An Interview with Gene Weiner at HKPCA
Barry Matties and Stephen Las Marias recently met with industry veteran Gene Weiner, president of Weiner International Associates to get his take on the HKPCA show, industry trends and his outlook for 2016.
Barry Matties: Gene, when did you get started in this industry?
Gene Weiner: I started in 1956 as a student technician at MIT’s Lincoln Laboratory, and that's where I had my first publication at age 20, co-authored with E.A. Guditz, “Plated Electrical Connections.” We made cordwood packages with electroplated connections. No solder was used. The concept was like that which Joe Fjelstad envisions—a package without solder joints. First, we encapsulated all the components of the package in parallel with silicone then epoxy, bringing all leads to either the “top” or “bottom” surface, and then milled out the circuit patterns exposing the tips of the component leads. We then electroplated the top and bottom sides of the “box”, and sanded it flat, exposing a flat plastic (insulating) surface with embedded copper circuitry. We successfully cycled and tested the package, and it was a really a great innovation. But before that got off the ground along came the semiconductor, multilayer printed circuits, advanced packaging, and plated through-holes. Everything changed overnight and the cordwood package with plated electrical connections was shelved.
Matties: But the concept is still valid.
Weiner: It is. When Joe Fjelstad brought up the solderless connection packaging and we all played with it a few years ago, I found a copy of my original paper. I sent a copy to him, and we enjoyed reviewing it. Joe’s concept was something we couldn't do back then because suitable components and materials weren't available, so his was a more advanced version.
Matties: So you’ve been in the industry for how many years now?
Weiner: Almost 60 years.
Matties: What's the greatest surprise you've seen in the 60 years?
Weiner: The greatest surprise, and it really wasn't a surprise, was the rise and fall of the printed circuit industry as we knew it in the United States, from virtually the beginning to the end.
Matties: Are you referring to the late ‘90s, when we saw the steep fall?
Weiner: The late ‘90s and then again in 2009, which really just about finished it off. It was driven by the big OEMs, like Motorola, Burroughs, and companies like that. They kept squeezing and squeezing the price and put a number of companies in the Midwest and Northeast out of business. Some of them failed themselves while others shifted their sourcing to Asia. The trend continued as EMS companies arose and squeezed prices further, treating boards as just a component or commodity as they, too, began to source in Asia. Japan first, then Taiwan put a major emphasis on quality and volume production. This trend continued to China where labor was, at that time, much lower than the more “industrialized” countries.
Matties: So now we're here at the HKPCA show, which is the largest PCB trade show in the world, I think.
Weiner: That's their claim to fame and from the looks of it I’d say it is. When I go to the CPCA in March we’ll find out, but I think it is because it's more focused on printed circuits and everything related to it—they’re not limiting it to just the PCB, which is a very smart move, and it’s working very well.
Matties: What's so impressive about this show is the total pieces of equipment that you see on the floor. If you want to come kick the tires, this is a place to do it.
Weiner: Pieces of equipment are being introduced here that will not be introduced or even shown at the IPC APEX event in Las Vegas in March.
Matties: And there’s no need, right? This equipment is really geared for mass production, and IPC isn’t really servicing that sort of market at the shows in the U.S.
Weiner: I fault a lot of the U.S.’s fall on the drive by the major OEMs to cut costs. I fault our government for some of this, for driving up the cost of doing business in the United States and driving companies to manufacture offshore. I fault some of this on perhaps too much of an individual approach from the entrepreneurs, the smaller operations in the U.S., who back then could not afford to keep up, as you needed higher and higher volume to justify cost and newer facilities and equipment to produce finer feature sizes. It's a very complicated situation. Even now, people talk about reshoring and new activities or whatever, but I've just got a letter from a colleague on the West Coast who's been in this industry as long as I have, and he's a bit older than I am...
