Insulectro Works to Bridge the Fabricator/Designer Gap
Barry Matties sat down with Insulectro’s Megan Teta and Mike Creeden to discuss trends they see in the materials market and how they’re working to bridge the gap between fabrication and design, including helping designers understand what they can do to make a board more manufacturable.
Barry Matties: First, give us a brief snippet of Insulectro and what you do.
Mega Teta: Insulectro sells all Isola and DuPont laminates in the industry. We’re aligned with some of the best-in-class suppliers. We also sell materials that go into almost every process inside of a PCB fabrication shop.
Matties: Mike, you recently joined Insulectro in a design engineering capacity. Talk a little bit about your new role.
Mike Creeden: I joined Insulectro this year in May as a technical director for design education. Our goal is that we can enable and empower our customers, the fabricators, and support the OEM market. Our goal is to help the OEMs make intelligent material decisions early.
Matties: One of the things that I hear in most of the presentations at AltiumLive Frankfurt is that materials matter very early on from the design point of view. Why is that so important?
Creeden: Megan and I were discussing that earlier. It’s part of the message we are attempting to bring to this week’s event. Materials matter now for three major reasons.
First, when a designer attempts to solve the layout, it’s often a very dense, complex physical layout puzzle. Materials are an integral part of the design because as circuitry becomes smaller, the pitch of the device is reduced, and you need to utilize reduced material sizes.
Second, as boards become smaller, their ability to be manufactured is more challenging.
And the third reason is circuit performance is getting higher. A higher-performance board has more criteria placed on the layout, and the material affects that because when most people connect to a board, they see a wire connecting two parts. They think that the voltage and current establish the transmission line, but that’s only partially true; they’re factors, but the energy exists within the dielectric material, which is the space between any signal or power plane and its return path. The materials matter because they are factors in the equation for signal/voltage performance.
Matties: And from your point of view, what trends are you seeing in materials right now?
Teta: We’re all about trying to maintain lower Dk and driving that loss down while still making the materials manufacturable. From the Isola side, all of our materials are glass-reinforced because it’s one of the easiest materials to drill, laminate, and maintain your registration and scalability, etc. We’re trying to use things like lower-Dk glasses and take copper foils that are thinner and thinner to drive all that loss down.
Matties: The last time I did an interview with Isola CEO Travis Kelly, we talked about the new factory being built. What’s the progress on that?
Teta: The presses are coming. In the U.S. market, prototyping is a big deal, so trying to get material as quickly as possible is critical. Also, with the high-speed digital market, there are a lot of different core offerings, so trying to keep all of that in stock is a little bit trickier. The new facility is aimed at making those laminates as quick as possible.
Matties: It seems like the strategy there were smaller lot sizes and more flexibility.
Teta: Exactly. There are going to be three brand new presses that will outperform old presses from the facility in Chandler, Arizona. These are going to be aimed at doing lower quantity with a higher mix.
Matties: One of the things that we hear a lot about is that the designers need to talk to the fabricators sooner than later. Part of the core strategy of Insulectro is bridging that gap, correct?
Creeden: Yes. If you complete your layout and then approach the fabricator, you may find out any one of your decisions along the line for solving the layout and feature size or satisfying electrical performance are unbuildable. If you’re finding that out at the end of the design phase, you may have to go back and start somewhere much earlier in the process, if not all the way at the beginning. Most companies’ design schedules cannot support that. Oftentimes, they will compromise, thus lowering the reliability, performance, or anything that might be unacceptable to their end customer.
Matties: Are you focusing on reaching OEMs and connecting them with fabricators with the designer in that mix? What’s your model?
Creeden: For the most part, OEMs already are connected to the fabricators, and Insulectro currently is working with most all fabricators. Our goal is to accomplish change together. Therefore, we call it our ACT (Accomplishing Change Together) Program, whereby we work with the fabricators, helping them support their customers. For example, we don’t want to suggest a new material at the last minute. If it’s a new material, we want the OEM to be in contact with their fabricator alerting them early. We’re eager to make sure that the fabricators are prepared to best serve the end goals. Timely material choices help to ensure adequate delivery, stocking, and that process issues are met. Megan can speak to delivery and stocking issues. We value being able to deliver all these materials very quickly.
