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During the recent NEPCON China event in Shanghai, I spoke with Andreas Schneider, sales director for cutting and structuring laser at LPKF Laser & Electronics, about the latest developments in laser drilling, how customers can justify investments in laser drilling machines, and their outlook for the industry in Asia.
Stephen Las Marias: Andy, tell me about LPKF’s showcase here at NEPCON.
Andy Schneider: As far as the applications are concerned, the first is the laser system for stencils. The stencil process has changed, from etching to laser-produced stencils, which today is state of the art. I would say that more than 90% are produced this way. We are the market leader for stencil cutting technology—and we have been in this business now for more than 25 years. After that, we have a laser system for PCB processing, specifically for depaneling. Why do depaneling with a laser? We have electronics that are getting more and more sensitive. They have a higher amount of components that are also sensitive. With mechanical depaneling, there could be some stress on the board and also for the components, which can cause a failure sooner or later in the field.
LKPF has also developed other applications where laser can be used; for example, in the solar industry for high precision solar panel production.
Las Marias: Why laser?
Schneider: Laser, as you can imagine, is a very accurate tool. For example, if we talk about the machine where we are using a UV laser, we are talking about 20µm in diameter of the laser beam. Your hair is normally around 100µm in diameter—you can imagine how thin and small this laser beam works. That is the reason that we can be very accurate and that is also the reason why we can drill very small diameter holes.
Of course, mechanical drilling is very common nowadays; but in this case, we are just talking about thin boards. If you are looking for more rigid boards, we still have mechanical drilling machines, but also there you can find lasers which are normally CO2 lasers. The CO2 laser beam is bigger than the UV laser beam and so it has also limitations in the case of the diameter of the hole.
Las Marias: Considering tighter tolerances and the miniaturization trend in the electronics industry, how can customers make sure that they can drill an accurate diameter?
Schneider: This is part of our core competencies, that we are able to achieve these high goals in the case of accuracy and in the case of number of holes per second. On the one hand, you achieve this by the construction of the machine. This is part of the development process and makes sure that you use the right electronics and the right laser technology inside the machine. Besides that, we also have the capability to monitor what we are doing in there. We are not marketing this too much because it is also part of our development, but we have ways to control the laser beams and to monitor the laser beam so that we know what is happening in there.
If you think about the drilling of flexible board, what we’re talking about is material. We have the copper material, we have PTI material, and those give a different reflection for the laser beams. This means the parameters also have to be different. As soon as you want to stop on one of these materials in case of blind holes, blind vias or a blind hole instead of via hole, we have the ability to also monitor this action.
Las Marias: What product development trends are happening in PCB drilling?
Schneider: We’ve followed that business for many, many years. In the past, we were very successful in depaneling, but it was done a little bit on the side and wasn’t our main business. However, the technology inside the machine that is used for depaneling is more or less the same as when you’re talking about the lasers and how to operate the lasers, and it’s the same for the drilling. There are, of course, some special construction of the machines, and tools.
We see that this market has a higher demand for these more accurate machines instead of having one mechanical drilling machine or even two drilling machines, and that, again, is where we come from. The UV laser is something which we’ve known for many, many years. It is a product of our own development, so we do not implement a third-party supplier. We have developed our own laser tools and used them for many years. We know a lot about UV lasers and we believe demand is going more and more toward this direction. It’s a matter of looking at the market to see how much of it is served by suppliers. If we identify that there is still room for another, why not?
Las Marias: How would your customers justify investments into UV laser drills when they may already have equipment such as a mechanical driller?
Schneider: The justification will happen on the production output. Today, that is one of the first criteria for every supplier. He is interested in whether he can achieve the qualities that his customers demand. If you can be positive of the same quality, then you can justify it to another supplier. That is exactly the point where we try to attract these guys and say, “We can give you the quality which you want to have.”
We are prepared to gain a better quality even if the holes keep getting smaller—which we definitely expect—and which we also discuss with many of these producers in the case of their roadmaps. How is it going to look in two, three or four years? If they invest in the machine now, they are not going to end its use in one or two years. It will work over the next five to seven years.
Las Marias: Andy, what can you say about the Industry 4.0 trend happening now in the industry?
Schneider: That is hard to say, to be honest. We all work in an industry which is still very interesting in this. You will find more and more electronics in every product nowadays. The functionality is getting higher and higher. I have been in the business for 25 years and I remember the time when we had the first SMT component on a board. Those were the days when I worked for a company producing car radios in Germany.
If you look at how it’s changed in the 25 years since and you look to your smartphone, it is not a phone anymore: it’s more ‘smart’ than a ‘phone’, because in my case, I also use it for everything else instead of just a phone. This is still the basic part of the smartphone, that we can do so many things with. The functionality is getting higher and higher. I think that has influence on the SMT market and also on the PCB market. The PCB producers and also the assembly producers are forced to follow these trends instead of machines and instead of processes.
Even if you look at inspection, we are assembling components that are so small you cannot identify them with your bare eyes. You need some special equipment to do that. This is a trend we are seeing also. Secondly, the big hype in Europe and the world is of course the connection of each machine, of each process, and the information being transferred.
Las Marias: Can you specify the market applications that require such high precision drilling?
Schneider: First of all, as I said we are concentrating on the drilling of the FPCs, whereas there will be also some cutting processes which the laser is also usable for. We will see what happens in the rigid board production and if it also makes sense to use the machine there. But the thicker the board, of course the more time you need. That’s one point.
On the other hand, the laser itself is a very flexible tool. Part of our job is to identify applications where it can be used. Maybe we already know the customer and we can substitute processes where our laser brings significant benefits.
Las Marias: Andy, is there anything we haven’t talked about that you think we should be talking about?
Schneider: I think we have discussed a lot. It’s really interesting to see how things are going on here in China. China is still a very interesting market for us. We also see trends that our customer become more and more active in other Asian countries. For the first time in my life, I was in Vietnam last November, and I was really impressed with what I found there. There are very sophisticated electronics being produced there. It will be very interesting to see where these electronics will be produced in the future, but I’m proud that in Europe and also in America the electronic production still has big value.
I was in Las Vegas for APEX and I was really surprised that the American market didn’t change in the case of development; they have always been on top. Of course, it has changed greatly in the case of the production, as a huge amount of production went over to Asia. Nowadays, it seems that they still produce on their own and that is shown by the number of machines that are ordered by our American colleagues. That is quite good and it’s more balanced again. It will be interesting to see how this will develop.
Las Marias: How would you describe the China market right now?
Schneider: The market here is excellent. It’s always a major market, so I would say electronic production is very well established here. It is not only about easy electronics either, everything is produced here from the iPhone to automotive electronics. This importance of the Chinese market is reflected here at the show with really every supplier being here. There are visitors from the United States, Korea, Japan, Europe, and so on. Everybody is trying to get a piece of this cake. Certainly, we do see that we have high pressure from competition and you can also see this in customers’ behavior. They know how busy it is here, and they know how important the show is for each supplier. So this is still an important market.
Las Marias: Andy, thank you very much.
Schneider: Thank you for having me.