Matties: Really? Is that possible? [laughing]
Weiner: It is! I'm not going to be 80 for another nine months or so, and he's got a decade plus on me. But I asked him what he’s been doing and he said he’s busy destroying his records on soldering and bare boards because it is a thing of the past. He has moved on to packaging and ICs and he believes anyone still in the U.S. that hasn't done that had better do so soon because they won't be here at all in the near future.
We also had a visitor here at the show this week from Massachusetts because he has to upgrade and go to digital in imaging, add laser drills, and a change and expand a number of other operations. He told me that the equipment he has to see at the prices he wants just won't be shown in the United States in March. He’s a former director of IPC, so we showed him some new things including one piece of equipment that was being introduced here at the show. It was developed in North America, but it’s being introduced in China. At first I asked myself why that was, but when you look at reality and leave out the talk about the Feds, the government, or reshoring, it becomes obvious—the United States produces about 5% of the world’s bare boards while Greater China manufactures more than 70%. If you are an equipment company and it costs money to build the equipment, ship it, get it through customs, set it up, test it and show it, and the dates of two major shows were identical would you put it in the 5% show or the show in the 70+% market? It’s just common business sense.
So one of the huge changes I’ve seen has been the rise and fall and flight of PWB manufacturing from the U.S., helped by our government and helped by short-term quarterly reports. Innovation is still great in America and in Germany, but the manufacturing cost benefit and the drive is not, and we don't protect our intellectual property well enough. If you have an invention in the U.S. and you want to come to China everyone is going to say, “Oh, they’re just going to steal it.” Well, the Chinese corporations now like to protect intellectual property too, so how do you do it? If you're a Chinese company and file an application, they're going to protect you over here. So you should make an arrangement and form a WFOE [wholly foreign-owned enterprise], a Chinese company, or license with a trusted partner over here and protect your property that way.
Matties: That's your best chance of protecting it. As far as America goes, I know you've toured the Whelen factory, and the impression is that it's the first fully automated PCB facility in the world.
Weiner: Certainly it is the first new PCB facility in North America in more than a decade. What's first in the world is that there's no effluent and there are fewer than 20 people operating it on all shifts. It could not be done for an HDI board factory, because the process they use for imaging, the Mutracx system, which is a digital printing system, is probably good for 100-micron line and space on a consistent basis. Also if you are thinking of high volume, where you would have to have several additional imaging machines and longer wet processing lines. But the idea of the containment of the operating equipment, the maintenance, the effluent, and the central control overlooking the whole thing that forms a circle, from which you can side-step to do ENIG or some other special process or finish, is sheer genius in the way it was designed and built. Several pieces of equipment were created especially for that line as well as the waste treatment, such as a plasma desmearing system for desmearing that uses oxygen instead of an organic. There are a lot of innovative things at Whelen.
Matties: Is that the beginning of a trend in America?
Weiner: It should be, but it probably is not. What we'll probably see is the inventor of the waste treatment system in particular and other things in the line probably arrange to have it built and sold as a freestanding version for new factory lines or retrofits anywhere in the world. And since that market is primarily in Asia, it will most likely be seen over there next.
Matties: I was impressed with their openness to bring anybody in to really look under the hood and see what they're doing, because they want to share this technology and approach with American companies. Whelen is a real pro-American manufacturer of sirens and indicator lights.
Weiner: It's interesting in that because of the nature of the work required by Whelen Manufacturing for its automotive industry and the level of technology they need, they can compete with any Chinese company for their work and keep the design and everything else in-house.
Matties: The fact that it's a captive facility obviously makes it a lot easier for them to invite others in. I think they were spending $7 million a year on products here in China, and for a little under $12 million they were able to set up that facility, and as you mentioned, the zero discharge aspect is the grand appeal.
