OEM/EMS Barrier Permanently Cut

For years we’ve been told that EMS companies are in the service business only and would never develop their own products. In one of the first interviews I did, back in late 1991, then IPC director Tony Hilvers — a leading proponent of the then-emerging CM industry (it wasn’t even called EMS then; that term was coined by Sue Mucha the following year) — insisted to me that contract assemblers wouldn’t go down the product development and branding path because it would put them in position of competing with their customers.

We can bury that old saw. With today’s news that Foxconn has, at long last, bought Sharp (for the low, low price of $3.4 billion), the loop between EMS and OEM has been drawn taut.

Not that this is ground-breaking in practice. Certainly, many, many EMS companies have, through acquisition or otherwise, developed and marketed their own products. Our 2009 EMS Company of the Year had a healthy, branded keyboard product line. And we estimated in this space in 2012 that 15 to 20% of the (then) 2,400 companies listed in our EMS directory did some degree of ODM/OEM work.

Going further, we wrote in 2015 we felt the line between EMS and ODM has been “permanently crossed.” But the Foxconn-Sharp marriage takes it to an entirely different scale.

Whether the Sharp name stays on its product lines, which range from Aquos televisions to smartphones to solar panels, and includes the OLED technology so prized by Apple that it compelled Foxconn to write the check in the first place, remains to be seen.

Either way, there’s no going back. EMS is now OEM. Going forward, who is the customer they will serve? And knowing the line keeping their suppliers from their end-customers has been permanently breached, will this spur OEMs  to reestablish their assembly operations?

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Good Talk

The big story out of IPC Apex Expo last week – about the only story, really – was the introduction of an open communications standard by Mentor Graphics’ Valor division, followed by the rapid response by more than two dozen assembly equipment providers and software developers over shared concern that the solution to machine-to-machine communication might end up residing in the hands of a single company.

At the heart of the matter is the so-called Industry 4.0. Also referred to as IIC (US), Made in China 2025 (China), Industrial Value Chain Initiative (Japan), Manufacturing 3.0 (South Korea) and other names, it stands for the capability for different equipment, made by different OEMs, to share bi-directional data over an open, yet secure, platform. Done right, it’s a major step toward permitting manufacturers to pick the best machines for their specific needs, versus being beholden to a single line solution. Fundamentally, it’s at the heart of a fully beating Internet of Things; some feel the fully automated factory can increase production efficiency by more than 30% over time, adding billions or more to national GDPs.

Let’s start with the Mentor specification. Two years in the making and announced just prior to the annual IPC trade show, it was released at the Las Vegas event as OML, which stands for Open Machine Language. Having years of experience writing translators for various assembly line machines, Valor took those translators and installed OML in front of them, and packaged the combination in a black box. Thus, in a relative instant, a solution to a much-discussed electronics assembly problem was at hand; OML satisfied the need for machines to talk to each other, and the box handled any connectivity issues.

Mentor planned to make OML available to any company through a partner program and would retain ownership over the protocol while relying on the partners to help shape the future direction of the specification.

In Las Vegas, of course, everything’s a gamble. Once word got around the show, equipment vendors said “not so fast.”

Mentor’s angle was to multiply the use of IoT through OML, thus exponentially expanding the market for its Valor tools. Perhaps worried by the legalese, or the potential for a single “owner” to license and potentially change or even shut out competitors, roughly two dozen assembly OEMs met over the course of two days to hammer out an agreement that reshapes the trajectory of the specification. Several equipment OEMs PCD&F/CIRCUITS ASSEMBLY spoke with agreed OML is technically sound but felt the business issues inherent in licensing a corporate spec could pose a host of problems. Up against this strong front, Mentor pivoted and offered OML as a starting point for a to-be-determined IPC standard.