Teta: Insulectro is a stocking distributor, and we also have some manufacturing, cutting down materials, drilling holes, etc. Our goal is to get the material as fast as possible. We’re also working on our customer portal and making sure the fabricators can see in real-time what’s in our inventory and where it is. For example, a fabricator might San Jose sometimes will call and go to pick up the material the same day; we’re able to do that because they can see what we have in stock.
With material availability, we also understand that we need to maintain certain standard materials that are always going to be in stock. And that’s what’s important about talking to the designers and ensuring that when they build their stack-ups, they use the materials that we have. Isola does a great job of having a lot of different things available, but you don’t want to have something that is going to be used by two different customers.
Matties: Back to my point about connecting the OEM with the fabricator, I understand that connection, but I was talking more about you going to the OEM and being the connector between the OEM and fabricators in many ways.
Teta: Our goal is to work with the fabricator and have them bring us into their customers, so we go on sales calls with the OEMs all the time.
Matties: It’s kind of the reverse. You’re becoming an extension of the fabrication marketing department with brilliant expertise.
Creeden: Yes. We’re not attempting to approach the OEMs directly. We’re really trying to accomplish the change with our partners, who are the fabricators.
Matties: On a material supply side, though, they want to go talk to the OEMs first, so their competitors are marketing to the OEMs.
Teta: We are trying to talk to the OEMs more often frequently, but what we’ve learned is who we sell to, and we sell to the fabricators. We have also learned that often, the fabricators know more about some of the programs that their sales teams go into. They know what programs are going to production faster, for example, and what’s going to be released next week versus what might not be done until next year.
Matties: One thing I’ve heard quite often is that designers will over materialize their boards using materials that they don’t need to use or using expensive materials when less expensive materials apply.
Creeden: One of the first questions when considering this subject is, “What is the end quantity that you will be building?” All boards are prototyped first at a low quantity, so it’s irrelevant what the prototype quantity is. It’s typically a “max quantity for a minimum lot charge,” which is often an expression in buying a prototype. Examples of yearly production quantity are 5,000–10,000 or less are considered mid-range, and 1,000 or less are often considered to be a low-production quantity. Therefore, the price in the overall scheme of things may be insignificant. When you’re prototyping, which is low volume, typically, my recommendation is to use the best-in-class material and over-design it because you want to debug your circuit. You do not want to debug a poor material and/or low-quality fabrication. Once you’ve established your circuit’s performance, then you may want to look at any way to reduce costs during the pilot build, if you indeed have a high-end quantity.
Matties: We see a lot of simulation in design. Won’t the simulation supplant that?
Creeden: That’s a great question. We have a new initiative that we’ve taken on at Insulectro in partnership with our fabricators. Over the years, I’ve simulated a lot of boards, and helped a lot of customers as they attempt to simulate. In simulation, depending on the complexity of a circuit, it can be very time-consuming. It can go on for months, and what are the man-hour costs to do that? Simulation can be very difficult. Once you’re done, results are theoretical at best, because it’s done on a computer. The designer can violate some of the constructs that you’ve theoretically arrived at, so it’s subjective. At Insulectro, what we’re developing is an AC-TV (any condition test vehicle) for transmission line analysis in your stackup.
Industry builds characterization boards all the time, whereby they’re testing their chip’s performance and the transmission line over a dielectric within a stackup. What we’re developing is a vehicle without the customer’s chip. The transmission line would be evaluated over a dielectric within a stackup. This could be either used as a coupon on your fabrication panel or a larger test evaluation board.
Matties: A standalone board?
Creeden: Right, meaning fabricating a standalone test vehicle with pico-probes or RF connectors on it and evaluating this through some of the best analysis in the industry. We’ve partnered with DuPont Technology Center in Silicon Valley, where they have that testing capability. What’s different is we’re not just testing one layer of substrate; we’re going to test it as it exists in your stackup and will be built at your fabricator.
Matties: When you are building a prototype, and you know that it is going to be large volumes, should you be designing for the large volumes and testing at that?
Creeden: Absolutely. That’s what would be best termed as a pilot build. Typically, prototyping is mainly doing one or two for the purpose of debugging your circuit. A pilot is geared toward now that. I have a working, functioning circuit, so let’s see if I can build this in high-quantity. Is there any tooling I need, and will it perform using the most cost-effective materials? During the pilot run, you can look and see if this more economical material might still perform and save you pennies because pennies matter in high-quality.
Matties: What advice would you give to a fabricator and designer who might be working together?
