At productronica, Barry Matties, Andy Shaughnessy, and Patty Goldman of the 007 team sat down with Eduardo Benmayor, director general with Aismalibar, a laminate supplier currently focusing on thermal management for the LED and automotive markets. Here Eduardo discusses the company’s strategy for survival in such a highly competitive marketplace, the challenges they face due to rising material costs, and their pursuit of new technologies such as thermal flex.
Barry Matties: Tell us a bit about your company for our readers, what you do and what you offer.
Eduardo Benmayor: We are a laminate company focused mainly on thermal management improvement of the printed circuit board, which of course is a big issue today as everything is becoming smaller and smaller. It’s a big problem to dissipate the temperature. Helping the temperature release on the boards helps the designer to make the board smaller, more compact and with better efficiency.
Matties: When you talk about thermal management, in what way does your product help?
Benmayor: We are adding a lot of mineral content to the epoxy resins in order to achieve much better thermal transmission, or a reduction in the thermal impedance, in order to transfer the temperature from one side of the board to the sides or to the heat sink.
Matties: Is this recipe unique to your product? Or are there industry standards for what you can put inside material?
Benmayor: Well, it’s not unique. I mean, there are many people working on the loading of mineral content inside the resin. This is not new. The industry has used it for many years, but everybody is running their own formulation. There are many directions to take this technology and the R&D developments are always focused on which kind of mineral content they use in order to achieve a better performance. The larger the percentage of mineral content inside the resin formulation the better for the thermal release, however it’s quite complex to achieve a higher percentage and also maintain the laminate properties with high standards.
Matties: How do the fabricators spec this in? What is their process?
Benmayor: The normal mechanism is they test and they compare. There are many different laboratory methods that people use in order to test the thermal resistivity or impedance on the board. But at the final stage everybody wants to test a real populated PCB board. They solder the components and see what the real temperature of the components is that they want to dissipate. This is what they always compare. If I have 80°C on this joint point with my actual material, will I be able to have a lower temperature with a better material? What will be the new joint temperature? If temperature goes down, lifetime is expanded and power can be increased.
Matties: Where is the biggest demand for the thermal coming from? Is it the automotive industry?
Benmayor: Two main sectors. One is LED, especially in headlights. The high-end automotive industry is moving 100% to the LED industry because they are capable of a lot of functionality that they did not previously have. They really transfer all the old technology to LED. And due to this they need a lot of power, especially in the headlights. Rear lights are a completely different story. But today headlights are the most technology-driven in the industry. And they really need high-end materials to dissipate the temperature on the headlights. This is a priority for all OEMs today.
Number two is electric cars. The growing electric car industry requires a lot of power supplies and high current. Power supplies and high current means high temperature on the boards. To achieve certain goals, temperature must be dissipated and dropped down to extend the lifetime of the components. Many engineering departments are working hard to improve their thermal performance.
Matties: Is automotive your core focus?
Benmayor: The market is being divided in general. We are seeing the home appliance industry moving toward LED, but they are very focused on pricing. They don't really appreciate the technology as much because they can work with a lot of different materials and it's workable for them. Then you have high-end customers that really need the technology and they appreciate what you can offer them, because we are providers of a technical solution.
Matties: Do you serve the HDI space?
Benmayor: We are starting to pay attention to this industry as they have thermal issues as well. We are now working on several projects to reduce temperature on GPUs for avionics. According to the OEMs they have achieved very interesting results with our Cobritherm prepregs and Thin Lam. We are building up a team to work in this market as we see good potential.
Matties: So how do you grow your company? What's your strategy?
Benmayor: We are focused today on two main aspects: one is to work with our customers and help them upgrade from traditional FR-4 to high thermal connectivity materials, which they really appreciate because they can then offer their customers better solutions. These are prepregs and thin cores with 2 and 3 w/mk. We are seeing a nice growth there. On the other hand, we are putting a lot of emphasis on the relationship with OEMs. We have added two more members into our organization that are dedicated to providing support to OEMs exclusively.
Matties: When you're comparing to the traditional FR-4, is there a price differential on the material?
Benmayor: Yes. The price of thermal management products are higher, but they can save a lot of the costs in heat sinks and metallic cases of vacuum pipes, which are normally used to reduce temperature on components with high temperature. For example, we made several tests with a very big producer of GPUs and with our Cobritherm. We were able to reduce the temperature of the board by 14%. By achieving this goal the OEM could save the cost of metallic components for plastic cones and remove the vacuum pipes. By doing this they paid a little more for the base material, but saved a good deal more by removing metallic covers, heat sinks and pipes. The savings were incredible.
Matties: So they really have to see the value or have a problem in order to convert because otherwise, we're so price sensitive.
Benmayor: If a customer can use FR-4 and the board works at a proper temperature there is no need to use thermal laminates. Due to our raw material cost, the Cobritherm product range will never be able to compete with the standard FR-4 market. Just as an example, our product incorporates nano particles to improve thermal conductivity; just this one component has a higher cost than all the ones used in an FR-4 laminate.
