With China’s recent shift towards quality, the next generation of PCB fabrication equipment must target yields and include the ability to track those yields, says Schmid’s Laurent Nicolet and Demitry Kostouros. Barry Matties recently sat down with these two gentlemen to talk more about the market shift and Schmid’s introduction of their new vertical line aimed at carving a niche in the market.
Barry Matties: Another trade show…how is this one going for you and for Schmid?
Laurent Nicolet: Yes, another strong trade show. It's a lot of trade shows in a short period, but productronica is very important because we are a German company. We represent Germany, which was a very important market for us. An important part of our turnover is done in Germany and we are presenting our newest, mainly our new generation of vertical line, which is really something. I would say the challenges we experienced with generation one have been solved with generation two.
Matties: Such as?
Nicolet: One big point is the utility consumption, a 20% reduction globally, and the 30% price reduction. The machines really become more affordable for everybody. On the machine we present a new concept with single panel handling. With digital requirements on the substrate market we really tranform our thinking to single panel handling through a frame and a tray.
Matties: The machine itself is for which process?
Nicolet: Actually, we show a developer for the modified semi-additive process (mSAP), which is one of the critical processes in the market today. Immediately available are lines for surface preparation or bond process, flash etching, resist developing and solder mask developing, and now we are finalizing the stripping and metallization processes. In the near future we will have continuity with our new plating development where we will integrate immersion process in the vertical line.
Matties: Nice, so it's a modular system; people can pick and choose, "I want this or that," and it pulls it together?
Kostouros: Yes, it's a modular system but it's also very well factory-integrated because you will find that Schmid is involved not only in processing equipment but also automation, handling, and intralogistics systems. The name of the game here is integration of advanced technologies for the IC substrate market and the HDI-plus market. And going to market with processes that address the touch-free panel space. As you will see here in our booth, there's our ready-to-market solution in our Infinity V+ technology. It's plug and play. The modular space-saving, energy-saving, smaller overall environmental footprint aspect of V+ provides flexibility to the customer for all spray applications, immersion applications and touch-free frame transport for sub-25micron thick panels. So we're looking forward to speaking to all the advanced players in the industry.
Matties: Is this primarily for a quick-turn environment such as Europe or North America?
Nicolet: I would say it's really for mass production and that means mainly Asia. Some companies in the U.S. will be interested, but mainly it's Asia. And mainly focused in the beginning on the substrate market or the mSAP processes. Soon, a lot of other markets and other segments of the PCB production will slowly move in that direction because they need to go to more volume of less than 50-micron line and space. And below that, the subtractive process is not very capable. So sooner or later they will go that direction.
Matties: China is a highly competitive market; how do you go there and be successful?
Nicolet: In China, there are two types of companies. I would say the Western companies, which are active in China that have a very good understanding of the relationships between price, technology and quality. And then you have Chinese companies moving towards higher quality and yields, looking more in depth at investing in higher quality machines to improve yield performance in their factories. We experience more competition in Asia where the local vendors sell their machine per meters pricing. X meters of developer costs X USD…. But this is for low cost applications.
Matties: You mentioned automation—that's also very big in China as well?
Kostouros: Automation technology is also part of the diversified DNA of Schmid. Unlike most other suppliers, we can provide solutions that are not necessarily tied to chemical wet processing. Besides our wet processing equipment we can provide solutions that include handling automation, intralogistics and vacuum such as plasma desmearing applications. By integrating these technologies we are answering our customer’s full spectrum market requirements that are not being fully addressed by existing equipment providers.
Matties: Part of the automation is what we can see at the booth here?
Nicolet: Yes, I would say that is just for demonstration, to have the demo system running continuously. But we are looking at a proven intralogistics solution such as AGV. Due to heavier PCB production we may need to transport at least a 60-panel stack from process to process on the manufacturing floor. This system what we show here can be an alternative to current technologies to reach a cleanroom, or to change from one manufacturing area to another.
Matties: So we have an issue coming out on new technologies, and when you're developing a piece of equipment, what drives the technology? You mentioned lower consumption of electricity and lower cost, but what's the impetus behind the design?
