ECI on the Many Benefits of Automated Process Lines


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In this recent interview, I spoke with Peter Bratin, PhD, of ECI Technology about how PCB shops can benefit from upgrading the control and analysis of plating line solutions to Industry 4.0. We also discussed how the data collected by these systems can help prevent future issues from occurring.

Barry Matties: Peter, please talk about ECI on the printed circuit board fabrication side.

Peter Bratin: ECI has been in the analysis and control of plating solutions since '87. We started primarily with copper and then later on tin, tin-leads and a little bit of nickel and gold. Nowadays, since we established CVS as the de facto standard for the analysis of organic additives and expanded it into all of the components for plating solutions, not just for copper but for both electroplated and electroless processes, you will primarily find us in the labs of most PCB fabs.

Matties: In the nearly 30 years that you've been in business, what significantly has changed in the analysis process from your point of view?

Bratin: The requirements for the accuracy, reproducibility and general control of both the major and minor components of the plating solutions, statistically tracking the solutions and hopefully preventing problems. A lot of people have the misconception that the analysis of the solution is supposed to identify problems. You don't need analytical equipment to identify problems. The boards are going to tell you whether they have a problem or not. The analytical equipment really should be used as a means to avoid the problems—to tell you that you're heading towards a problem and if you continue what you're doing you're going to have a problem and will need to change something.

Matties: It's more of an intervention system.

Bratin: That definitely should be the case. The analytical equipment that is used is very helpful to maintain the control of your plating or cleaning solutions, and it's your insurance that everything is working and that you understand what's going on.

Matties: The idea with 4.0 is it's really processes talking to each other. It's the intervention that is really key to not to just have a bath analysis, but to have a bath analysis intelligent enough to know when to dial my phone or to text me or to trigger an alarm. How does that process work?

Bratin: So in that case, a number of the leading PCB manufacturers have online analysis where they sample solutions periodically anywhere between once every half hour to once or twice every shift. They get the data and that is automatically transmitted to the plating line or to the house controllers. They also would do an automatic analysis to maintain complete control of the plating process. And then if the error occurs either in the analysis or there's an overdose or under-dose for whatever reason, the alarm is set and is sent across the communication line to the station controller. Now what the station controller can do, and we have some of the customers do this, is tap the alarm and alert an operator to go and check it. So it means that you don't have to have an operator sitting there watching it.

Matties: So the analysis is automatic. Your system extracts it, does its measurement, and if it's normal, everything continues. And if it's out of whack?

Bratin: It does automatic dosing and adjusts to whatever is needed.

Matties: Now does your company build and produce the dosing stations as well, or are you just selling the analytical devices?

Bratin: We do both depending on the different industries and how they analyze differently. The dosing system would be something that provides control of the pumps, which is a lower cost and we control the pumps automatically. Or we have a full-blown dosing system where we dose all or most of the components that need to be adjusted.

Matties: Let’s take the North American market, for example, where there are a lot of smaller facilities. Are they going to invest in a system like yours with dosing stations and look for that sort of level of automation?

Bratin: We wish they would.

Matties: Does it make sense to do that, though? Is it cost-effective to begin with?

Bratin: In some cases, yes. I am not sure whether it would be cost-effective for smaller shops, but definitely in the substrate or HDI areas and most of the high-volume production.

Matties: So you're really looking at China and Asia?

Bratin: China, Taiwan, Japan and even some of the U.S. It will take a while for the mentality in the PCB market to come closer to the semiconductor industry, where you do a lot more process control than just checking and troubleshooting.

Matties: I'm sure it’s an obvious answer, but with all the data that you collect that is then captured, can your customers look at the data in many different ways over a desired period of time?

Bratin: All of the data is captured and we primarily display the results for whether it is in or out of the specs. The data is collected continuously, and we keep data for years—it just depends on the size of the hard drive you put into the system. 

Matties: Is there a cloud-based solution for people as well?

Bratin: We could do that because we can VPN into the unit and check it out from the office. The main reason is that you don't want the operator constantly going and standing at the monitor and playing around with it. You want to give them the basic results, and if they see a problem in the available data, they can do some troubleshooting and take a look at it. We can retrace the history or they can print out the history, work on it and look at what is happening. The whole idea is to prevent the problems before a problem even happens, and take a look at what’s happened historically. What was the problem? Was it a problem with the equipment? One of the things we do is an online validation verification to make sure the equipment is working properly. The unit continuously checks itself because in production there are liabilities involved and you have to make sure it's operating properly.

Matties: Is there anything we haven't talked about that people should know about in terms of your process?

Bratin: We have continued to grow, and we're expanding from our original work on organics and the copper area to tin, silver, nickel, gold, and electroless deposition; we’re working on how to help the customer in as many ways as possible.

Matties: I appreciate you taking the time today to chat with us.

Bratin: Thanks a lot.

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