In one sense, then, bi-directional communication goes back to the drawing board. Some 15 years ago an IPC committee published a shop floor equipment communication standard labeled IPC-2541 and colloquially known as CAMX. One presenter at the Apex sessions demonstrated how IoT could work using enhanced CAMX. The early take – and this has yet to be finalized, as not even the charter is on paper yet – is the task group will study a combination of OML, CAMX and perhaps other, yet-to-be-written software as part of its IPC mission.

All sides agree there will be an emphasis on speed. If nothing else, OML forced the industry to confront the fact that not only is a standard needed, it was needed yesterday.

Going forward, it will be up to each software company and manufacturer to leverage the IPC standard as they see fit. It remains to be seen if Mentor will ultimately concede OML or whether it will attempt to go it alone.

Some will recall a similar scenario with the data transfer formats for printed circuit board designs. Various specifications sat mostly idle for years, IPC-D-350, IGES and EDIF among them, until the powers behind Valor’s ODB and IPC’s GenCAM formats squared off. Valor donated the XML version of ODB to IPC in 2008, yet continues to maintain its ODB++ format. GenCAM evolved into IPC-2581, and upon Mentor’s purchase of Valor, finally gained traction among worried software competitors and OEMs who feared being shut out of markets or forced to switch tools.

Regardless of the back story, this is where the industry stands today, and a basically workable plan is being formulated. The speed with which the industry moved – and Mentor should be thanked for spurring action – screams the need is present and widespread, and there is general consensus on the solution. That’s a great story. After all, in electronics, how often does that happen.

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Parts Shortage

While assembling SMT PCBs for a customer, the line unexpectedly ran out of 01005 package size resistors during the production run. This was due to an error on the customer’s part; they simply did not provide us with enough. But the customer still expected the finished product in-hand by the due date, and we did not want to disappoint him.

This, of course, created a dilemma. Should we halt production while additional parts were ordered, or simply continue? We placed a replenishment order immediately, and learned that we could not get them until the next day. We asked, “Is it possible to assemble these boards now, and add the part later when they arrive?” We also had to quickly assess the feasibility adding the part later on. How accessible is the site for this tiny part? Can it be done by a skilled soldering technician? We decided that it could.

A parts shortage didn't stop production.

An 01005 parts shortage didn’t stop production.

We proceeded to build the order with the exception of that single 01005 component. The site was accessible, we decided, so that the part could indeed be added individually to each PCB. Sure, it would take some time and hand soldering, but it would not cost us nearly as much time as if we had put the entire build on hold to wait for the parts.

Parts_Shortage02

Once the needed parts arrived, they were hand soldered onto each assembly by a skilled operator using slender soldering iron tips.

When the parts arrived the next day, we were able to employ our best hand soldering people with soldering irons equipped with special slender tips. The job went quickly and easily, and we were able to minimize downtime on the SMT line due to the unexpected component shortage, and keep this job on schedule, much to the relief of our customer. We came through for them despite their mistake, and they appreciated that.

Parts_Shortage03

The 01005 parts were easily and quickly added, and the entire job shipped by the required due date since the rest of the assembly had already been finished.

Efficient use of time, getting whatever can be done while minimizing down time, pays dividends when one is living by tight delivery schedules and expected ship dates. The more that can be achieved without unnecessary delays, the better the chances that a ship date can be honored.

Roy Akber

www.rushpcb.com

Roy@rushpcb.com

 

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Happy St. Patrick’s Day!

SC4And some trivia. You may have noticed that the soldermask used on most PC boards is green, as is the paint used on most steel truss bridges. Why is that? And what do the two things have in common? Why green PCBs and why green bridges?

To answer, I brought in color expert expert Patty O’Patrick O’Dell, who stated: “Many bridges and PCBs are green because they absorb red and blue light, only reflecting the green.”

That wasn’t quite what I was getting at, but close enough. The important thing, is that, generally, in commercial products, the PC boards are hidden, so the color doesn’t matter that much. With prototypes and a lot of the hobby or development boards, that is not the case, so many companies have chosen to use a different color as a part of their identity.

