The Chemical Connection: Closing the Innovation Gap

In Nolan Johnson’s September 2022 column, “New Era Manufacturing,” he referred to the carriage whip manufacturing businesses that met their fate by failing to adapt while other carriage businesses with more robust product applications remained standing. He said this relates to our industry in the sense that the needs of our world are evolving, that the wants and needs of PCB fabricators and their customers are bound to change. There will always be a demand for PCBs, since it is the foundation of modern technology, but market challenges are inevitable. PCB fabricators are dealing with increasing material and labor costs, all while major quick-turn-around jobs are declining. The questions we must ask are: Where do we go from here? How can PCB fabricators overcome these challenges and get an edge in the market? How can we best adapt?

First, let’s look at how our industry has adapted. There have been many advancements in automation technology applications since we entered the fourth generation of the Industrial Revolution. We are introducing robotics and advanced data analytics to our PCB fabrication processes. This has certainly been a step in the right direction for us to combat the before-mentioned obstacles. Although automation brings a lot to the table, will it ever be enough? For some fabricators, it may seem sufficient. However, this may be a relatively short-term solution. But we must address the growing issue of where we will find engineers who will innovate and influence PCB manufacturing technology—before it eventually throttles the growth of the industry.

I was also interested in Paige Fiet’s September 2022 column, “Let’s Make Manufacturing ‘Cool’ Again.” She wrote that the new generation of engineers is not as interested in manufacturing anymore, as she made mention of the large shift toward computer science where generally there is a higher status and cozier jobs. Although that field is gaining popularity, don’t write off manufacturing just yet. There is plenty of interest in manufacturing in the electronics industry, just not in the field of PCBs. The semiconductor industry is keeping the newer generation interested in manufacturing jobs. I believe the main influencers are education and awareness.

I attended IPC APEX EXPO for the first time this year and since then I have noticed a recurring theme among those who get involved in PCB manufacturing: Before they started working in the field, most did not have much awareness of our sector. In fact, before I became a process engineer at Chemcut, I was one of them. This was primarily because I was not exposed to it in college. While I was aware that my chemical engineering degree could be applied to the semiconductor industry, I did not associate it with circuit boards. At my university, there were even a handful of professors who specialized in semiconductor research, so it seems that students are more exposed to semiconductors than to PCBs. This appears to heavily influence where these students choose to take their careers.

If our industry wants to adapt for the better, it must start from the ground-up—starting where students get exposure to our industry. More exposure means more scientific developments and progress in PCB technology. If more students are made aware of the opportunities in the PCB industry, we can bring in fresh, new minds that will look at our manufacturing limitations from different perspectives. The more interest in PCB manufacturing we can bring to young engineers, the better. Although it is necessary to gain overall interest in PCBs, it’s important that we steer some in the direction of engineering capital equipment (i.e., printers, etchers, platers, etc.). If PCB manufacturers are to get an edge in the market, it is likely to come from advancements in fabrication technology. This is because innovation in this area will effectively lead to greater opportunities in PCB quality, productivity, and overall profit. In principle, if the equipment manufacturers grow and innovate, so should the rest of the industries they support. Making the upcoming generations interested in all aspects of PCB fabrication may just be the adaptation our industry needs to handle the changing wants and needs of the market. Once the new generation gains interest in our industry, PCB manufacturers should have a bright future ahead of them.

That leaves us with the question of how we can best appeal to the next generation and get them interested in PCBs. Creating outreach programs and other similar efforts are likely the way to go because half of the battle is bringing awareness of how PCBs are made. I propose that the other half of the battle is introducing the nuances of our industry and the current matters we would like to improve. If you are trying to appeal to young engineers, the best way to do that is to give them a challenge and show them there is still plenty of room for intellectual growth in our industry.

This column originally appeared in the October 2022 issue of PCB007 Magazine.

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2022

The Chemical Connection: Closing the Innovation Gap

11-11-2022

In Nolan Johnson’s September 2022 column, “New Era Manufacturing,” he referred to the carriage whip manufacturing businesses that met their fate by failing to adapt while other carriage businesses with more robust product applications remained standing. He said this relates to our industry in the sense that the needs of our world are evolving, that the wants and needs of PCB fabricators and their customers are bound to change. There will always be a demand for PCBs, since it is the foundation of modern technology, but market challenges are inevitable. PCB fabricators are dealing with increasing material and labor costs, all while major quick-turn-around jobs are declining. The questions we must ask are: Where do we go from here? How can PCB fabricators overcome these challenges and get an edge in the market? How can we best adapt?

