In a recent interview, Karl-Heinz Fritz, VP of technology at Cicor, discusses the business, DenciTec technology, the impact of tariffs on trade, and applications for 3D printing and additive manufacturing, including potential new opportunities for PCB designers.
Nolan Johnson: I am here at PCB West with Karl-Heinz Fritz from Cicor. Can you give us an overview of the company and its role in the PCB industry?
Karl-Heinz Fritz: Cicor is an electronic service company based out of Switzerland. We have two areas of competence. One is electronic services, including plastics, and the other is our Advanced Microelectronics and Substrate (AMS) Division where we do different circuits—high-end PCBs, and thin- and thick-film circuits. Another part of this division is microelectronic assembly, where we do wire and die bonding, and high-precision assembly. We have one of these sites with a clean room assembly line that has been installed to serve the medical market primarily.
Cicor has approximately 2,000 employees and ten manufacturing sites worldwide—four of which are located in Asia (Singapore, China, Vietnam, and Indonesia). The other six are located in Europe, including three in Switzerland, two in Germany, and one in Romania. We mainly serve the industrial, medical, and aerospace markets. However, a small part still works in the Swiss watch industry, which was the root of Cicor when we were founded in 1966.
Johnson: What is your background and role within the company?
Fritz: I'm responsible for technology in the Cicor Group. I have 25 years of experience in electronics manufacturing. I spent most of the time in the PCB business working for several well-known companies in Europe and Asia.
Johnson: Has Cicor been working on any new developments?
Fritz: We have spent a lot of our efforts in development. One thing we did is develop DenciTec technology in the PCB field, which is an ultra-HDI board technology that enables us to produce circuit boards with line widths and spacings down to 25 microns without sacrificing flexibility on interconnections. This means we are still able to achieve copper thicknesses in the range of 20 microns and enables us to use the whole range of interconnection technologies without making any concessions to part reliability and integrity. We also have a technology allowing us to go further into miniaturization and produce line widths and spacings down to less than 10 microns. This is on a much smaller manufacturing unit and panel size using thin-film technology.
Johnson: Are the dimensions starting to decrease where they used to be for semiconductors?
Fritz: Yes. You can say it is a semiconductor process from 20 or 30 years ago.
Johnson: You said you’re getting dimensions around 25 microns with DenciTec. Is that with a rectangular cross-section on the traces?
Fritz: Yes, that's one of the advantages, which is providing proper signaling techniques. We have rectangular traces, not trapezoid-shaped traces.
Johnson: Since you're working in medical and military areas at those sorts of dimensions, do high-speed and impedance factors become an integral part of customers’ designs?
Fritz: Yes. We are very flexible in material selection and adaptive to customers' needs. High-frequency materials have a big range. We are trying to adapt to our customers' needs in that field as well.
Johnson: Concerning thin-film, are your customers primarily driving it or are you ahead of your customers?
Fritz: The pure technology is probably ahead of what the customers need now. Given the size of the manufacturing units, the price is high. What is putting Cicor in a unique position is that we have several different technologies under one roof.
We have specialist sites for each of the technologies, but we are working on merging these technologies. We are talking about making thin-film technology on bigger panel sizes. Even DenciTec will not be good enough at a certain point regarding line width, spacing, and circuit density. We have the knowledge and capability for both technologies in our company.
Further, we are doing bio-compatible circuits on thin-film substrates where we use PCB technologies to laminate, cut, plate, and drill it. This is ongoing, and we’ve found great success. We can also do fully bio-compatible metal systems—such as titanium, gold, and platinum—and deliver a metal system that can be directly in contact with body fluids and tissues.
Johnson: Sounds like a lot of options. With these new technologies and capabilities, what is the profile of the new customers Cicor is targeting?
Fritz: We are targeting big names in the medical industry who have been established in this field for many years. Meanwhile, we are also working with starter companies to help them on their way to launching a product into the market.
Johnson: What design parameters or capabilities would be ideal for DenciTec?