Weiner: They are in the state of New Hampshire which is very tough on environmental controls, and they don't need a single permit for hazardous waste. What's most interesting to me about the Whelen story is that it isn’t over yet. When I was there they were debugging the lines and some of it hadn’t been completed yet. I'm going back up this month, weather permitting, to take a look at the changes and talk to the general manager, Alex Stepinski, about his next project, which is plating on plastics. Again, there is no POP facility which is fully automated that does not have any waste treatment effluent. Whelen plans to be the first. The interesting situation at Whelen is that they have their own injection molding equipment and can injection mold the acrylonitrile butadiene styrene (ABS) plating grade and just transfer it over to the next building. That's going to be a very exciting project for me to watch, because that's never been done either.
Matties: One of the things that I see here at the show is a lot of inkjet and digital imaging. It’s really a driving factor in this marketplace and it's changing the way we produce boards.
Weiner: The inkjet stuff that I've seen here is really not much improved over that which I've seen ten years ago. The software of course has evolved, but as far as the equipment and the material the only major improvement I’ve seen is for the soldermasks. Now there are now soldermasks with low enough energy requirements that allow a laser imager to do its job.
Matties: I was recently at the 3D printed electronics show in Santa Clara and they had one booth there with a tabletop printer, maybe four feet by three feet, printing complete multilayer circuit boards.
Weiner: I'm planning on going to that show next year. But those boards you saw could not be for very high frequency or high tech because the conductors are generally from thick film type formulations—they're not pure copper and they’re not pure aluminum.
Matties: What they were using for the base material is what they called a liquid FR-4, and then they were using a conductive ink so you don’t have to drill but just put it right where you need it between layers. But the point being that it may not be perfect today, but it is certainly rapid prototyping for $70,000–150,000 that you can put in your office and be building boards. It surely isn’t ready this moment, but if you fast forward 10–15 years from now it might be a real possibility as the technology advances.
Weiner: Well, there are basically two types of inkjet printers: One of them requires a thermoplastic material that it lays down, and the other uses a laser that can actually melt and lay down copper, which is very expensive and that's in an early stage right now. But I think it has great application, not only for RFIDs for identification but also for wearable electronics. If you look at a Fitbit, almost everything except the chips could be made by 3D printing technology today—but not in volume. But long range, I think it has great application potential. Even the cover now, sapphire or Gorilla Glass, could be printed as polycarbonate.
The technology should be good for prototyping in certain applications where the dimensions and tolerance are not too great. Again, you’re not going to go to the HDI level, but for many simpler applications, such as the circuit board that controls a washing machine, it has a future—but it will have to be done by way of developing a high-speed printer with greater preciseness. Remember, most of what we're doing on the resins is with a thermoplastic, not a thermoset. Once you have a thermoset, like an epoxy, you will have to cure it somewhere along the line and epoxy takes time to cure. There are high-volume applications and prototyping that will be in the mainstream for printed electronics, but not so much for what we’re seeing here at the show, but definitely in certain market segments.
Matties: Like for the circuit board designer who's sitting in his office and wants a rapid prototype. I think five years from now it could be commonplace.
Weiner: For rapid prototypes, absolutely. I went to the design show in Marlborough, Massachusetts, a few months ago and there were maybe 20 representatives with 3D printers, but only two or three of them were those that use the laser and the rest is of them used the thermoplastic. I went around and had each of them make samples, and for the ones that do large tasks with five or six kinds of plastics would take eight hours for a part like we have here. So there's a time constraint.
Matties: It’s still faster than sending your file off to a circuit board shop and waiting. You can design it by lunchtime and have it out by dinner time.
Weiner: That’s true. We are going to see a need for 3D printing in flex and we’re also going to see a need for more assembly techniques for flex with HDI, and there's going to be enough room for all of it. You asked about surprises earlier, and what was a surprise to me was how rapidly Americans developed HDI and then never developed the ability to produce it in volume. It went to Japan, to Taiwan and then to mainland China, and that was that. Along the way it merged with several semi-additive or build-up processes.
Matties: So, any final thoughts on what you see happening in 2016?
