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At Laser World of Photonics Exhibition in Shanghai recently, I had a chance to speak with Florian Roick, strategic product manager with LPKF. The company is celebrating a big anniversary this year with the launch of a laser drilling machine to support the specific requirements of the flexible circuit industry. Their equipment can work in single panel or roll-to-roll modes and anticipates future design rules with the capability to drill through and blind vias at diameters of 30 microns and smaller.
Pete Starkey: Florian, I know that the name of LPKF has been associated with the printed circuit industry for more than thirty years, and I believe you're celebrating a big anniversary this year.
Roick: Thanks for having me here. Yes, that's true. This year marks the 40th anniversary of LPKF. We started by inventing a tool that made it possible to replace the etching of the copper for prototyping PCBs, a milling and drilling (mechanical routing) system. Through the years, we progressed to implement lasers to replace the etching process for stencils. In 1992, the first laser stencil cutting machine was presented to the public. Then the laser became an increasingly economical and efficient tool and we started to look into further applications where we could use the laser as a new digital tool, a tool that had no direct contact with the material. We presented several opportunities, such as increased accuracy, for example. We started looking into PCB de-paneling with the laser, and then with the UV laser eventually. Then the scribing of thin film solar cells became a major opportunity and a major market for us as well. Despite being a very difficult market recently, we are the leader in supplying scribing machines all over the world. We saw also a huge success with building three-dimensional circuitry on plastic compound material.
Starkey: This is an area where I am more familiar with your recent developments and applications. I've attended some excellent presentations on the laser structuring of two-dimensional and three-dimensional workpieces.
Roick: The three-dimensional aspect of this new technology allows you to utilize space, for example, in mobile phones, which wasn't occupied by anything functional. All the mobile phone manufacturers now have the chance to use more space inside their systems, and thus reduce size. Reducing size, or the trend of miniaturization, is actually one of the leading requirements in the electronics industry and it's been the reason for us to further develop our technologies. This is also one reason why we looked into the flexible printed circuit (FPC) drilling market.
Starkey: This is something new for you?
Roick: Kind of, yes. As mentioned earlier, we are already involved in the PCB industry with de-paneling, skiving and pocket creation, for example. But we never really had an actual drilling tool available. We were really assessing the situation, the FPC market, and we found that there's a good chance for us to offer a new solution to this industry.
Starkey: So, at this exhibition, you are launching a new drilling system?
Roick: Yes, exactly. This is the MicroLine 5000 drilling system for FPC mainly, and we have launched it here at the Laser World of Photonics and, at the same time, at the IPC APEX EXPO in Las Vegas.
Starkey: My colleagues are attending that show—we have two exhibitions running in parallel this week.
Roick: Yes, so really it's the worldwide product launch of the MicroLine 5000. Of course, the Asian market is where the big production takes place, so it's really a must to have it presented on a worldwide scale.
Starkey: Can you explain the particular characteristics of this machine? What are its unique points?
Roick: As I said, when we were thinking about the FPC drilling market, we asked our customers what their respective needs and requirements were. After evaluating the replies, we realized that yes, we can use all our competencies from LPKF, put them into a new system, and offer customers a system with a very high drilling performance, with the knowledge also that the minimum drilling diameter for future applications could already be achieved. So the unique selling point is very high performance by drilling very small through-holes and blind vias.
Starkey: Can you give us some dimensions?
Roick: Yes. The minimum diameter of a blind via or through-hole measures 30 microns. We utilize a 20-micron laser beam, so it would be possible to go less than 30 microns eventually, depending on the material. We know from our customers’ technical roadmaps that FPC material is becoming thinner and thinner, so holes in the range of 20 microns in diameter are already possible now.