Meyer Burger on Inkjet Technology and Digital Printing Benefits
Don Veri, sales and business development manager for Meyer Burger, discusses some of the challenges fabricators face in adopting inkjet technology, the benefits they can expect once it’s deployed in their facility, and the advantages of digital printing in solving problems on the shop floor.
Barry Matties: First, can you tell us a little bit about Meyer Burger?
Don Veri: Meyer Burger is a publicly traded company out of Thun, Switzerland, which is just south of Bern. The company was founded in 1953 principally on building slicing equipment and machinery for the Swiss watch industry. Through the years, we migrated into building machine tools for slicing solar-grade silicon for the photovoltaics market. Through a series of acquisitions and the company’s growth, they’ve acquired beyond machine cutting/slicing tools, vacuum deposition tools, and in this case, as we’re discussing today, industrial inkjet printing technology and equipment.
Matties: When you talk about Swiss watches, it just screams precision, and that’s certainly something that you carry through all your products, I would imagine.
Veri: That’s certainly true and for inkjet printing and additive deposition; since it’s a digital process, precision and patterning is very important and one of the primary differentiators of additive inkjet deposition technology as compared to alternate technologies. In contrast to the precision and patterning feature, additive inkjet deposition is widely used for area printing applications. We see a large range of versatility of inkjet technology versus other competing technologies.
Matties: Can you also talk a little bit about your process?
Veri: We have a couple of product offerings from our inkjet printing division located in Eindhoven, the Netherlands. We have a research system called the LP50 and a production series of equipment called JETx. The LP50 is a ubiquitous, wide-ranging tool that supports a variety of different applications and materials. Meanwhile, the JETx machines are built for specific applications and materials for printing semiconductor wafers, solar cells, PCBs, and flexible electronics substrates. The JETx product line machines are designed with specific printhead systems, which enable a client to produce at a high volume and a predefined cost of ownership projection based on material and application.
Figure 1: Meyer Burger's inkjet printer is suitable for flex circuits.
Matties: This is in the circuit board realm—a technology that’s just recently making its way into the manufacturing process. What’s the greatest challenge for fabricators to bring this into their process?
Veri: You’re right. Printing solder mask inks onto PCBs isn’t new, but the current technology can be considered state-of-the-art; it’s much more advanced than it was three or four years ago. The challenge for a manufacturer to bring the material and equipment into their manufacturing process is their ability to create comparable images at a better and more efficient cost point versus the established process of record, which are long established. Being able to document and deposit these solder mask inks onto a variety of circuit boards, including shapes and sizes, and at a micro level is very important. The micro sizes of the images you have to print and the features you have to cover can largely vary. So, a circuit board producer might have 2,000–3,000 SKUs, but qualifying one solder mask SKU doesn’t mean you qualify for the other 1,000 or 2,000. There’s a broad range of qualification steps that you must go through, and it’s time-consuming. Our challenge is to work through that process with our customers to get qualified.
Matties: And what’s their motivation to do it? If there’s proven process of record and OEM acceptance, OEMs are often the ones who will specify. These are challenges that would not necessarily put it high on their priority list unless there’s a particular challenge that they need to meet to maybe close the sale.
Veri: In many circuit board factories, the market can be broken down for large-volume board shops versus small-volume board shops, meaning board orders that might be 1,000, 2,000, or 3,000 in quantity versus five, 10, or 15. Thus, we have to differentiate in terms of our targeted customer. Then, we differentiate by the level of complexity and the size of features they want to print. Once we can find those specific board shops in the market that fit within the printing capability of these printers, then we find that we can print smaller features faster and do it at lower costs because we eliminate three different process steps. We eliminate three pieces of equipment, floor space, the creation of the artwork, and the storage requirement for all images. At the same time, maintaining a faster throughput, for example, gives clients a better economic advantage versus others that might not have this technology deployed in their facility.
Matties: When we talk about mass production, speed is always a big issue in jet printing. And when you get into places like Asia where there’s a whole different level of mass production, are you saying that this equipment is well suited for that as well?
Veri: What we see in terms of speed and throughput is they are always specific to the product type and the material you’re depositing. In the semiconductor market where you’re printing wafers—very high value—it’s quite different versus printing solar cells or circuit boards. For a six-by-six-inch solar cell, we can print thousands per hour, and on an 8-inch or a 12-inch semiconductor wafer, we can print dozens per hour, so it’s a different dynamic, but it’s still very economical relative to that industry’s need. For circuit boards, it’s all about sides per hour, so you have to print multiple sides of a board, and we quantify our throughput in terms of printing approximately 60 sides per hour, depending on the complexity of the printed image/circuit topography that we have to encapsulate.
