Increasing Productivity for Flex Fabricators


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The big thing we're seeing now is the changes in the material itself. As 5G cellular starts to come out, as just data speed on cellphones starts to go up, we're seeing more and more materials that actually existed 15 years ago, such as LCP, but now they're now finding their killer application after so many years of just kind of being out in the wilderness. The big changes are feature size, overall material changes, the use of these higher-end, more advanced materials, and the cost drivers that are making this happen. You'll see that a new material may come out that may have all the electrical properties somebody wants, but unless it's going to be at a cost level that the OEMs are going to be willing to accept, it's going to be a non-starter.

It's a three-legged stool. It's the fabricators, it's the equipment providers, and it's also the material makers. All three legs of that stool have to be cut the same length, or you're not going to sit on it.

Matties: You're keying in on a good point. We're seeing flex showing up in more and more areas and more spaces. What advice would you give a fabricator who's looking at moving into this space and considering this type of equipment?

Jennings: The first thing is you've got to get your fundamentals right. The fundamental basics of bare PCB manufacturing, you have to have those right first. If you're a bare-board maker looking at getting into flex, you've got to be competent right where you are now. You have to have good process control and good process oversight and overview, because you're going to be introducing a whole different set of in-process problems with materials with much worse dimensional stability than you may be used to dealing with, with lamination challenges that you may not be used to dealing with. So get your fundamentals right first.

So many times we see problems that end up being magnified because the fundamentals weren't there to start with: people not being trained; people not being cross-trained; operations or operator changes; equipment changes day-to-day; basic things with your facility; not having high-quality compressed air, not having enough vacuum. By the way, regarding vacuum debris removal and of vacuum compressed air, the more of these flex processes you get into, the more these things are going to present a danger to you if you don't have the good fundamental building blocks already in place.

Matties: Shane, you came from the application side. What experience are you carrying forward that you're going to move into your new role?

Noel: Well, I think in product management, you often find that we're a little bit knowledgeable about everything but not expert about anything, and so customers will come in with questions and they'll have to speak to a team of people to understand. I've been able to help short-circuit that whole process to some extent. I mean, I don't know everything, but do know more than most when it comes to the flexible circuit manufacturing and laser process. A customer will complain, "I got this one void, or I had this one mis-drill, and I think it's your system." I can work through that process and how they drilled that hole and try to understand why and what problems caused that end failure, and just short-circuiting that problem.

Being able to address customer questions or salespeople that come back and say, "A customer had this complaint," and being able to quickly respond to that and hopefully help the customer recover has already been a benefit. Understanding the technical capabilities of the tool so when we get a sales lead that doesn't make sense for flex and might need to be done on a different one of our tools or maybe it's a research project, being able to keep my application team focused on flex and letting these more exotic type of applications go to the right place has been able to streamline our capability to focus on flex in our applications group.

In addition to that, just being able to know how a customer or how a user generally interacts with the tool. We have a lot of features in our tool that are very high level, that your normal, everyday operator won't see, won't even think about using, and you don't necessarily need to focus on improving those if the GUI that the normal operator sees is a problem or has issues. So focusing on what's important is important.

Nolan Johnson: I want to pick up right there with you, Shane, and ask you if you could walk us through some more of the specifics around how CapStone doubles the throughput, with the beam positioner and the optical path and the laser.

Noel: I'll start with our previous product, the 5335. It uses a laser that was developed in the mid- to early-2000s, so it was maybe second or third generation UV laser technology. It's a rock-solid product, and it works very well, but it's very low rep-rate. A lot of the laser manufacturers, what they're doing now is they're producing much higher rep-rate lasers, and they're also producing much more reliable lasers. And so with this new product, we wanted to go out to the market and see what those new lasers can provide to us.

We worked with a major laser manufacturer. We started with their standard product, and we worked with them to fine-tune it to actually work best on our tool. Whereas a standard product might have a wide range of rep rates and it might be optimized at one of them, we have chosen a single rep rate and optimized laser and system performance at that particular rep rate, which gives us the best laser characteristics for flex processing at that rep rate and also improves the lifetime of the laser itself because it's not fluctuating from place to place.

And the driver to do that, again, is so that we can use our optical beam steering technology -- AODs, you may be familiar with -- which we had in our 5335, and now they run at RF frequency, which basically is a non-mechanical way of moving the beam. If you're not hindered by mechanical movement, you can steer a beam at the speed of light, more or less. At the speed of pulses.

And, the laser has characteristics like its pulse shape and its pulse energy to the work surface that allows us to address some of these thinner material sets and new material sets that are coming out. So that's another reason to look at these newer laser technologies.

Jennings: We sent out our first laser drill 22 years ago, and the changes, we're literally on a sixth or seventh generation. And for all these years, the one thing that's always been consistent, if you look at it, it's been a game of leapfrog with beam positioning, laser power, and rep rate. Beam positioning, laser power, and rep rate. If the beam positioners are faster than the lasers can keep up, then a new generation of lasers comes out to surpass the beam positioning technology. So it's been constant innovation around these two areas; it has been a consistent game of leapfrog for well over 20 years now.

Matties: Now, in your release, you note savings up to 30%. How do you calculate that? Where is the savings coming from?

Noel: That's a great point. The savings come from looking at the economic value provided by the system to the customer. As you can imagine, higher performance systems come with higher value to the marketplace. So, although the Capstone system is priced higher than the baseline 5335 system, when you consider the 2x throughput improvement, the decision to migrate to the Capstone product still yields a 30% lower cost per panel for laser via drilling.

Matties: Well, congratulations, you guys. Thank you very much for your time today.

Noel: Yeah, thank you.

Jennings: I appreciate it.

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