Matties: So as you were saying, the only way for them to really quantify the value difference is by trying it.
Benmayor: If an OEM is not able to see the technological advantage or collateral cost savings, they will never pay for it. We are 100% technical driven and our customer must be able of appreciate the thermal technology.
Matties: How do circuit board designers fit into the equation? Do you market to the designers and say, "We have solutions for thermal abatement?" Or is it driven on another level?
Benmayor: Both. We normally try to approach the OEMs and explain the advantages of using our material, and they normally go back to the PCB fabricators and ask them if they can make some prototypes with our Cobritherm line. So we are pushing both sides because PCB companies are also an OEM-prescriber at the end of the day. This is because many engineers at the OEM level talk to the PCB manufacturers and ask them for solutions. This is one direction. But for the big OEMs, we really need to approach the R&D centers and explain to them, "If you use this material, you will gain this and this."
Matties: The automobile is now using a lot of electronics.
Benmayor: As far as I know, 10%-13% of the cost of a car is electronics but big players say it will go up to 30% in the near future. There is no doubt that electronics in automotive will grow during the coming years. There is no way to see the end.
Matties: This gives you an advantage in that you're really focused on a market as opposed to just being a broad supplier. That gives you a chance to really stand out.
Benmayor: Basically, our advantage is that we are an EU supplier with high-end technical laminates capable to target the engineering departments of the biggest automotive producers in the world. As you may be aware, the EU leads the automotive industry and it’s considered at the highest level. Our disadvantage is that many of the mass production PCBs for the automotive industry are made in the Far East.
Matties: You're focused on that high thermal need. That's a great niche to focus on.
Patty Goldman: There's a board in your showcase that has an aluminum back and it's got a bend to it. Can you talk about that?
Benmayor: That's the Flextherm laminate. It is an aluminum-based material with a very thin 25-micron layer that you can bend in order to achieve a 3D shape without losing the PCB functionality.
Goldman: And the purpose of the aluminum-backing is obviously to dissipate heat directly.
Benmayor: With Flextherm we solve two main issues. As the thermal impedance is so low, we are able to transfer the temperature from the LED to the aluminium at very fast speed making the LED operate at lower temperature. At the same time and due to the Flextherm technology, we are able to bend the populated PCB with certain angles, achieving a more regular light source. This is very important in the rear lights of a car. The LED located on a board requires an angle to achieve certain light uniformity and, by bending the PCB boards, the lighting manufacturers achieve different ranges of angle and can save a lot of money on optics or with different PCBs connected in between them. Traditionally, the rear lighting on the automotive was done with X amount of PCB boards inserted into plastic molds with different angles and connecting in between them with cables and connectors. With the Flextherm laminate, we give them the opportunity to do this in one piece, and be able to angle the LEDs in different directions, so they achieve a much faster assembly inside the light and only in one piece. They reduce a lot of potential problems with the connectors and so on.
Goldman: I'm guessing you work very closely with designers on that?
Benmayor: Yes, it's not easy. We launched Flextherm five years ago and we thought it would be a booming material in the market, but we are just now starting to see that reality. Now it's starting to boom. It took a long time to convince electronic designers that they could easily bend the board and create a 3D shape that includes a printed electronic design.
Matties: It's getting traction now.
Benmayor: No, the traction was always there. The problem is that when you talk to electrical engineers, these guys are not mechanical engineers. They are electronic engineers, and they are used to working on layer bases. Two dimensions. Mechanical engineers are constantly using three dimensions, but electronic engineers are always thinking in two dimensions. The electronics engineers always talk about copper layer. So when you try to explain to them that the copper layers can bend, they don't think that’s possible until you show them a sample. When they do see this, they need the interaction of the mechanical engineers because things get complicated for them when the third dimension appears in an electronic board. When they go to three-dimensional layers, they need to integrate this on boxes and on plastics and this integration is not so easy.
Goldman: It takes some imagination.
Benmayor: Yes. You need imagination and they are not the right guys to have mechanical imagination. The right guys are the mechanical engineers, who at the same time have little idea of the what is going on in a PCB board. You cannot imagine the number of discussions we’ve had where we have to explain that after the board is ready and populated, they can now bend it with certain angles.
Andy Shaughnessy: So you're saying the designers and the electrical engineers really need to have a mechanical engineer, or at least think like a mechanical engineer?
Benmayor: It’s a combination of electronic engineering and mechanical engineering, yes.
Shaughnessy: The designers and electrical engineers do tend to think in layers and numbers.
Goldman: Because that's what they always had to work with. It's the same with totally flex PCBs, in that they have to think, “Well, I can do this, but then how do I make use of that? How do I make use of this neat new technology?” It takes them a while.
Benmayor: If you go to the rigid-flex technology, at the end of the day it's two boards connected by a polyimide flex and you only need to calculate the distance in between one and the other. When you arrive to a Flextherm, you really need to shape it out as a mechanical part, and then you need to put it flat and then make the integration of the PCB on top. So it has to operate one way around, not starting from the PCB side. You have to start from the mechanical side and then put the board flat, and then print the PCB design on top. That's easy to say, but when you arrive at these kind of organizations, it's not so easy to work it out internally.