Figure 2: PiXDRO JETx printer for printed electronics.
Matties: There has to be a cross over point where people say, “This makes sense for us across the board.” Where do you see that happening? What’s the impetus for that?
Veri: I see the crossover where our customers are looking for the unique advantages of digital printing to solve problems they have on their shop floor. In today’s process, you create a Gerber file with your printed image you want to print on a circuit board, you create artwork, and you have to physically store this artwork. As that product is reordered periodically, you have the pull that artwork out. If it’s still usable, you reuse it, and if not, you have to remake it. With a digital file, it’s always kept digitally; there’s no storage other than on your hard drive or in the cloud. You download it to the machine, call up the recipe, and start printing. The setup time, and subsequently, the throughput time to print, is shortened considerably compared to traditional processes.
It’s that convergence where clients are trying to solve these problems. They have limitations on floor space, but they want to grow their business, so they look for a different product scope to support the application, such as a solder mask ink onto a circuit board rather than with a traditional process. If they have to expand with a traditional process, they’re going to spend two to three times more equipment and capex versus what our tool is priced at, so there’s a lot of value there.
Matties: As we move into the era of smart factories, we’re starting to see that in circuit board manufacturing, this technology lends itself very well to digital factories because it’s clean and easy manufacturing of the future. You press a button and build a board rather than going through all of these other steps.
Veri: Or you can control it remotely. Some shops are of that level of sophistication; other shops send the image down to the printer, and the operator pulls it up automatically—the next image with the recipe—and initiates the cycle.
Matties: When we look at all the advantages on the fabrication side, there are many weighty ones as well. What convinces an OEM to go ahead and approve this process? Because that’s really the deciding factor.
Veri: There must be a physical demonstration of the capability of the machine and process. These are tests that boards, as they are produced today, go through every day as a course of manufacturing. We have to pass those tests, which can take time because of the duration of the test and the number of devices, boards, or SKUs. That’s one aspect of it, and the second is machine reliability.
Matties: Let me just play this thought out for a moment. The OEM doesn’t care about machine reliability because they either get their board on time or they don’t, and if they don’t, they find a supplier that can, so that’s a fabrication issue. What I’m hearing is the deciding factor isn’t the process; it’s the material.
Veri: That might be true in some aspects of the market, but depending on how integrated the OEM is into their board shop when there’s a change in process, some companies require a change of process—not only ink but equipment. The company will require an audit and a demonstration of the feasibility of the technology.
Matties: But again, that’s only triggered if there’s an end benefit to that OEM.
Veri: Normally, the device performance shouldn’t be impacted by this ink.
Matties: I get that. What strikes me is I’m a big fan of this technology, and I think it should be adopted at an accelerated pace. I see all of the benefits that you’re mentioning, but I see one big roadblock—no motivation is tangible for the end user to come in and do all of those audits because their boards are coming acceptably to them now.
Veri: That’s true today. The real motivation is from the circuit board fabricators. That’s where the pull is.
Matties: And their roadblock is the OEM is not going to approve it.
Veri: That could be. There’s a dynamic there that the fabricators have to manage.
Matties: Definitely. That’s the zone that has my attention. If we come in and say we’re going to eliminate 30% of your cost in this process, for example, do we pass that on to the OEM? That would be an expectation.
Veri: It depends. In the market, you’ll always have that need to be cost competitive or create a cost advantage and manage that as long as you can; that’s definitely something that circuit board fabricators will have to overcome.
Matties: And they’re also gaining in some cycle time advantage as well. If this decision or value zone is the barrier, what role does Meyer Burger play in helping OEMs understand and approve this technology at an accelerated rate? In many cases, that’s the decision point for your equipment.
Veri: Once we start working with the circuit board shop, at a certain level of the conversation, the OEM will come into the conversation. At that point, you’re talking about how the board or product performs and also how it looks because there’s a certain cosmetic expectation as well. Then, we have to support the circuit board shop, in this case, with physical demonstrations of product capability and performance, which can take weeks or months.
Matties: And you’d check those boxes on your process, cosmetic, and product performance, but those aren’t the issue.
Veri: The cosmetic portion is different because it is an issue. Current inkjetable circuit board inks have a different look and feel; they’re glossy, and most circuit boards produced today are matte finished. We can create different levels of gloss, such as semigloss, but creating a matte finish is something that the ink suppliers haven’t developed to date.
