Staying Ahead of Market Trends Through Education

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Matties: What sort of nuanced features would keep somebody from not buying your equipment or buying another? Because it's really all about the laser, right?

Riechel: Not necessarily. The laser defines part of the laser−material interaction, but for laser equipment, beam positioning is key, power control is key and then the actual laser beam quality is key. All of that together with the process parameters is really what makes up the ability to process at a given throughput, a given quality, a given yield. Knowing that, those are some of the biggest areas of technology that ESI has focused on in our long-term roadmaps and technology development. Beyond that, ESI is also committed to supporting other trends in the market such as Industry 4.0, enabling customers to understand the production status of equipment and minimizing operator error.

These are less tangible areas where laser equipment must interact with a factory in general, but they can have a big impact on overall yield, overall system uptime. They can really impact the effective cost-per-panel because while it's easy to say, "Cost-per-panel is the price of the system divided by throughput," in reality, there are all these other areas that really matter, like yield cost, operator cost, system uptime, service costs, and maintenance. Many different areas add up to the end cost to the user.

Similarly, there is ability to use a system, not just now, but in the future. So there is the investment protection aspect to it. If the customer needs to buy a new tool next year or the year after because they have a new application that the system cannot accommodate, that will also drive up overall cost.

Matties: Really what I'm hearing from you is that future protection and flexibility in the process is really the core value proposition.

Riechel: Productivity and yield as well; these are all areas that we're focusing on.

Williams: The flexibility and the future proofing is a key differentiator. To your question of, "what's a specific feature?" I find it interesting to compare a single head tool to a dual head tool. On paper, a dual head tool is going to have twice the throughput. If it is priced at less than 2X, say 1.5X, on paper it's going to be the highest cost of ownership out of the gate. But there are some nuances to that, right? If one head goes down, both heads are down. Twice your throughput is down. If you're not yielding out of both heads at the same high rate, you're not yielding the effect of two different single head tools. That is the kind of education that we do a lot, to make sure we're matching them with the absolute right solution for their demand.

Matties: In your sales process, it sounds like when someone says, "I'm ready to buy a laser drill," then the education process begins. It's not like you're knocking on the door and saying, "Hey, buy a laser drill." Because it's got to be part of a strategy, and then it goes back to what you were saying about workflow. Does it fit into your workflow properly? There's a whole education process there.

Williams: Correct.

Matties: So you guys are really teachers.

Williams: We can even be teachers at that very early stage because we do a lot of advanced laser−material interaction studies. We can predict that if the architecture or the material structure changes in a particular direction, it may lend itself to a transition from a mechanical process, for example, to a laser process, or from a CO2 laser process to a UV laser process. In some cases, we can see that those transitions may come and we can be ready for them. In that case, we are educating. This particular type of laser drill may solve that problem and that, again, goes to the future proofing. If there is already that capability in play, and that demand comes your way, we can then say, "Problem solved," before you even know it's here.

Riechel: Similarly, in our work together with materials manufacturers, we can already preempt some of these discussions. There's education that can happen from multiple angles, like working with materials manufacturers who interact with the customers on one front. Similarly, we can do it on our front. It can also happen before we even have our sales team involved through activities such as eBooks and publishing to help customers educate themselves before that buying process begins.

Matties: It sounds like a challenging selling process that you're in. A lot of decisions for a fabricator to consider.

Williams: Absolutely. That's why we are the clear leader in flex PCB drilling. We are the incumbent in each of the top 10 flex manufacturers, so they are going to come to us first for that consultation. We have that benefit in this market.

Matties: Is there anything that we haven't talked about that you would like to share?

Williams: We—together with our customers—are collectively in this market in a period of unprecedented demand. We're particularly proud that we've been able to ramp up our manufacturing capacity very quickly to meet our customers' demands.

I don't believe that many of our customers saw this coming and we certainly collectively didn't have as much time to prepare for this ramp as we would have liked. We have our primary manufacturing facility in Singapore and we've ramped it very aggressively to make our customers successful. They have very demanding customers on their end who are asking them to provide products on time, in high-volume right now. One of our core competencies is our ability to manufacture these complex systems in high-volume and do it on our customers' demand schedule and with really high quality, because if it gets to their factory and it's not ready to process, then it doesn't do them any good. We’ve worked hard to meet our customers' demand in this particular time and we’ve certainly been successful.

