A Conversation (and Day) with Joe Fjelstad Part 4
We continue the conversation as it turns to the more technically focused area of disruptive technology. The method Joe has been demonstrating for years now is one which is poised to offer dramatic increases in electronic reliability while decreasing overall cost through the elimination of solder--a cornerstone concept of what has been coined as Occam technology (whose name comes from the Ockham's Razor principal of simplicity.)
Joe Fjelstad: Switching gears, I got a call earlier this week from somebody who's interested in some of my connector innovations, which I was kind of surprised and pleased by. Because eight years ago I built an HDMI D-connector, which was about the size of a USB micro or so, but instead of having four pins, it had 19 pins. The device delivered the contact force by means of torsion and it worked perfectly the first time. Unfortunately, most developers stepped back from the D-type because they had reliability problems. Maybe this time it will get some play.
I just have to be patient because it seems that I see lot of things before their time. Some ideas take 10–15 years to actually develop because you have to somehow purge the old ideas. There's going to be some natural resistance. Incumbent technologies do not want to change. Most people like doing what they did yesterday because they are very good at it. They know what they're doing.
Barry Matties: Let’s talk about the Occam process. Could you give us an overview of that process?
Fjelstad: Thanks for asking about that. I guess I should break it down into its simplest form, conceptually. Fundamentally, rather than putting components on circuit boards and soldering them into place, I am suggesting that one should build circuits on top of component boards. It is basically backwards from the norm. By using this approach, one can eliminate a large number of process steps. And the most troubling of all processes is solder, which the reliability experts say is the major cause of electronics failure; if you trace it, it is going to be a solder joint. That's why we see many of my dear and longtime friends in this industry continuing to get up every day and trying to beat solder into submission. However, I don’t believe it is a process that will ever come to heel. While simple conceptually, with all of its variables, it is just too complex. And the industry seems to just continue to add complexity. That's another funny thing: It is easier to make things more complex than it is to make things simpler, because simplicity requires discipline—much more discipline. There's a great deal of irony in that.
Anyway, the concept works. A lot of people came out early on, and there was quite a bit of immediate backlash because it was viewed as a threat. There were people that would've been very unsettled if it caught on, but I'm not worried about that. It will catch on. Once you get a toehold, you just need to get a little tiny place to wedge. When you demonstrate or someone demonstrates that they can make a product for a fraction of the cost of what they make their products for today, you figure at some point in time that should motivate people to want to move in that direction. The latest generation of what I've come to call a component board I plan to make out of aluminum. In fact, my talk at the aerospace conference a couple of weeks ago was all about making things out of aluminum.
Aluminum makes up 8.3% of the earth's crust. It is the third most abundant element on the planet. With regard to thermal expansion, it is 22ppm/°C, where copper is 18. There's a gap there, but on the other hand the gap isn’t that great. And more interestingly, if you don't have to go through the huge thermal excursions that we have to endure presently, then the amount of strain is minimal.
Matties: You were saying there could be up to six and possibly more excursions now.
Fjelstad: Yes, and you're going to go through a substantial number of those thermal excursions and they're going to be relatively high, but even in operation it's going to be interesting. One of my advisors, a highly respected thermal management expert, said, "This is a really great thing from my perspective. This is the first time that you get to solve the thermal problem on the front-end rather than the back-end." And there are no restricted elements to it. If you're concerned about RoHS, you needn't be, because you are not going to be using any RoHS-restricted material. Fundamentally, it's just copper and aluminum, some insulation material, and then the components, which are a mix of different things—silicon, copper, etc. Most of the lead frames are going to be copper again. Still, concerns are registered by folks. They will ask “What about this component or that component,” which are often large legacy type devices. Or they'll go for an electrolytic capacitor and say, “It will never work with an electrolytic capacitor.” Actually, it can but you have to set about your manufacturing differently.
The other thing we were discussing earlier as one of the challenges is not necessarily the plating, but getting the imaging done effectively. With non-contact imaging, it's just amazing. I keep envisioning a machine that takes up 20 square feet of floor space that allows one to go from concept to prototype to product in a matter of hours, rather than days, weeks, or months, provided they have the full bill of materials available. You just do it all build-up, and it's beautiful, in my opinion. And it saves the most precious thing in the world… time.
