Catching Up with HSIO’s James Rathburn
I have interviewed James Rathburn a number of times in the past few years and he always has something new to say. One of the industry’s leading technology inventors, Jim is always finding himself on the cutting edge of our technology. The recent acquisition of the former HEI operation in Tempe, Arizona exemplifies the path his company, HSIO, is taking towards a goal of being the industry’s true technology leader.
I caught up with Jim recently to talk about his company, the acquisition, and where they're going from here.
Dan Beaulieu: Jim, good talking with you again. Last year we talked about your new LCP PCB technology and now we are here to discuss the recent acquisition.
Jim Rathburn: Thank you, Dan. During our last interview, we discussed our LCP circuit technology developments as we were in the process of absorbing test socket products acquired in the previous R&D Interconnect Solutions asset acquisition and establishing production availability of our high-performance interconnect products. I am proud to say that HSIO is staged to be the industry leader with performance-tuned circuits and socket products with fine geometries and production support infrastructure for our chosen market segments.
Beaulieu: Let’s go over a little history before we talk about this new purchase. What is your background?
Rathburn: My background is mechanical engineering with a focus on product development and manufacturing experience. I was fortunate to enter the electrical interconnect world with focus on high-performance, system-level design as an onsite supplier with IBM. I subsequently held positions with Johnstech International, founder of Gryphics, Inc., Cascade Microtech [who acquired Gryphics], and I’m the founder and President of HSIO.
Beaulieu: When did you start HSIO and what is the purpose and mission of the company?
Rathburn: The purpose of HSIO was to create unique technology to provide high-speed performance at every point in the signal path. Previous experience with the connector and socket industry revealed that no matter how good the connector or socket was electrically, the package substrate and PCB connecting components for the entire system were emerging bottle necks and degrading performance. HSIO was established to provide technology to enable signal integrity at very fine geometries from silicon, all the way to the outside world. We have created underlying IP as well as developed the manufacturing capability and refined design rules to enable real-world production of very high performance not available with conventional methods.
Beaulieu: How have things been going with the LCP technology since we last talked?
Rathburn: We believe LCP technology is the future of circuit design and manufacturing for high performance and density. We have developed the manufacturing processes and design rules with great success, and are in the process of enabling production. The Tempe acquisition was largely due to excellent results with LCP validation conducted during the transaction process, with soon to be implemented production capability. Historically, LCP has been viewed as expensive and difficult to process but our unique approach to manufacturing has demonstrated excellent capability and we will invest significant resources and capital to enable cost effective production with performance and impedance tuned geometry not available with conventional circuit production.
We have taken advantage of the low dielectric constant, low-loss near hermetic implantable nature of LCP and figured out ways to create high aspect ratio traces with full metal vias completely surrounded with common dielectric constant material in a multi-layer format that provides 1–2% impedance tuning and geometries down to 12 micron. Our unique approach to manufacturing for circuits leverages conventional processes, but overcomes the historical challenges of working with LCP vs. polyimide based circuit fabrication and we apply those principles to flex, rigid-flex, and rigid PCB or package substrate applications as well.
Beaulieu: It’s good to hear that you have had some success.
Rathburn: Thanks Dan. There are companies providing fine geometry substrates and circuits in the 12 micron range today, but most of those constructions have trouble reaching very tightly tuned impedance. Our focus is not only on fine geometry, but on providing clean signals at fine geometry. We also have the capability to form circuit bearing LCP structures with embedded antennae, shielding, or decoupling into 3D geometries that cannot be fabricated with conventional technology.
Beaulieu: OK, let’s get to the acquisition of HEI. What are the details? Why did you buy this company?
Rathburn: Through the effort to enable our LCP circuit technology with existing conventional suppliers, we came across the former HEI fabrication operation. The facility was well respected as a high-end circuit shop, and was a key part of the overall HEI business. Events with the parent and other subsidiaries resulted in bankruptcy and customers stepped in to continue supply. We bought the operation primarily because of the excellent capability existing today, and validation of applying that capability to our LCP technology. We have a unique view of circuit production that takes advantage of the high end capability already in place, and we will invest to enhance conventional production as well as add the LCP capability to create the best domestic circuit supply available for fine geometries and high performance.
