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Recently, I went on a tour of Cemco’s facility in Waterlooville, UK, where I met with longtime industry leader Peter Lymn to discuss Cemco’s roots in hot air solder leveling and the transitions Cemco has made in order to stay competitive.
Barry Matties: Peter, here we are on a tour of your facility and it looks like you're doing some really innovative things here, but first why don't you just tell me a little bit about the history of Cemco.
Peter Lymn: We started building tools and dies for making PCBs back in the ‘60s, and that developed into making tooling equipment for multilayers and double-sided circuit boards for alignment, which followed on into a range of wet processing equipment and eventually soldering equipment. So that's been our focus for the PCB industry for the last 20–30 years.
Matties: I think you're probably most well-known in the U.S. for the hot air solder leveling.
Lymn: Yes, for the Quicksilver.
Matties: Exactly, the Quicksilver. I'm surprised that process still exists, are you?
Lymn: Well, until they stop using solder to assemble circuit boards I think it's still the best finish if your material can tolerate the process. Now I think when it changed to lead-free solder, a lot of people were looking for alternatives thinking that lead-free solders weren't going to work out, but in practice we still run a leveling service and we still process multilayer boards, flex circuits, and flex-rigid. I think most of the UK manufacturers were looking at small volumes and prototyping, and nickel-gold works very well for small quantities. There's nobody really running high volume here anymore.
Matties: Was it surprising to you how the market shifted to Asia in such a rapid fashion?
Lymn: Yeah, it drove us to go off in different directions and now most of our customers have moved their production to Asia. I’d guess we have about 10% of our original customer base still working with us. We had a lot of business in Asia initially. I think we sold about 30 horizontal levelers into China and Taiwan.
Matties: Then they copied you.
Lymn: There was certainly some copying, but I think more and more it's that hot air leveling has been dropping off and what's done now is done on low-cost vertical machines that we can't compete with.
Matties: So as we are walking through here though, you're showing me some really innovative things and some new technologies that you're working on.
Lymn: In the past, we've always been involved with one-off projects, particularly as the printed circuit board industry has gone up and down. When it’s gone quiet we've looked for other markets to go into and we’ve worked with a whole bunch of different industries, from making glass microspheres for submersibles to building controllers for growing sapphire. We also built fully automated equipment for producing chip carriers.
So a lot of different projects over the years and we get customers that come along and say, "Can you?" The one we're looking at now is built for RFID tags. It is a four meters a minute, electroless copper plating system. We then we move from there into ITO replacement copper mesh touch sensors. We've built I think seven systems now for touch sensors. This was an early one, but we're just about to adapt it in order to make battery electrolytes, which will be copper-tin, non-woven material. We’re just setting it up for some experiments.
Matties: It's really not mass production of equipment that you’re doing.
Lymn: We still have a range of printed circuit board equipment. We still build the Quicksilver and we’ve got two just about to go out the door here now. We have a range of wet process equipment, but we tend to focus on things that are perhaps difficult to do on conventional equipment. Most of the work we're doing now is non-contact processing, touchless treatment, sheet-to-sheet and reel-to-reel.
Matties: That's giving you some really fine line work and technology that you're working on here as well.
Lymn: Fine line work and also high-volume flexible printed circuits, so we're looking at reel-to-reel DES, non-contact for very fine line and electroless nickel/immersion gold.
Matties: Now that can certainly be a product that plays into Asia.
Lymn: It's all coming from Asia, yes. We don't really have customers outside Asia that are interested in that.
Matties: Do you think that it might be something that could gain quite a bit of market share for your business?
Lymn: Yes, I think it will be small quantities and then get made locally.
Matties: So in the many years that you've been here, what's the most surprising thing you have come across?
Lymn: I suppose really the most surprising thing was when everyone just vanished to Asia. It took some adjusting to.
Matties: It was like a light switch, wasn't it?
Lymn: Yeah, I mean we were building one of those horizontal lines every month. At the peak we were building 10 Quicksilvers a month, and it just kind of turned off one morning.
Matties: It really makes you become innovative and re-think your entire business strategy. Not everybody was able to survive, but congratulations to you, it looks like you've made some nice adjustments.
Lymn: And you really can't compete with companies that are making really high volumes of wet process equipment, so we had to look for niche markets and come up with techniques that offer an alternative.
Matties: I see the letters ‘FSL’ over there. That's stands for Finishing Services, right?
Lymn: Yes, we bought Finishing Services just about 15 years ago now.
Matties: I was good friends with Allen McKinnon. I sure miss him.
Lymn: Yeah, I miss Allen. We can still build all the FSL equipment. We documented it all and we still make some modules from time to time, but we can't really be competitive with it so we've really gone more for looking at touchless transport systems for fine line product and things like that.
Matties: That’s where the future is. What about the North American market, how do you service that?
Lymn: I guess that is still our biggest market—most of our one-off stuff is for companies in the States.
Matties: We’re now looking at the two Quicksilvers that are ready to go out. Is this your newest model?
Lymn: This is the latest model. The carriage is motor-driven and they have touchscreen control so you can upload all the parameters from the job card and it will monitor how much square footage goes through the machine. We have software programs for controlling the solder. A lot of lead-free solders now are dosed with different elements that come out with the skimming and they come out in the intermetallics, so you have to track what's going on so that you can operate them economically.