Fritz: To be competitive, given our footprint, our PCB manufacturing site is in Switzerland. We must have specific technical content in or on the circuit boards that we handle. We look at this very carefully. In cases where the technical content is not there, we have to stop very early in the process. Being honest with our customer about if it’s not something we can do out of Switzerland is very important to us. Our sweet spot in PCB manufacturing is flex multilayer circuits. Anything less than four-mils line width and spacing.
Johnson: I presume that ties back to medical applications, correct?
Fritz: Yes, this includes several medical applications, such as permanent and temporary implants, sensors, and catheters. That's one of our sweet spots. The majority of our thin- and thick-film circuits is done on ceramic materials for aerospace and bionic applications.
Johnson: If a designer is considering DenciTec, would it be a good idea for them to get in touch with you before they finish their design?
Fritz: The earlier, the better. We have direct salespeople and representatives located in the United States. The best thing to do if you are thinking about using the assigned parameters within the bandwidth of DenciTec is to contact us as early as possible in the process. If you have to go through several iterations of a design, that makes the whole process longer. We aim to make it the best experience possible by talking with the designer from the very beginning of a project so issues can be avoided in the first step and not just after the second or third step. That's one of the things that distinguishes a Swiss manufacturer from a manufacturer from the Far East. The level of service you have to provide to a customer has to be very high, and we are doing highly complex and reliable work.
Johnson: Does it become more of a working relationship rather than a transactional relationship?
Fritz: Exactly. It's less shopping and more about a partnership with the customer. If we receive a complete assignment, we do our best to fit that into our production. We prefer design for manufacturing (DFM).
Johnson: What other challenges and opportunities is Cicor paying attention to right now?
Fritz: One interesting thing currently happening in the economic environment in the United States is tariffs being put in place. This causes some issues for companies who are sourcing out of China. Cicor might be at an advantage because we have an assembly and box-building site in Vietnam that are not affected by these tariffs. Customers might consider that as an option instead of paying tariffs on getting goods out of China.
Johnson: That makes sense. It might be worth it for a customer to talk with you.
Fritz: Yes. That's something we can cover. We offer nearly all services along the value chain, but that's not the need. It's more of an à-la-carte menu where customers can select whatever they would like to have. They can have the whole thing from the development to the finished device, or they can choose only a particular part.
Johnson: Electronic manufacturing services (EMS) providers can sometimes seem like a black box. At Cicor, your customers can open the box select the services that work for them.
Fritz: Exactly. We co-develop products with our customers where the intellectual property (IP) of a product belongs to our customers. We deliver different kinds of circuits to the customers who are doing all the work themselves.
Johnson: Do you have design services involved as well?
Fritz: Design and development service, yes.
Johnson: Can your team start with circuit engineering work at the schematic level or do you start at physical layout?
Fritz: From the very beginning, we do developments where customers come to us with an idea, and then we start with the hardware and software engineering to make a device run.
Johnson: From early in the process all the way to the end. That’s valuable.
Johnson: Karl, what do you see on the roadmap in the future?
Fritz: Additive manufacturing is a significant topic for us where we evaluate different options that start from doing 3D printing of plastic parts to circuit printing. This is something that will become more important in the future because it’s a macro-trend.
Johnson: Are your customers starting to use 3D printing and additive process techniques in medical and military areas?
Fritz: In the medical industry for additive manufacturing, it has been used for many years. You can have customized parts, such as plastic parts in hearing aids for the ear canal. We don't know a lot of applications yet where they are using this additive processing for circuitry. We've been doing 3D-MID technology for many years, which is a way to create 3D plastic parts with circuitry on it, but we have seen clear limitations. There may be other technologies out there that are more cost-competitive and have technical advantages.
Johnson: What growth has Cicor seen in the last year?
Fritz: Yes. As a company, we are currently on a strong growth path. We’ve had solid double-digit growth in revenue last year and also in the first half year of 2018. This is nice to see, especially in the AMS Division, which has outpaced the competition regarding growth rate.
Johnson: Fantastic. It sounds like Cicor is doing many great things.
Fritz: Thank you for having me.
Johnson: My pleasure. Thank you so much, Karl!