How North American Fabricators Benefit from Attending HKPCA


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Two New Englanders in Shenzhen. It sounds like the title of a play, doesn’t it? Headlining the bill is Peter Bigelow of IMI, who explains why even small American manufacturers benefit from attending large Chinese shows like the HKPCA. He’s joined by fellow New Englander Alex Stepinski of Whelen Engineering, who discusses drill concepts and the transition to zero discharge.

Barry Matties: Peter, please start by telling me what the heck you are doing here in China at the HKPCA show.

Peter Bigelow: Being a fabricator in North America and going to the local shows, you find there are fewer and fewer suppliers showing equipment. I've been to China many times, and the growth here is phenomenal. I wanted to see the equipment that we never see and can't get in North America, and to better understand the price differential. That way, when I'm intelligently making a decision and investing money, I know how much more I have to spend versus somebody who is in a lower cost part of the world and has a larger number of suppliers available to him.

Matties: How are your manufacturing needs different than what's going on here?

Bigelow: We’re a high-mix, low-volume facility. We focus on PTFE materials and polyimides, so we're not doing cellphones, heavy HDI-type product or automotive. We're really supplying somewhere between craft projects and prototypes in the high-mix, low-volume, which is used in communications and military. When we're looking at equipment, we don't need a 10-spindle drill machine. What we're looking for is a one- or two-spindle, but we need to have the controlled depth and the registration systems in place, and so on.

It’s the same way when we look at direct imaging and move in that direction. We don't need something that has high volume, but we need to have equipment which handles high mix, handles a wide spectrum of panel sizes and is relatively easy to use. We need the things that make the West, if you will, strong in their various niches. That’s the kind of equipment we're looking for, and I know from reading (and looking at) the kind of articles you guys are putting out that it's happening here. It may not make the headlines, but there certainly is high-mix, low-volume manufacturing taking place here.

Matties: I think that's a growing segment of this market, actually. I see more and more. Because why should an OEM have to go one place and then come over here to get mass production? They see it as an opportunity.

Bigelow: We do a lot of work for companies where we'll work them through prototypes and through the betas into the short run, at which point they move to a plant elsewhere for the higher volume work. We know where the migration has been for decades, so it just makes a lot of sense for companies in other parts of the world now to start putting in purpose-built facilities to handle that kind of work.

Matties: Being high-mix, low-volume, how important is automation to you?

Bigelow: Automation is not important in the sense of trying to get more through in less time, but there are some critical areas where, if you had an automated system and the human element was removed, you would get better quality. It's one of the things we look at with direct imaging that seems to be a real advantage. We're never going to make up the cost differential on reduction of use of film and so on, but when you're doing some tough items, the fewer times somebody has to play with it the better off you're going to be. Automation means something different for different sized companies. If you're a real high-volume operation, you want things to just move automatically through the facility. When you're higher mix, you've got to pick where you want to put automation in, because in some places it just doesn't pay off and in other areas it can be very critical.

Matties: You mentioned direct imaging. At this show I’ve seen companies like Orbotech and others that are bringing the inkjet soldermask systems that are reducing 10–12 process steps into four with direct imaging or inkjet printing—those sorts of things. Are those the kind of technologies that really interest your facility?

Bigelow: As I tell everybody, we could drop millions of dollars into our facility and no one would ever see it, but I'm looking at some of the core processes that we have. We need to upgrade our drilling area. We have older equipment so we want to put in something that is going to take us into the future for as long as what we’re currently using has. Same thing with imaging. Imaging is a dynamic area, and we want to put the emphasis in that. That will drive what we have to do in the plating lines. We've spent a lot of money over the last few years adding surface finishes, and the plethora of options for that, into our facility.

We just have to work through our priorities, and being a smaller operation, we kind of focus on what we need first and then we come back to the other areas as well. This last year we spent a few hundred thousand dollars in capital and we upgraded testing. We are always upgrading inspection and we brought in the whole via fill process because we’re doing more of that. In past years, we put lasers in for depanelization. It's all based on what we need to do. My guess is that if we tighten and we work our way through the plant, we'll be looking at some additional newer technologies.

The whole idea of nanomaterials and where that could lead is exciting. For many years, I’ve felt that the printed electronics world has a place, but it needs to be in a sheet-fed form. I'm still convinced that that's going to be a real game changer, especially for HDI and for signal intense processes, which we're involved with; they need to have the integrity of the signal and the impedance is critical. I think there are some real interesting things that can be done. All of those areas I'm looking at, but when I go back home and I hear, "something's broken here, and we need to have more capability there," those are the areas that seem to get my attention.

Matties: The pain points will always rise to the top, right?

Bigelow: Absolutely. In our industry there are a lot of pain points.

Matties: I was recently at the 3D show in Santa Clara, and I saw a tabletop printer finish multilayer circuit boards using what they described as a liquid FR-4. You don't need soldermasks, and you only expose the points that you need. You put it in and a few hours later the circuit board comes out. The units themselves are probably in the $75,000–$150,000 range.

Bigelow: 3D printing is another game changer. My son just finished up an engineering degree at the University of Maryland and one of the projects he was involved with was using a 3D printer, making a casing for a piece of equipment and having circuitry inside, so it was 3-dimensional and the whole concept being that for basic controls you can now integrate the circuitry into the case. It was kind of exciting, and really exciting for his old man who is paying for this education by having a fabrication shop that's made its money making those boards that are now going to be replaced by the technology that he's playing with.

Matties: When you start looking at where to spend your money, is that a place where you could go buy four of these and start selling this service?