Riechel: For Industry 4.0, I've been interacting a lot with many different customers and surveying the market to see what standards are out there to support all the companies throughout the equipment industry, and our own customers amongst those manufacturers, to ensure the most effective means of communicating and achieving the goals of Industry 4.0. These are things like getting system status updates, controlling systems remotely, improving yields, and understanding the causes for downtime; things that can really improve overall cost of ownership. There are actually two different standards that are being developed right now concurrently, which I see as a challenge to the market. If you have two standards, there is no standard.

I'm working together with TPCA as well as IPC. Both organizations are developing their own independent standards at this time. The IPC is developing the Connected Factory Exchange standard. The TPCA is developing the PCB/ECI standard. I'm trying to understand which of those two standards is really most likely to best support our customers, because there are obvious benefits and downsides to any way that you do things.

Matties: Any early determinations on your part, yet?

Riechel: Still to be determined. Each standard is approaching the same problem from a different angle. The TPCA group has some buy-in from the IC packaging industry—companies that are adopting standards from the semiconductor industry because there's so much overlap between IC packaging and semiconductor manufacturing. That standard is based on SEMI standards of, for instance, SEMI E5 and SEMI E30, whereas, the IPC group is approaching Industry 4.0 from the PCB assembly side. So for the IPC Connected Factory Exchange standard, the PCB assembly houses and the PCB assembly equipment manufacturers are approaching the same issues from that PCBA angle, with a lot of the targeted features and considerations impacted by that perspective. Flex and HDI are in the middle of those ICP and PCBA markets. This is why I'm still interacting with both organizations and discussing the issue with my own customers to understand questions such as: What challenges are they facing? Where do they think that their communications standards are going to take them, and which of these standards are really going to best serve their interest?

Matties: What's the trend in that research for the customers?

Riechel: For the customers? We're still on the very beginning phases of that. I first wanted to survey what each of these standards committees is doing, understand what their existing support base is, which companies are involved, and so on. Then I'm taking that information and funneling it into my discussions with customers.

Matties: In the end for you, is that simply a software function? So it's not going to impede the sale process of a piece of equipment today is it?

Riechel: Generally, no it’s not simply a software function; it's an additional differentiator. Certainly the key for selling equipment like ours is "Can you drill a hole at a given quality, at a given yield, at a given speed?" But as I said, Industry 4.0 supports some of these other cost aspects that one doesn't necessarily think about in a tangible way. Furthermore, it's necessary to have an interaction between the equipment and the factory’s IT system. Having standards makes that interaction much more seamless. The end goal is to have a plug and play solution. We're still a long way from that, but the standards are attempting to go there. Once that is achieved, the speed of innovation on enabling useful features is much faster because you no longer have to worry about things like what the transport protocol is, what the encoding protocol is, and what the content protocol is to determine what types of information are being communicated and how they should be formatted and communicated. Once we get past that, then we can focus on the real value adders.

Matties: You said you were focused on flex, specifically. Is there somebody in the organization that focuses on HDI, specifically?

Riechel: I am working very closely together with my colleague in HDI, Chris Ryder, and together we're coming up with the most appropriate mechanism of interacting with these organizations as well as developing a cohesive strategy for the industry. There should be very little difference between the needs of HDI and flex; both are interconnecting technologies, and in many cases, the same companies are doing both rigid and flex processing. So there's a lot of synergy there.

Matties: We're seeing HDI moving into the automotive space.

Riechel: As is flex.

Matties: A lot of aluminum-backed boards for the LED, and that sort of thing.

Williams: Automotive is one of those macro market drivers that is accelerating demand across the board. We think of consumer electronics as the primary driver, but we have to start thinking of the next generations of autonomous vehicles to be the power of 20 smartphones embedded throughout the system.

Matties: Something like 50% of the value of the automobiles would be in electronics.

Williams: That's right, and we're seeing that already. Not just in the flex and HDI space, but in our other laser areas as well. The topic of standards I think is a really interesting one. Maybe it's article-worthy at some point. I think it's a really important industry position, as Patrick said.

Matties: The sooner we start talking about it, the better the conversation will become in the industry. Well, thank you very much, gentlemen.

Williams: Great.

Riechel: Thanks, Barry.


Check out the links below for ESI columns:

Laser Pointers: Stepping Up to Laser Processing for Flex, Part 6 — Proper Care and Feeding of Your Equipment

Laser Pointers: Stepping Up to Laser Processing for Flex, Part 5—Process Development





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