Weiner: World War? No, I'm kidding. I would prefer to wait until I see who gets elected to the U.S. government, and see how well the new President here [in China]gains better control of the economy in China, and how well their diplomatic efforts to Africa and other parts of the world work out. How Russia will respond after the current Middle East situations settle one way or another, and when the political turmoil ends and the economic stability returns to a controllable or predictable level in mainland China; whether the famous handshake between the President of Taiwan and the President of China leads to better relations in business, and whether the majority of terrorist organizations get wiped out. That’s when I'll make a prediction. For now, 2016 is much too unpredictable to provide a meaningful opinion.
Matties: We're not going to know who the next president is for 2016 for a while, so we're stuck with what we have at the moment. So that's not going to change.
Weiner: And we may be stuck with what we get! [laughing]
Matties: We could be stuck with what we get, that’s for sure.
Weiner: I don't think we're going to see an economic shift that will benefit the United States. I think they're trying awfully hard over here in Asia to balance it. Germany is still strong but they’re being inundated with immigrants that are going to really hammer their economics. China is not getting the exports, so they have to control it here and increase domestic consumption, and they're fighting this whole environmental issue very heavily now. So all of these things are very exciting, like that Chinese expression, “May you live in interesting times.” And we definitely are.
Stephen Las Marias: Gene, for the past two days you've been walking around the HKPCA show. What can you say about the energy despite the economic challenge that's looming?
Weiner: I was absolutely surprised at the energy, the interest and the attendance of the first two days. There’s been a lot of interest and on the first day there were actually millions of dollars’ worth of orders being signed and closed. Business here has been off, and if you take out the few big leaders, business has been down 30–35% in some cases. So business has been hurting but the energy is good. There's still a reluctance to commit large dollars until we see what happens in the near future. There is also a huge number of copycats of digital imaging systems using the micro-mirror technologies here on the floor, probably more than a dozen companies.
But I had a good feeling at the end of the day. I feel it was ready to burst out, but nobody wanted to commit the dollars until they see where everything is going, with a few exceptions. Nonetheless, this has been the most energetic and active trade show in our industry that I've been to in maybe three years.
Las Marias: What about the innovation? Definitely there are a lot of copycats here, but are you also seeing a certain amount of innovation happening for local companies that might pose a threat or challenge?
Weiner: Yes, I see innovation both in the chemical process as well as in robotics and automation, and also improvement of existing technologies. The recently launched Orbotech Diamond™ 8 Digital Imaging system for solder masks appears to be a very innovative breakthrough especially when coupled with the newer photoimageable solder masks that take lower energy levels to expose.
I missed the last show where they launched the Nuvogo™ 1000 DI system for flexible soldermask applications, and that was the one I really wanted to the see. I was surprised to hear that Tamura perhaps now has the lead on the best soldermask for flexible circuits. Other companies such as Technic and Taiyo also say they have a photoimageable solder mask for flexible applications. But at this show, Tamura was the one about which people were talking.
There's so much to see and compare now even if you're not ready to buy until after the Chinese New Year in February, when we’ll hopefully be having better luck. You have to come here now to compare the new entries and the improvements so that when you do buy you know what decision to make.
Las Marias: What can you say about the future of the industry here in Asia?
Weiner: I think it is going to continue to grow much more and at a greater rate than anywhere else in the world.
Matties: What do you think about India?
Weiner: India doesn't have the infrastructure yet. India has the desire. It is a nation which is nearly as large as China. It has great mathematical capability, great technical capability, but has not had the infrastructure and has not yet been able to put in infrastructure in place except in a few cities where companies from the outside set up their own. It still has a fraction of a fraction of the percent for what's needed to build an electronic manufacturing business infrastructure commensurate with its population and consumable potential. I think a lot of it is because they followed the Russian model for too long before they switched to the current economic model. So for India, ask me that question in five years. I don't see much improvement before then.
Las Marias: I definitely will. Thank you very much.
Matties: Gene, thanks for sharing your thoughts with us today, it's always a pleasure.
Weiner: It's always fun, thank you.