Matties: So, there are a lot of reasons for a fabricator to adopt this technology as quickly as possible, yet there’s a lot of qualification that could take from a few days to a year or more to make it. Where’s the tipping point in the industry? Is it around the ink suppliers? I know you’re working with the Agfa and others, and they must play a huge role in that process.
Veri: They do, and we currently work with all major ink suppliers to qualify their solder mask inks with our equipment
Matties: How does that sort enter your strategy?
Veri: We have to build a machine that can support a variety of inks to be compatible with the different components and ink chemistries. We work closely with a variety of ink suppliers around the world; many of them have our research tools in their labs and use them to formulate inks. For some of the inks that become commercialized, through the nature of our relationship with these ink suppliers, we have a very good understanding of how to print those inks, and we’ve built our machinery to be compatible with those inks.
Matties: Do you have to tune your machine to the different recipes or are they tuning their recipes to your machine?
Veri: Normally, the inks are tuned to the printhead and substrate that the ink will interact with, but not necessarily with our machine. We’ll accommodate a variety of inks, but the real challenge is how that ink interfaces with the substrate and whether it degrades the substrate or enhances it through the substrate’s lifetime.
Matties: Are people purchasing multiple machines dedicated to a specific brand of ink, or is the changeover from ink to ink simple and easy?
Veri: Typically, you want to be able to change over from ink to ink.
Matties: And you accommodate that quite easily?
Matties: Is changeover a big issue?
Veri: In some cases, it can be because the printhead systems might have to change. If you’re printing an ink from a similar family, that might require a different printhead. The changeover time is more related to ink system purging, cleaning, and refilling.
Matties: I would think that if there’s enough demand for two or three different types, they would just buy two or three different pieces and leave them dedicated. That would make the most sense.
Matties: There’s definitely a lot going on in this technology. What’s your projection for when will be commonplace? I know that’s kind of a broad term.
Veri: That is a broad question, but in terms of a timeline for adoption, I’d say probably another five years. There has already been an early adoption in the circuit board and semiconductor market where we have customers using the tools. We also have customers using it in the photovoltaic market. It's about finding other customers that have similar interests and priorities to adapt these applications. We know the inks are available, the machine is durable, the printheads are reliable, and the JETx produces 24 hours a day and seven days a week with very nice uptime. But it’s important to find and continue to promote the application and its benefits and find others who see a need that can be addressed with this type of additive technique.
Matties: What advice would you give to a circuit board fabricator that wants to bring this into their facility? What would be the first step?
Veri: First, take a look at all of the physical capability of the machine to print different structures, including the versatility of the machine to print not only inks but also barcodes and QR codes, which also eliminates secondary steps. Once you learn about the flexibility of the application, then you can start looking at the economics of the application and device performance. It’s a three-tiered approach to machine qualification.
Matties: What sort of ROI do you expect people to get on their investment here?
Veri: In general, ROIs can range from one to two years in terms of a payback scenario.
Matties: And in terms of operator training, are there any obstacles in that area?
Veri: We don’t see that as an obstacle. Operator training is really important; it’s a new way of working, and you have to allow the time in fabrication for training. It’s critical to create an in-house expert who owns the process of training and retraining staff because there’s a fairly high degree of turnover and absenteeism with operators. However, a single operator can run multiple machines, which is an advantage; you don’t need to have one operator dedicated to each printer.
Matties: Is there anything that we haven’t talked about that you feel we should include in this conversation?
Veri: The versatility and application space is something that should be noted from semiconductors to PCBs and flexible and consumer electronics. There are a variety of inks available in the market that are already industrialized, have UL certification and meet requirements of existing manufacturing processes. There’s really not an evolution of ink in that respect; it’s more of the evolution of the application and the motivation in the industry to find it.
There are a lot of commonalities. If you’re going to print a polyimide on a circuit board versus a polyimide on a semiconductor wafer, there’s a commonality in the print systems. Synergies can be gained from our side that we can apply to different market segments, and that’s what we see from our standpoint. We find the best potential in the market by finding applications where these inks that are established, the applications can be developed, and value can be realized out of these series of ink systems from a different ink supplier.
Matties: I’m still struggling to get my hands around the motivation. If you were to summarize for me, what’s the one big reason an OEM would adopt this?
Veri: I think the OEM is going to look for speed and flexibility. They’re looking for increased product performance and cost, and if we can check the boxes for each of those four categories, then we have a pretty compelling story.
Matties: I’m not sure about the speed argument because a delivery date is a delivery date; they don’t care how you get there.