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The Chemical Connection: How to Automate Your Wet Processes

10-12-2022

Considering automating your PCB fabrication line? If you are, then you may have concerns about what it takes to implement new automation technology. The good news is that setting up your processing lines for automation is simpler than you may think. Whether you are obtaining new equipment, or you want to automate a machine that you’ve been working with for years, automating it can be as simple as tightening a few bolts and wiring a couple connections. Automating your process lines are now easier than ever thanks to low-cost, user configurable robot arms. Since most of the processes from beginning to the end of PCB manufacturing are already automated (at least in wet processing), the only areas left open for automation are the loading and unloading sections.

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The Chemical Connection: The Etch Factor

09-08-2022

One of the biggest obstacles that PCB manufacturers face is etch factor. Etch factor is the ratio of downward etch to sideways etch. Etch factor poses challenges to PCB fabricators because it limits PCB design. It can determine how fine of a line you can etch, and it can even affect how close together you can have features. For instance, if you wanted to use cupric chloride (etch factor of 3:1) to etch a fine line (3 mils or less), you might not be capable of doing that with panels of thicker copper layers. If you try to do that, you will likely receive inconsistent results throughout your panels. Inconsistencies will arise because there is a point where the sideways etch will affect metal underneath the photoresist and etch it away.

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The Chemical Connection: Don't Sludge-Out—A Guide for Alkaline Etching

08-17-2022

In my last column, I compared cupric chloride and alkaline cupric chloride, mentioning that alkaline etchant is the most used etchant for PCB fabrication. It is used because it provides a high etch rate, improved etch factor, and compatibility with metallic resists. Although it has some great benefits, it has the drawback of being difficult to control. The etching chemistry requires a delicate balance, and the parameters it needs to stay within are relatively tight. Not only are the margins for error small, but falling outside these parameters may have consequences.

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The Chemical Connection: Etchants of the Industry—Cupric vs. Alkaline

07-16-2022

Chemical etching is a vital process for manufacturing PCBs. It is one of the most complex chemical processes next to plating. This is because there are many different variables that can affect your product and how efficiently it is produced. Although it is complex, etching of copper can be narrowed down to a handful of etchants that PCB manufacturers widely use. By far, the most common etchants are cupric chloride and alkaline cupric chloride, commonly referred to as “ammoniacal alkaline etchant.” There are other etchants for copper, such as ferric chloride, sodium persulfate, and alkaline ammonia sulfate, but they are not commonly used for PCB manufacturing and are often only used in “special cases.” I may touch on those other etchants a bit more in a future column, but this one will focus on cupric and alkaline.

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The Chemical Connection: How Industry 4.0 Shapes PCB Wet Processes

06-06-2022

Earlier this year, I had the opportunity to attend IPC EXPO 2022 where I was able to network with many great people in the electronics industry and see how other businesses are connected to the work we do at Chemcut. Although that might have been my main takeaway, there was another trend that I couldn’t ignore: the fourth generation of the industrial revolution is alive and well in the industry. After being shown the many different technologies that can be leveraged to boost automation, I couldn’t help but consider how they may impact the wet processing side of PCB manufacturing. I also wonder about other forms of automation we may soon see and what those developments could mean for the industry.

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The Chemical Connection: The Case for Preventive Maintenance

05-04-2022

Preventive maintenance (PM) is a routine maintenance performed to ensure equipment runs efficiently and won’t experience problems anytime soon. This routine maintenance can become highly important when you are running a business that relies heavily on equipment for production. Printed circuit board (PCB) shops are no exception to this because their production is dependent on many different complex machines working together. Although PM is critical, a large portion of PCB shops don’t have a PM program. Far too often, manufacturers will wait until a machine starts experiencing problems before they act.

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The Chemical Connection: Etch Uniformity and the Puddle Problem

03-14-2022

Printed circuit board manufacturers who utilize wet processes have always strived to receive a uniform etch across their panels. Although it is one of the most common matters these manufacturers tackle, it is perhaps the least understood. This is for a few reasons, one of them being that there doesn’t seem to be an agreed upon terminology within PCB manufacturing.

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