Dissecting the IPC Regional Survey on PCB Technology Trends


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Sharon Starr, Denny Fritz, and Mike Carano share their takeaways and regional insights with the I-Connect007 editorial team based on the global 2018 IPC Technology Trends Report.

Nolan Johnson: IPC released the 2018 edition of the PCB Technology Trends Report in January 2019. Could you give us an overview of the size of the survey, how the study was conducted, and the general findings?

Sharon Starr: We’ve conducted this study every two years since 2012. This study looks at the current state of technology measurements and how the industry believes it will change in the next five years. We conducted this study in mid-2018. We had 74 companies worldwide that participated, including 52 electronics OEMs that gave us data about their use of emerging technologies and their technical requirements for PCBs, both currently and their predictions for 2023.

We conducted a separate survey with 22 PCB fabricators from all regions worldwide. They reported on technology issues in PCB fabrication and technical capabilities along with their predictions five years out. The results give us some insight into the current state of PCB fabricators’ abilities to meet OEMs’ requirements, and how these capabilities will need to evolve over the next five years.

Denny Fritz and Mike Carano were the technical advisors on this project. They helped us to identify the issues to study, formulate questions, and interpret the results. They had a big role in this, and I thank them very much for that.

Johnson: Let’s talk a bit about Denny’s recent blog regarding regional differences. Those of us who are industry insiders have some preconceived notions on regional strengths, but the report seems to indicate that’s not as clear cut. What did you find in the report that pointed you in that direction?

Denny Fritz: I had done some synthesis of the data, which is all in the report. I laid out a PowerPoint presentation of the differences between North America, Europe, Asia, etc. That was a particular interest to me with my background of working for the U.S. Department of Defense, trying to see how much of a difference there was between domestic manufacture versus what was happening overseas. I prepared that for Mike Carano before he did the buzz session at IPC APEX EXPO 2019 when we released the study, and he included some of my conclusions in his presentation. Later on, for the blog that was published, I went back through the results and pulled out regional differences. Some things were not as different as what we’d thought. Again, it’s based on the data that we collected from this survey.

Johnson: Is it fair to say that historically, regional differences are starting to merge and become less distinct? And if so, in what particular areas?

Dennis_Fritz.jpgFritz: You must understand that this was a voluntary IPC survey; it’s not exactly a roadmap. Both Mike Carano and I have long experience with the IPC roadmap effort, which is discontinued now. The IPC technology survey and the IPC roadmap project shared data in 2016. Now, we don’t have a roadmap—which you might call a small-group effort in a smoke-filled room—to compare it to. Again, I must emphasize that our data analysis is based on what was submitted for the survey.

Starr: There are a lot of things that can affect differences between sub-segments of the findings. We had a representative sample to give us some good input on the direction of the industry. When we get into comparing different segments—such as from different regions—there is the impact of a different sample of companies that we’re talking about. And those companies have their own markets and applications that they focus on and that can produce some differences. But what Denny said in his blog is that the differences were not as black and white as we might think. There are some things that we associate with being done in Asia that are also done in North America and Europe.

Mike Carano: I fully agree with Denny and Sharon. I travel globally, I’m still very active, and I visit 75–100 OEMs a year—some of them are what you might want to call the top 50. I review technology trends with them. We also talked a lot to the large fabricators in Asia, Europe, and North America. As Denny and Sharon said, those areas are now blurred. In North America, we build more back panels and large format panels. You don’t see as many of those in Asia, but that doesn’t mean they’re not done over there. If I were to say where the area of expertise for 36” by 48” 40-layer back panels is, it’s in North America. I know fabricators who do that every day.

Now, if you wanted to build five stacked vias over two core on five more stacked for an Apple iPhone or a Samsung smartphone, those are done in volume. They’re going to be done in Asia because of the volumes, but that technology also exists here. There are people capable of doing that type of technology here, but they just don’t have the capacity to do 10,000 pieces an hour. However, they can do 500 a day, and they can stack the vias, fill the vias, and do it reliably.

Fifteen years ago, there would have been distinct differences in the landscape—more black and white as to what was built and where. There’s a lot of single-sided flexible circuitry done in Asia, but single-sided is not very exciting to me; it’s just a reel-to-reel, single-sided print and etch, but there are applications for it. You see double-sided multilayer flex and rigid-flex heavy in North America and Europe because of the military/aerospace market.

So, there are some differences there. In North America, we use more polyimide than they do in Asia; Asia is primarily FR-4 for the application. As Sharon said, what is the end application of where that circuit board is being used? Look at the use environment, reliability requirement, etc. If you are Medtronic, you’re looking at the reliability of a circuit board much differently than somebody building boards for a laptop computer or even a simple office computer. There’s a big difference there. What is the end-use application? That also drives what surface finish is going to be used on the circuit board and the trends there. To me, that’s pretty specific. I see it every day, so I’m not surprised.

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