Beaulieu: And what was the synergy between the former HEI facility and HSIO?
Rathburn: HSIO has a very unique approach to the circuit industry. There are many capable companies domestically that can produce quality three-mil lines and space circuits. When geometries fall down to two-mil lines and spaces, the pool of capable suppliers is reduced; below two mils the supply base is even more limited. We have approached circuit fabrication by applying the manufacturing principles used in our other business, where precision production of panelized formats with a mix of additive and subtractive processes yields capability not possible with normal board shop fabrication. Whether the material set is conventional polyimide, rigid laminate, Teflon or LCP, we apply our core manufacturing building blocks considering what the end customer really needs in the application.
Whether the need is for a one-piece prototype or higher volume, we will provide a roadmap for adoption that allows the customer to sample a better version of the circuits they are buying today simply by providing the existing design for us to replicate using our improved processing methods. Once the experience is qualified, design rules for finer lines and spaces will be implemented to provide better performance, higher density, thinner dielectrics, impedance adjustments beyond build to print, with smaller full metal copper vias and reduction in layer counts. We also have a unique approach to combining injection molding of substrate cores, selective metallization of polymers, and mixing conventional rigid, ceramic materials with a fusion binding process that enables embedded components and 3D circuitry.
The synergy meshes very well with our circuit and socket focus. We are well respected in the socket community with unique products that enable semiconductor developers to validate and test silicon directly on real world platforms with high performance. Every one of our socket customers uses several circuits in their efforts to validate and test new silicon and systems, and the availability of circuit products tuned to the same performance of the socket products is very compelling. We will also support end product circuit fabrication with the opportunity to enable very high performance socket and connector applications. No other company can provide the overall signal chain attention HSIO provides.
Beaulieu: What are you officially calling this new venture?
Rathburn: The circuit fabrication facility operates as HSIO Circuit Technologies LLC and is a wholly owned subsidiary of HSIO Technologies LLC.
Beaulieu: And what are your plans for the near future and then a little further out?
Rathburn: Our plans are to enable 25 micron lines and spaces today with a path in place to 12 micron in 2016. We will support conventional flex, rigid-flex, and rigid PCB production and add the LCP technology to provide the best available quick turn domestic circuit supplier available.
Beaulieu: Let’s talk about the technology. Tell me in detail the kind of PCBs you will be able to produce at HSIO Technologies.
Rathburn: Our focus will be on smaller form factor circuits with precision and tuned performance. The existing equipment infrastructure is based on 12” x 18” panel sizes, and we will continue to support that but future focus will be on smaller panel fabrication in the 12” X 12” and 6” X 6” formats to provide geometry precision and very high yield. We will be adding capital equipment with state of the art imaging, laser ablation, lamination, direct metallization and high aspect ratio resist defined pattern plating. Conventional print and etch will be supported down to 40 micron features, but down to 12 micron impedance tuned structures require a different approach which we have become experts. The historical view of printed circuit fabrication will be advanced towards semiconductor style production techniques. Our unique approach to circuit fabrication influenced by the semiconductor industry sets us apart from the existing circuit fabrication industry which is focused on utilizing legacy methods that have hit a wall with geometry capability and build to print methods and lack of performance tuning.
Beaulieu: And what about the market? Whom do you see as your customer and why? What are their products?
Rathburn: Our target customer market is two-fold. The existing historical customer who uses circuits in an end-product delivered to consumers remains a focus. Customers in the medical, industrial, automotive, mil/aero, telecom, computer, consumer, wearable, IoT and mobile markets will be able to source leading edge capability for end product use. In addition, customers in the test, development, and silicon validation world will have a unique quick-turn, performance-tuned circuit capability that is tied to high performance socket and connector products. Development, platform validation, characterization and test customers will have support with unique low cost yet high performance, with wafer probe, probe card, space transformer MLO/MLC alternatives not available from any other source.