Nicolet: First, it's what is required in the market in the future. Not just tomorrow, but after that. And then make the machine relatively flexible so that we can reach the after-tomorrow target.
The main driver for us is trying to show the yield. That is one of the drivers for the future. The yield requirements of high-end PCBs, if they have embedded components, anything like that, it's getting very high. And if we talk about 0.1% yield gain for the customer, it's a huge amount at the end of the year.
So, it's really the manufacturing quality, and the quality of the transport of the panel, because we learned that handling is the big cure for yield. We’ve worked on this single panel process to be sure to increase the yield.
Matties: When you talked about lowering the costs by 30%, how did you achieve that?
Nicolet: We completely reworked the design of the our vertical system, now named the Infinity V+. We have tried to combine and standardize components as well as simplify design aspects of our system. This reduces the manufacturing costs. We have enhanced the spray design as well as the immersion zones and have completely reworked the frame clamping system. We had to make a very simple clamping system, which can follow the panel through all the processes—very important. And in comparison of the previous one, we reduced ten times the cost of the clamper.
Matties: When you're talking to fabricators, what advice would you give them when they're looking at purchasing your equipment?
Nicolet: Really, to understand the performance of the machine, with regard to the uniformity of the process. Because it's not very simple to make a machine capable of making 25-micron line and space, that should be capable 24 hours per day, six days per week. And that is really what we have achieved, to combine the stability of the process through our machine.
Kostouros: Additionally, the technological advances that you're seeing here is a result of Schmid’s synergies with top line chemical manufacturers as well as alpha-level customers of ours. In the end, we are talking about producing results for our customers by addressing their tangible needs. Both from the advanced technology manufacturing capability side as well as the environmental performance side. This meant that we really needed to expand our way of thinking to show our customers how to integrate their entire factory. We have those types of solutions. As I mentioned earlier, we do not only focus on wet processes, but also dry processes, such as advanced factory automation and plasma processing that overall provide measurable positive impact on our customers’ environmental footprint.
Matties: Regarding the vertical approach, is there still a perception issue with vertical versus horizontal?
Nicolet: Yes, I think we were doing an interview when we showed the first vertical line. One year after, we had eight competitors in Asia copy us. I think it was the right way for the high-tech boards right now between the mSAP and the substrates. Now we have in our drawer the next generation, where we will be providing single panel processing system vertically. And I think that's the next step.
Matties: The other part of the equation in today's world is information, feedback, and sensors, for Industry 4.0. How does your equipment provide feedback to the factory?
Nicolet: All the new equipment made with the Infinity platform, including the original one, are ready for Industry 4.0. Sometimes I think people have the wrong perception of Industry 4.0; Industry 4.0 is a concept. To make the machine capable for that is very easy—everything should be recorded and after that, it's subject to the interface between the machine and the customer factory and this is the biggest point. And a lot of people think Industry 4.0 is the machine alone.
Matties: No, it's data and how it integrates.
Kostouros: Our company also has a lot of experience in factory data integration. As an example, Schmid already cooperates with customers that require process cluster integration as well as Industry 4.0 requirements. The company has already achieved solutions to that purpose including the knowledge of producing and conveying process data online and integrating it with the overall factory performance.
Matties: So the sensors are there and you are already capturing the data from their line. How do you establish what data is captured? And can your customers then request additional capture points?
Nicolet: We capture everything that has an influence on the process. The pressure, volume, temperature, other variables. After that, "What we need more of is..." That is a request that you hear from a customer if he has a special demand. But all the data that has an influence on the process are recorded.
Matties: Congratulations guys. Is there anything that we haven't talked about that you feel like we should share?
Nicolet: I think all the things that we have in development now are just the tip of the iceberg, as far as what we see in the booth today. But what we are preparing for the next years will be, again, a little bit of a revolution in the printed circuit industry.
Kostouros: We can’t wait to show the world what we have in the pipeline. We have a very strong engineering and R&D capability combined with very high quality manufacturing. We also have the know-how to bring proven integrated solutions to the market such as our newest Infinity V+ platform. Let's go ahead and make it happen.
Matties: Gentlemen, thank you very much. It is exciting to see new equipment coming out.