Veri: At the end of the day, if you can make a delivery time of one day or less for your customers’ products versus two or three days from the competition, that’s an advantage. Additive inkjet deposition enables the manufacturer to eliminate processes, which then shortens the total manufacturing process time and cuts costs; these reductions can be an advantage and exploited.
Matties: I understand, but are they going to say, “Change the solder mask for those two days.” I know I’m driving hard at this point.
Veri: If you look at those types of organizations, they are low-volume, high-mix, so they have hundreds and hundreds of orders per month. Thus, you save a lot of time, and that’s where there’s a little more value to be offered to the market.
Matties: I can see where a quick return may be valuable for rapid prototyping, perhaps. What do you gain regarding total cycle time reduction?
Veri: You’re gaining a shift, minimally.
Matties: That’s substantial. And is the curing of the inks that go through here the same process?
Veri: It’s standard. For a solder mask ink, it’s similar to today’s solder mask materials that are applied.
Matties: What I’m driving at is if I’m a fabricator trying to make an argument or a case to my customers, I need to find that bit of ammunition that will get the OEM to pay attention. If they have this information and we help them understand it, it’s going to help you sell more equipment and help them have a better process. With product performance, a mask is a mask, and delivery is delivery. What are some other benefits?
Veri: It still goes back to the economics—the internal process flow in the board shop, the time savings, and whatever value they can pass on to their customer and what that realizes for them.
Matties: What it comes down to is the value that they’re willing to pass on.
Matties: I agree cycle time can be a huge value that they can bring in, and I would think precision is another area that you would have a benefit because you’re using less material overall.
Veri: That’s a good point. In terms of circuit board production, the ability to vary the amount of ink that you apply regionally on the board helps the board designer produce a board more economically, and it helps the producer of the board save in terms of cost. What that means is you print thicker and thinner layers regionally on the board as needed. Also, if you have different dimensions of your copper, it helps us to optimize with a quarter-ounce, half-ounce, or one-ounce copper trace. In that sense, you can create the digital program and application method to build up coverage around the trace. In the same pass, you’re printing around the trace, but you’re also printing other areas along the board with a thinner layer, perhaps. And that creates the aesthetic issue I mentioned as well earlier because the board is going to look different; it’s going to have areas on the board that have thicker and thinner layers of ink applied.
Matties: But functionally, it’s a superior board.
Veri: Yes, it’s as good or better because you can optimize the thickness of the ink around the actual copper trace.
Matties: Normally, you would have to take whatever the maximum requirement is in thickness and apply that across the board.
Veri: With the existing process of record, that’s true. Additive inkjet deposition processes provide you a lot more flexibility in that respect. From a producer standpoint, there’s a lot of value in that. We have to communicate that ability to print differently versus the current process of record, and in doing so, we have to physically and technically demonstrate it. It has to pass certain IPC or other industry standard testing processes.
Matties: That’s really helpful because what you’re saying is that the value is in what the fabricator is willing to pass through, but there’s certain product performance in the process that will give the end user some real value whether it’s cost, time, etc..
Matties: It comes down to what the fabricator is willing to do, and to have this process in their factory is valuable. They need to make that decision on how much they’re willing to share in that advantage to their OEMs to adopt this.
Veri: They face price and time pressure from competition around the globe every year.
Matties: And the fact that the industry is aiming to have more digital factories means this meets a lot of the requirements that a forward-thinking fabricator would embrace.
Veri: For example, we have installations where we know our customer tells us they can queue up the number of panels they’re going to run in a shift into the automation system. They can run the system second shift or overnight—whatever their shift configuration is—and come back in the morning, and the printed boards are queued up. Our customers don’t have to have an operator standing right by the tool; they just queue up recipes, images, and the substrate. Then, they’re fed in, we read the barcode, we know what products are being fed into the machine, we know what recipe goes with that barcode, and we apply the material; it can all be done digitally.
Matties: Are you doing any inline inspection on the process as well as the boards being produced?
Veri: We’re not right now, but that’s something that will come in the future as part of the Industry 4.0 movement.
Matties: You must have serialization and traceability.
Veri: We can do serialization and print traceability features in the same pass as we point the solder mask. Now, we have done that for other industries, and I imagine that’s going to flow into this space soon.
Matties: It’s not a technology that’s insurmountable; it’s just something that’s not adopted yet.
Matties: I certainly appreciate you answering my questions and letting me pound you on this point, Don; it was a great conversation.
Veri: I appreciate your time.