Arduino products are blue, as are most boards from Adafruit. SparkFun makes theirs red. Ti Launchpads are red as well. The Beaglebone uses color, essentially, as a model number; Beaglebone black, Beaglebone green. This is possible because major PC board fab houses have made different colors more economical than they used to be.

I’ve been asked if the color makes any difference electrically. In general, no. If you’re dealing with super high speeds, RF, or other exotic conditions, it’s always best to ask your board house. In those fringe areas, a lot of things have the potential to make a difference. Other than that, if you can afford it, and want to make a statement, go for it. You can often get different color silk screen legend too. Just make sure there’s contrast between the two. White silkscreen on white soldermask would not be the best choice.

Duane Benson
Beware the monsters from Id

blog.screamingcircuits.com

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Goldman Moment

Congratulations to my old friend — as in “long-term”; I would never dare call her old — Patty Goldman, who was inducted into the IPC Hall of Fame this week (long overdue). In doing so, Patty becomes the first woman inducted to receive IPC’s highest honor (also long overdue).

I was on the IPC staff when Patty was chair of the Technical Activities Executive Council, which sets the priorities for all IPC standards activities. She ran that group of unruly engineers with an iron fist (well, really a gavel), demonstrating that not only could some sense of order and civility be brought to the Council, but that their meetings didn’t have to last four hours, either.

Way to go, Patty!

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Electronic Swarms — Overhangs

SCFig1 As I’ve stated many times before, we see many, many different jobs go through our shop. In those jobs, we see some of the absolute newest components and packages; some not yet available to the public; some are so R&D that they never will be available outside of a lab. We see the best of the best in terms of design practices and complexity, and we see many that aren’t so much in that arena.

Given that, it would seem logical that the design problems we see would be pretty much scattered all over the map. By some measures they are, but on a day to day basis, they tend to cluster. For a few months we’ll see a lot of QFN footprint issues. In a different few months, we’ll see a lot of via in pad issues, etc. I don’t know why. It just works that way — problems come in swarms, or storms.

The latest swarm relates to panelized boards and components that stick over the edge of the board. We build things like that all the time. The problem comes in when the panel tabs come out right where the component overhangs. If the component overhangs in the cut out area, it’s usually not a problem. However, if the component is on the connection tabs, we can’t place that part without first depaneling.

SCFig2Probably the most common example is the surface mount USB Micro-B receptacle. It over hangs the board by a small amount, and that overhanging part is actually bent down. If it’s at the tab, it won’t even mount flush. Take a close look at the images along the right. That connector won’t mount as it’s sitting on a tab.

So, what do you do about it?

SCFig3 You can have your boards made as individuals. Although if you want short-run production, or if the boards are really small, that might not be possible or practical. You can also talk to your fab house about it. They may be able to place the tabs in a spot that won’t get in the way of the overhanging part, of they might be able to tell you where the tabs will be, allowing you to keep clear in your layout.

Duane Benson
Anyone ever drink Tab Clear?

http://blog.screamingcircuits.com

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An Electronic Business Card Holder

I design and build electronics at home, late at night when the spiders are out, and by day, I put my hours into Screaming Circuits. My job here doesn’t involve building things. I’m the marketing department, but I like to keep as much manufacturing smeared all over me as is possible. Here’s one way I do that.

Benson_bizBusiness cards are a bit of an anachronism today. I don’t give out many, this being the 21st century and all, but I still need some on my desk – I guess to look businessy or something. No one’s ever given me a cheap card holder with their logo on it, and I don’t want to just scatter cards around. So, why not combine my need to display business cards on my desk with my compulsion to create electronic things? With that thought in mind, I decided to build an electronic business card holder. Of course, I first had to decide just what an electronic business card holder would be.