Bigelow: It could be, and I think that's a technology to look at. The devil's always in the details in everything you do. Whether the boards are really nothing much better than bareboard prototypes, whether they're really functional, or whether they can handle a wide spectrum of applications—everyone's moving that direction. If they get there then they're going to have something which, I think, will be very attractive, especially for OEMs who want to bring the prototyping in-house for rapid deployment of new designs. For a lot of our customers in the communications sector—and we're talking military base system communications, not necessarily hand held cellphones, where there's a constantly (completely) changing technology—speed is everything to them, so that could be a very attractive technology as they're moving forward.

Matties: I actually see this as an area where, if I was a producer in America, I would definitely be looking at this technology because we're about talking taking a factory and condensing it to a tabletop machine. That's a game changer.

Bigelow: Exactly, and I have friends who are using 3D printers and other applications and the one commonality is that when they first get it, it seems so intimidating, and they very quickly realize how easy it is to operate and how fast it can produce. And being able to supply those two things has been the hallmark of any job-shop type of industry.

Matties: I liken this to the typesetting industry when the Linotype machine came out. Typesetting was a thing of the past. You didn't have to have all those special skills; you just had to press a button. That's how I actually started in publishing, because of the personal computer’s ability to output like that. I can see the same thing happening in circuits and I think within the next 20 years we're going to see shops set up like this.

Bigelow: There's always going to be a need for a printed circuit. It's going to look different and it's going to be made differently, but it is an exciting industry because there's always a need for a way to connect and make things happen, and that's what we're basically at the crux of. For a lot of people, they're still hung up on "it's got to be a certain drill through-hole" or something along that line. That's going away and the question really is, how fast will it go away and how much will it cost to be able to stay competitive? Or, are we coming to an inflection point in the industry where there will be a paradigm change and a different type of company will be the fabricator?

Matties: To draw a comparison, we're not in the buggy whip business; we're in the accelerator business. We have to keep that in mind because it's so easy to let the past stop us from seeing the future. To your point, just walking through this show I'm looking at all these new pieces of equipment; you could easily spend millions and millions of dollars.

Bigelow: But the only way you survive is if you spend your money wisely. A lot of companies have not done that and they're not around, and a lot of companies have done it and that's really a differential. It's tough when you're small, like I am, because you have to really pick and choose, but I think it's equally difficult for the large players because if you bet the ranch on the wrong thing, the debt load is going to be crushing.

Matties: Well, you mentioned drills and we happen to be sitting here with Alex Stepinski from Whelen. Alex, I think you went with eight single-head units at Whelen. Could you talk a little bit about what your thinking was behind the single-head concept?

Alex Stepinski: With a high-mix, low-volume scenario you want to make absolutely sure your spindles are always drilling and that's the basis of the single-head concept, right there. With automatic loader/unloaders and different jobs in every opening, you maximize your productivity and you maximize your capital return by having that kind of a solution. Even though it costs a little bit more up front, the overall cost over the life of the machine is far less.

Matties: Alex also has produced at Whelen the first zero discharge circuit board shop in the world. For somebody like Peter, who's an existing company, how hard would it be for them to convert to zero discharge and what would the advantage be?

Stepinski: It depends on what they have in place now, but it's not that hard to do. The return can be a couple of years or even shorter depending on how it's configured.

Matties: You being a captive facility, that's really nice because of the cost and all that, but for a job shop it seems like that might even be a selling point to your customers because they can be in a green facility.

Bigelow: I think that the selling issue is less so for customers. I've always walked customers through the waste treatment area saying, “This is X number of dollars of overhead that we have to do for all the right reasons.” More importantly, everyone has older systems at some point that have to be replaced and upgraded. We have been looking at what we can do to replace our system, and what was really appealing in moving in the direction of zero discharge is you do away with the need to have certain licenses and certain costs, which are ongoing and are changing. It's a big advantage operationally if you have that and are able to move in that direction. Whelen has done a phenomenal job on a lot of fronts, but that one is really important.  

I think that I'd prefer telling customers that we have state-of-the-art systems in place so they don't have to worry about losing their supplier because of an environmental issue. The risk management side of it seems to be more interesting to them than the green side. They all want to have green, and God knows we all fill out enough paperwork about where everything comes from, but what the buyer cares about is that they have a long-term supplier that dependably delivers a high quality product. If you can take one of the variables out, that's a big advantage.

Matties: When you looked at that in terms of cost savings or overall advantage, what was your final analysis?

Stepinski: When we did competitive pricing for different wastewater systems that the market currently offered, we were able to produce our own system for approximately half the market price of a system that only does partial recycling and doesn't recycle 100%. So for a new factory it's a no brainer. For an existing factory there's a lot of equipment that can certainly be reused in implementing a zero discharge concept, but it would still be less than that.

Matties: Well, this is exciting. I’m glad to see you here Peter.

Bigelow: Glad to be here.

Matties: Alex, thanks for jumping in, or letting me drag you in.

Stepinski: Sure.

Bigelow: I think it's interesting. We’re two New England guys in Shenzhen.

Stepinski: That is kind of weird, isn't it?

Matties: What do you think of the show, Peter?

Bigelow: It's always impressive coming to China to the shows, whether it's here or whether it's up at the Shanghai show. They're much more vibrant with a lot more equipment and a lot more technologies on display. I always learn a lot, which is really important and always a good thing to do. Hopefully I can keep doing this every couple years and see what's going on.

Matties: Peter, thank you so much for joining us today.

Bigelow: Thank you, Barry, I appreciate it.

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