Matties: And how you bend it and such will affect the way that the heat dissipates as well?
Benmayor: The bending, no. The bending has limitations from the shapes you can build. Flextherm cannot do all shapes because there are some angle limitations and radius limitations. And this has to be implemented because once you bend over a certain angle, you can destroy the connections or damage the board itself, so there are some parameters. We try to inform the OEMs of the limitations, such as what is the minimum distance from the component to the radius of the bending point etc. So we have to be in constant communication with the designers in order to help them.
Matties: Is there a design rulebook that has been produced for designers as a reference?
Benmayor: You have the main guidelines for designs, but we always recommend that the OEMs make their design and send us a 3D version so we can check what they have done. Once we see this we point out the critical aspects and offer them solutions to solve potential problems on the bending especially.
Matties: How fast is that segment growing?
Benmayor: We have been promoting this for five years, and the growth has been small. But now we are starting to see a lot of projects designed with the Fastherm technology so it is growing at a huge pace right now, maybe 50 or 60% every year.
Goldman: That Flextherm must have some mechanical strength to it. Because you bend and it's aluminum so it stands on its own. That's another aspect that makes it different from flex.
Benmayor: Yes, it needs less support, a real benefit. You only need to support a couple of points and then it keeps the shape. There is a lot of cost saving, for example on the manual operation to fix the boards to the plastic box of a rear light.
Shaughnessy: It's probably easier to fabricate, too, because it's not going to warp.
Benmayor: Well, there are two components here. From the fabricator perspective, the PCB is simple, nothing really complicated there. But after populating the board, which is done on a flat surface, now you have to bend it. That's where we get stuck with many OEMs. Because the PCBA guys populate the Flextherm, but they don't want the responsibility of bending the board.
Shaughnessy: Probably afraid it'll break the trace or something.
Benmayor: Yes! Then you’re at that moment when you have to once again help them and tell them, “Yes, you can bend it. But you need proper tools to bend them; you cannot bend them manually, okay?” Depending on the volume, the investment in the tools is expensive, but that investment will catch up easily because of the savings on manpower to make 10 boards, for example, and the connectors and cabling them and inserting them on the line, etc. So, you need more tooling but you save a lot of manpower.
Matties: Sounds like your organization offers a lot of technical advice and support for your customers.
Benmayor: We try.
Matties: Tell us a little bit about the certification requirements for automotive.
Benmayor: Certifications are a must in the automotive industry as many people know. You need to have them if you want to step into the industry, and we try to fulfill all the requirements that the automotive guys demand. I mean, the big automotive players come to visit our factory and over the course of a week they go through all the processes one by one, checking that everything is under control and fully documented. There is a track record on every kind of chemistry involved, traceability, etc. Once you are certified, you have a note, and they say, "Okay, you have to give us a solution for this, this, this. For X amount of points.” They come later and they double-check if all open points are solved. It's very difficult to step in, especially in Europe. The American market is much easier than the European market because many of the quality certifications of the automotive electronics industry in America rely on the PCB maker, but in Europe, they want to audit the entire chain, not only one. The Americans transfer part of the responsibility to the PCB maker or to the PCBA, and they are responsible for the ones that supply the labor and materials to them. In the European market, the OEM specifies to a much lower level than in the American market. Which means they are giving part of the stress of the certification onto our shoulders.
Matties: Just to switch gears a little, what is your view on the copper supply line?
Benmayor: Copper is crazy. As you know, in November of last year, we had a big shortage of copper and there was no copper available in the market due to the lithium battery segment growing so fast. We had to increase our inventories as much as we could in order to roll over this problem. The second part of this year everything relaxed and now the shortage trend is coming back again.
Matties: What sort of impact do you see for short-term in the industry? Higher prices?
Benmayor: Resin chemistry. Chemistry is crazy. It's increasing significantly. And the delivery time in general is very long now and it’s giving us headaches. It looks like the chemistry players are getting on bigger platforms together and reducing structure and the demand is growing, so the access to chemistry is becoming a nightmare. The resin market is very stressful today. It’s not easy to deal with these guys now. Also the glass cloth is in short supply.
Matties: So you're in a tough market. Tough supply line and you have to educate your customers. Congratulations for growing business in those circumstances.
Benmayor: Nothing is easy, right?
Matties: Well, if it was easy, everybody would be doing it, right? And so what you're doing is creating this really strong niche.
Benmayor: Thank you.
Matties: How many people are there in your company now?
Benmayor: We're around 100.
Matties: Is your business at the level that you thought it would be now? Or how do you see that? How do you measure your success?
Benmayor: Aismalibar has a long history in the market and was one of the first laminators for PCB in the EU. Unfortunately, the big volumes have moved to the Far East, but we managed to find niches where we could continue growing and expanding our technology. On the other hand we still have production capacity to increase volumes, and thermal laminates requirements are increasing, so we will follow the market growth as much as we can.
Matties: Eduardo, thank you so much for spending time with us.