Beaulieu: Jim, where do you see this kind of technology going and what will drive it?
Rathburn: We are very fortunate to have the opportunity to implement our unique view of circuit fabrication without the legacy marketplace baggage of conventional infrastructure. The circuit industry has been focused on large panel sizes to maximize value per panel, while our approach is focused on fine geometry, yield and precision in a smaller form factor with tuned performance. Higher density is always a driver, but understanding the design rules required to achieve tuned performance is often lost in the attempt to accommodate the conventional rules of print and etch capability. Creating fine geometry circuits with localized dielectric properties and embedded passive or active function is our future.
Beaulieu: Now that you have bought the company, are there any changes you are going to make in terms of equipment, for example. I know that HEI had a pretty sophisticated equipment list.
Rathburn: Our focus is to transition to a new equipment set focused on building value per part vs. the conventional mentality of getting as many parts on a panel as possible. We utilize an equipment set that is based upon smaller form factor panels for high precision and yield, yet can jump into conventional larger panel wet processing, plating, and lamination lines. Quick, high-yield builds in smaller format allows large capacity and cost gains for the product types we are focused on. We will be transitioning the larger format equipment set acquired to our focus equipment set. Much of the existing equipment at the Tempe facility is perfect for high-end conventional circuit fabrication, and will be offered for sale to select buyers in the industry. Everybody wins.
Beaulieu: So are you going to be selling some of the equipment then? If so what will you be selling and when? I know that there are a number of companies out there looking for good, used high-tech equipment.
Rathburn: We are currently supporting existing production with the equipment set in place, and are in the process of qualifying the new equipment set in concert with our Minnesota headquarters operation. Laser drilling, laser ablation, routing, drilling, X-ray drilling, lamination, LDI, AOI, flying probe are among the list of potential equipment sets available over time as the facility is retooled for the future. We are also working with well-respected PCB suppliers, test vendors, design resources and plating experts to add outsourced capability to support the growth and transition. You will not find another operation more prepared for the future which is very rewarding considering the history.
Beaulieu: I know this is considered a technology of the future so let me ask you this: Do you envision others getting into this sort of product? I know that there are literally just a handful of companies world-wide who can do what you guys do; do you see more competitors entering the fray?
Rathburn: We intend to provide small- to medium-volume production capability, with technology transfer to larger volume suppliers as customer needs dictate. The transition model works well with HSIO providing early prototype and ramp production volumes, while supporting volume transition to customer chosen suppliers as needed under license.
Beaulieu: I know you just bought this company, but are you up and running? Are you building boards right now?
Rathburn: Yes, we are building production now for legacy product and adding a new customer base to support the operation. We are receiving excellent new business opportunity and expect the operation to be well funded and accepting new applications day one of 2016.
Beaulieu: Are you producing LCP boards already?
Rathburn: We have validated production capability for the LCP technology, which was a key aspect of acquiring the business. In short order, the HSIO Circuit Technologies facility will offer the best and most capable LCP fabrication capability available worldwide.
Beaulieu: So if people want to know more about the company, what is your web site?
Rathburn: Our website is hsiotech.com and I can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Beaulieu: Jim, congratulations on your acquisition and your recent success. It’s great to see another high-tech PCB fabricator has come back to life in a way that indicates a very strong future not only for the company, but also for the industry. There are just not enough board shops that can do what you’re doing. And I love that you were able to save not only this shop, but the technology as well. Do you have any last comments before we close this out?
Rathburn: Thank you, Dan, for your interest. We are very much focused on not being a “me too” supplier and proud to offer very unique capabilities. We have an excellent reputation for providing solutions not available in the general supplier base and will continue to focus and invest in performance and best customer need focus. We are fortunate to have great relationships with the industry leaders who tell us what they need for the future.