Creeden: The question is, “Are they working together at the beginning of the layout cycle?” That’s the key. And if you’ve heard me say it once, you’ll hear it many times; you need to look at this from multiple perspectives because compartmentalized thinking excludes certain aspects that should be looked at. Designing for solvability, designing for performance, and designing for manufacturability are the three perspectives that we need to consider.
Matties: Different dialogues go on between designers and fabricators. What’s the most important dialogue that they should be having?
Creeden: A circuit layout is very nuanced. One example is a 50-ohm transmission line to a digital designer is very different than a 50-ohm transmission line to an RF designer. Another example is if it’s a high-volume, lower layer count board, the cost may be a higher factor. If it’s lower volume, higher layer count board, the cost may not matter as much.
There’s no way to say, “I have one answer that fits all.” It’s about understanding a nuanced approach to looking at every circuit, the quantity you’re going to build, what your company’s profile is, and what your end-user requirements would be. Those are all criteria that need to be looked at specifically to help derive that answer.
Matties: One other area is around DFM. We’re talking about the bare board side of things, but you also mentioned that you must talk to the EMS company, testability, and all these other factors to really have a full DFM picture.
Creeden: Exactly. For example, when people use the term DFM, and they say “manufacturer,” who is the manufacturer? The fabricator sees a board considering all internal layers. The assembler has two layers to focus on, top and bottom, considering soldering, testability, and reliability. There are many different things, such as compliance, and all these things are part of your supply chain and your operations cycle, and each one of them has an aspect that should be considered in the nuance of your development.
Matties: Is there anything that we haven’t talked about that you want to include in this conversation?
Teta: It’s just making sure designers understand what they can do to make a board more easily produced. I’ve learned that often, designers don’t understand all the processes that go into making a board. Making sure they can take something like making the lines a bit wider or making that drill size a little bit larger will increase their chance of getting better yielding. Having that conversation earlier is also better, so they don’t have to go back over the designs.
Matties: One thing that I’ve picked up on is the designers should make the trace and space as wide as possible.
Teta: You don’t have to go as wide as possible.
Matties: Would that be the best, though?
Creeden: It’s a conflicting paradigm because the industry is leading us to go smaller and smaller, and to Megan’s point, it’s harder and harder to manufacture. As solvability requires things to be smaller, the performance is often better, but larger traces and feature sizes often contribute to improved reliability and producibility; therefore, they have competing perspectives.
Matties: Assuming that you fit it into the parameters that are provided.
Creeden: That’s the solvability.
Matties: Making it as robust as you can is the message.
Creeden: Always improve your reliability because reliability, in the end, is what your customers are paying for. And from a manufacturing standpoint, you want your yields as high as you can because that will lower your costs.
Matties: I noticed you had a slide on landless vias yesterday. Tell me what you’re thinking around landless views now.
Creeden: I put that slide in my presentation, stating landless vias were from the past but needed for the future. Landless vias were used in a proprietary OEM’s facility, and it had pretty good success, but it was left with that OEM and not adapted into the mainstay contract manufacturing fabrication process. It’s almost impossible to be built today using current methods, so further testing should occur to proof landless vias. Landless vias work when the annular ring disappears because you rely on the ductility of plated copper versus any kind of foil laminate. As we go to smaller and smaller feature sizes, some sort of landless type of via will be required. I think that the OrMet sintered paste is going to fill that technology need and provide this solution.
Matties: Overall, the case has been made that the reliabilities increase because of the Z-axis movement.
Creeden: The CTE Z-axis mismatch of epoxy vs. copper threatens reliability, therefore, ductility is the best solution to counteract that.
Matties: I’m glad the conversation started because the old becomes new.
Creeden: It does. Landless vias was an innovation back in the day, and we need to return to it because plating high aspect ratio vias is the biggest challenge to the density problem. The OrMet via sintering paste, in my opinion, is going to fill that industry need, and it already is. Most of the cellphones and telecommunications are using that as a mainstay for thin, high layer count boards with one lamination cycle. It avoids a lot of the HDI concerns of multi-lamination with heat excursions. OrMet sintering paste also helps and solves very high aspect ratio drilling-plating problems. A 48/1 aspect ratio via drill-plating problem can be changed into a sub-lam construction, using 4x (12/1 aspect ratio) via-drill and OrMet joining paste.
Matties: Very good. I greatly appreciate you sitting down with us.
Creeden: Thank you. It’s always great to talk to you.
Teta: Thank you, Barry.