skuriat investigated cooling solutions for power electronics, and had found that direct jet impingement was effective, particularly if coolant was directed selectively at the hot spots of the device. Test rigs, together with mathematical and thermal modelling, had been used to optimize the design of the impingement array.

Dr. Samjid Mannan explored the theory that solder joint reliability would be improved if an inert filler could be incorporated into the solder. To promote the dispersion of 90nm silica nanoparticles in SAC solder paste, gold nanoparticles of 2 to 3nm had been attached to the silica surface to form a metallic nano-shell, using aminosilanes and polydiallyl dimethyl ammonium chloride as linking agents. The effect of the filler on the performance of the solder was being evaluated.

The afternoon session began with a keynote from EIPC Technical Director, Michael Weinhold, on future trends in PCB technology in Europe, and how the industry needed to adapt to meet them. Weinhold told attendees that Europe has a total of 727 million people living in 47 countries, 27 of which are members of the European Union, and there are about 400 PCB manufacturers in the EU, employing 23,000 people. Most of these manufacturers are classified as SMEs, small to medium enterprises, employing less than 250 people. More printed circuits are currently used in Europe than in 2000, but increasing proportions are made elsewhere.

22084-Michael Weinhold, Prof Martin GoosMichael Weinhold, EIPC Technical Director with Professor Martin Goosey. Weinhold presented a keynote on the future trends in European PCB technology.Weinhold says, for example, that 80% of the requirement of the automotive industry came from Asia. The inescapable facts he noted were that the PCB market in the EU could no longer be regarded as fast growing, and that fabrication costs for large series were very high in Europe compared with China. And, although design and development continued to be conducted in Europe, and prototype and pre-production orders continued to be manufactured, the question was for how long and at what cost?

A large number of technologies and equipment are still developed in Europe, but new technologies need to be introduced to gain or maintain technology leadership. Weinhold emphasized the importance of standards, and the need to get into a leading position when writing new standards. Whereas, previously, IPC generally made the proposals for new standards, most IEC standards are now driven primarily from Japan. It was essential that new PCB fabrication technologies had global acceptance, and the JISSO International Council, of which IPC, EIPC, JPCA, JEDEC, iNEMI and many others were members, existed to promote strategic partnership among global organizations interested in the total solution for interconnecting, assembling, packaging, mounting and integrating system design. A particular objective of JISSO was to harmonize electronics road maps and EIPC, through the EU-funded PROSURF project, had produced roadmaps to define research strategy for SMEs in the PCB and Surface Finishing industry sectors. These roadmaps can be downloaded, free of charge, at www.prosurf-online.eu.

David Milward introduced IEMRC's second flagship project, optical printed circuit boards (OPCBs) and discussed the incorporation of high speed 'optical wiring," by means of plastic light-guides, into large-format backplanes, and combining optical and electrical interconnections. This project was exploring novel methods, compatible with traditional multilayer PCB manufacturing processes, for the fabrication of optical waveguides within an optical layer laminated into the board. Several process routes were under investigation, including direct UV laser writing to form multimode polymer waveguides in acrylate and polysiloxane photopolymers.

22084-Exhibition Area.JPGAttendees take in the exhibits on display at Loughborough University during the conference.John Chappell discussed techniques for laser ablation of polymer materials to form straight and curved waveguides, and inkjet deposition of polymer waveguide structures--with particular focus on the control of substrate wettability to define the spread and final shape of the liquid droplets to achieve the correct waveguide profile. Kai Wang then described methods for characterization of optical waveguides, measurement of sidewall roughness and optical losses in bends of various geometries. Deign rules had been formulated for waveguide crossovers and inter-waveguide crosstalk, and these were being incorporated into proprietary CAD tools.

The theme changed to micro- and nanotechnology-enabled products as Professor Andrew Richardson gave a presentation of health monitoring in MNT-enabled integrated systems; taking as example an inertial sensor MEMS consisting of an ASIC and a sensor in face-to-face contact, with through-silicon vias and some intricate packaging technology. The project was aimed at developing a methodology for the integration of functions able to self-test components and system interconnect during production test, monitor key parameters in mission mode and to provide a level of fault tolerance. Self-adapting systems offered the possibility to detect degradation before the system failed, then reconfigure and repair itself. Dr. Changhai Weng reported progress in the development of sensors for monitoring conditions such as temperature, stress, electromagnetic field, humidity and other environmental parameters.

The final paper came from Kam Chen on the subject of non-invasive safety agents for embedded processors. The objective of this project was to improve the reliability of systems employing devices such as time-triggered cooperative processors, by monitoring their activity and resetting the processor in the event that errors were detected. The monitoring unit, termed a "safety agent," was based on a second, simple, processor node monitoring fluctuations in the CPU power consumption. The method had been demonstrated to successfully detect timing errors where other techniques had failed, and the development of a commercial product was in prospect.

In conclusion, Professor Paul Conway remarked that although the conference had featured only a small selection of the 36 projects currently supported, it had given a clear indication of the scope and quality of research undertaken by the IEMRC network. Funding for a further five years had been secured and IEMRC's mission statement would be updated to emphasise the realities of ambition and risk necessary to further the creativity and profitability of the UK electronics industry. Copies of the presentations are available for download at http://www.iemrc.org/.

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