Matties: It is your version of printed electronics.
Fjelstad: Yes, in a way, though there are no printed transistors. I suggested the idea seven years ago when I wrote up a description of what one could call today printed electronics. I said to myself, if you use a laser scanner, you can scan the components and put them in place on a platform, really wherever you want, even in an almost random mode, though that is probably not advisable when I think about it. Anyway, you scan them with the laser and then use that data to create a printout of the device’s mechanical outlines, and then you have the components dropped right into the cavity and they are exactly the right height. It even works with dual in-line packages, TSOPs, QFNs or any of the like devices. People say it can’t work with the dual in-line package, but there's no reason why it can't.
The nice thing, if you've done anything with printed materials or 3D printing, is that they are all essentially finite elements. You can adjust the density of it and these things can be made incredibly light with a lot of entrained air. This effectively drops the Dk of the material. All of that is part of the calculus to this thing. It is just so rich with opportunity, Barry; the opportunities are truly mind-blowing when you dig in. That's the thing that I find really frustrating, that there are just too many opportunities at the end of the day and so few of them being examined, all in deference to the status quo.
I have friends that get it, understand it, but they're not in a position to necessarily drive it. For the most part, they're quite frankly wedded to the present. This is where they get their paychecks. The two big human motivators are pain and pleasure. Between pain and pleasure, we will act much more quickly to relieve pain than we will to move ourselves towards pleasure. In fact, we even might be circumspect about issues of pleasure because of concern over prospective pain.
Matties: That it causes along the way.
Fjelstad: Exactly. It gets a little bit philosophical but quite frankly it's like the Pink Floyd song “Comfortably Numb.” We're good. We get through the day. We go through and enjoy or endure another day. I'm frustrated because I feel that a lot.
The term comfortably numb and where we are just made me think of whiskey, which can be a palliative. When I think of whiskey, especially Scotch, I often think of Werner Engelmaier, a longtime friend whom I and many others miss dearly. I say that because I noticed that they have Glenmorangie [Scotch] here where we are at the moment and that was Werner's favorite. That aside, I sent Werner the Occam “green paper” when it was finished. He was among the first because he was a friend of 30 years and a world renowned reliability expert, and I wanted his read on it because I respected his opinion so highly. After he had read it I sent him a note asking, "Werner, what do you think?" and he sent me back a note saying, "Joe, you're going to put me out of business." I said, "No, Werner, I'm going to put you into a whole new business." He understood, and he saw immediately and he said, "You're going after the heart of what the reliability problem is.” I said, “Don't worry about it. Solder is not going to go away any time soon.”
He knew as well as I, that people aren't going to change. They don't know the term ‘turn on a dime’ in this industry. But when the right ones kick in, they'll pick up the rewards. I figure at some point in time we might get interest from some of the people that are making handsets. They're pretty good, but their concerns of reliability nowadays only extend to the next product cycle. That's it. Like I said earlier today, I’ve personally had way too many recent generation electronic products fail on me.
Matties: A phone is a year cycle, if that.
Fjelstad: Yes. We tire of products quickly, especially if it's on its last legs. The other dark side of this whole thing, and Harvey and I have been having this discussion, is Moore's law. It's fundamentally dead. You get to a point where you can't have a single transistor and we're talking about getting down to a few transistors now for these lower nodes. The thing is, the diffusion path of the materials through each other at that level is next to nothing, and the rate of diffusion is all a function of heat. One more time, the higher the exposure of heat, the faster the diffusion rate. It's all working against us—not those at the top of the world's economic pyramid, but collectively, as in all of humanity, it’s working against us. As I said earlier, seven billion people today, in another five years, eight billion.
The other thing that’s coming is the notion of Internet of Things or, as a friend of mine put it, the Internet of Everything. Everything will know what everything else is and where it is. We're on the cusp of that level of understanding and capability, and the numbers of devices will run into the trillions.
Coming up: Part 5 of this series wraps it up with a little background information of how Joe got in the printed circuit board business and more about Occam.
Watch Joe Fjelstad's presentation given at the IEEE Aerospace Conference, in Big Sky, Montana, on March 11, 2015.
Visit the Aliiacense website for more information on the Occam process.
Click to read the other parts of this article Part 1, Part 2, Part 3