Here’s what I came up with:

  • It should be small, about the size of a business card
  • It should have a lot of blinky lights
  • It should do something when a card is removed
  • It should have a long battery life
  • It should use tiny parts to show off our manufacturing capability a bit
  • It should be 100% buildable within our electronics manufacturing process (meaning it should be just electronics; no bolts or case)

That’s not a long list, but does involve a few decisions. I’m pretty familiar with Microchip PIC processors, so that would be a logical choice to drive the thing. Arduino compatibility would be cool, but I’d have more trouble with battery life, and the PIC microcontrollers come in some pretty inexpensive forms.

Benson_biz2I’d recently been using a variant of the PIC18F46k22 on another project. I comes in a 5 x 5mm QFN package and can be purchased for less than $3 in small quantities. it has plenty of I/O and can be set to a very low power sleep mode. I settled on that MCU and a CR2032 coin cell battery for power.

Rather than add any extra hardware to hold the cards, I came up with an arrangement of pin headers and small push-button switches. (as in the photo below right). Benson_biz3One header is the six-pin Microchip in-circuit programming (ICSP) header, and the other is a six-pin I2C/SPI header. Not that I need I2C or SPI, but with that, you could turn this into a robot business card holder or something.

I considered a light sensor to detect when a card is being picked up, but that would require leaving the A to D powered up, and it would be less reliable due to changes in lighting. I looked around my junk box at home, and found a Freescale MMA8452 3 axis accelerometer in a 3 x 3mm QFN package. It also has a decent low power mode, and can be talked to over I2C.

Some 19 GPIO pins remained open, so naturally, I had to put in 19 LEDs.

Stay tuned for my next installment, where I’ll go through some of the design decisions. At the end of this series, I’ll be giving out 10 of these, so stay tuned to see how you might be able to get one.

Duane Benson
If you dreamed you saw the silver spaceships flying
That’s a okay. They’re RoHS compliant

http://blog.screamingcircuits.com/

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Linc’d In

I never worked directly for Linc Samelson, but it’s safe to say I wouldn’t have had a career writing about electronics design and assembly were it not for him. I certainly wouldn’t have many of my good friends.

Linc passed away last weekend at the age of 89 following a car accident. He was a lifelong entrepreneur, going from engineering college student to a career in the Navy, followed by a degree in journalism from the University of Illinois in 1948.

After some time in the electrical insulation manufacturing industry, Linc recognized the need for a trade publication. That prompted he and his father to launch, in 1955, a company called Lake Publishing, named after Lake Forest, the town north of Chicago where their first offices were.

Their startup magazine, Insulation, grew and eventually was renamed Insulation/ Circuits. The electronics trade publishing industry would never be the same.

Fast forward to 1991. At that time, Lake Publishing had relocated to a far north Chicago suburb of Libertyville. To his group of journals Linc had added a number of titles — Microelectronics Manufacturing and Testing (MMT), Hybrid Circuit Technology (HCT), and eventually Surface Mount Technology (SMT).

SMT started as a seasonal supplement to HCT, then grew into a standalone publication. And in 1991, just one year out of college, I joined the magazine as associate editor.

At that time Linc was in transition too, having sold the company to a subsidiary of Information Handling Services. (According to lore, IHS bought Lake with the idea the magazines would serve as a monthly advertising vehicle for its component catalogs. Unfortunately for IHS, no one from the corporate offices in Denver ever bothered to send the ads.)

As an owner, Linc seemed to understand the nature of people. He had a racquetball court installed in the building and tennis courts outside. On Fridays came happy hours, with a keg of beer tapped to celebrate the weekend. (This was a different era for a lot of reasons.) His employees were never going to get rich working for him, but he did invest strategically, be it in equipment or brand positioning, always making sure there was an army of staff representing the company at trade shows.

Linc married my former colleague at Lake/IHS and longtime friend Jennifer Samelson (nee Read), with whom he raised seven children. Besides his wife, Linc is survived by 16 children, 19 grandchildren and three great grandchildren. He continued working into the late 1990s.

Through the years, Linc remained a favorite topic for me and former colleagues, some still in the industry, most now out. He brought us together, and in many ways launched us on our careers. I will always be grateful for his foresight and vision.

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Mirror Mirror

A mirror can bring bad luck, it is said. In this PCB assembly challenge, it certainly did when a mirrored pad layout for a transformer made it impossible to mount the component to its intended location on the top side of a PCB in its usual orientation.

Design error: A mirrored pad layout creates orientation problems between pads and component pins; layout is for bottom-side rather than top-side mounting.

Design error: A mirrored pad layout creates orientation problems between pads and component pins; layout is for bottom-side rather than top-side mounting.

The component’s footprint, it turns out, would work fine if it were on the opposite side of the PCB, but that bottom-side installation is not possible.

Flipped upside down, the SMT transformer’s pins line up fine, except that they are facing upwards. But we can still mount the component and make a robust connection using adhesive and connecting wires.

Flipped upside down, the SMT transformer’s pins line up fine, except that they are facing upwards. But we can still mount the component and make a robust connection using adhesive and connecting wires.

The customer made a design mistake; although the pads for top-side SMT mounting of the component are in place, they are in mirror-image orientation; e.g., the pad layout with Pin 1 is intended to be installed from the bottom of the board. Consequently, it doesn’t match up in terms of orientation on the top side of the PCB unless the component is literally placed onto its back. But that means that the leads are sticking up into the air, pointing in the wrong direction.

It’s well known that a dab of epoxy can cure a host of ills, and in this case it was simply a matter of dispensing a tiny amount of epoxy onto the back of the component body, in the center, as well as onto its intended location on the SMT PCB assembly.

Mirror04

Small dots of epoxy are applied to the PCB surface and to the component body, before it is attached, the epoxy cured, and the transformer connected pin by pin.

The component is then carefully located in place upside-down and the epoxy cured. With the component robustly mounted in this manner, small wires were then run from each lead (pin) to its corresponding pad on the board’s surface.

Mirror03

It requires skillful hand soldering once the component is in place, but the connection is robust and complete.

 

Roy Akber

www.rushpcb.com

Roy@rushpcb.com

 

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Conductive Inks vs. Nonconductive Inks – Part II

In the first half of this column, we began a discussion of the pros and cons regarding the use of conductive inks versus nonconductive inks to fill vias. The images below show cross-sections of a via-in-pad with nonconductive ink on the left and VIP with conductive ink on the right.
 

Via-in-pad (VIP) filled with conductive ink.

Via-in-pad (VIP) filled with nonconductive ink.

Via-in-pad (VIP) filled with conductive ink.

Via-in-pad (VIP) filled with conductive ink.

 In that column, we discussed a design that required a nonconductive ink in the through-hole via and conductive ink in the blind via. Now we ask, what were the drivers behind this decision?  Why would one use two different types of inks in vias in the same PCB, and why conductive vs. nonconductive ink? The answers are actually a bit more complex.

Copper plating is one factor, as an example. For years it has been generally accepted that copper plating is not a viable substitute for ink (conductive or nonconductive) to fill a through-hole via, buried via, or blind via. It was believed that to plate a via shut and to cover the surface with copper would take “forever,” relatively speaking, if it could be done at all.

One reasoned that not only would the process of plating the via shut with copper be prohibitively time-consuming, but even if it were technically possible to fill the hole with plated copper, the unwanted consequence of plating so much copper in the hole would result in excessive “button” or surface copper height that would lead to other defects and/or reliability risks.

Blind via plated shut with copper.

Blind via plated shut with copper.

Nowadays there are several efficient processes for copper plating to fill vias; two of these are pulse and DC rectification. Some require button plating, a two-stage process; others have evolved to the point where a single-stage panel plate will fill certain via structures while depositing less material on the surface, thereby leaving a manageable surface copper thickness. In this way, one can continue to produce a high-density product without the need for a secondary ink-filling operation.

Further, there are solutions to filling micro, blind and buried vias that require no additional process time or steps; e.g., resin or B-stage fill. The consensus was that it wasn’t possible to do this reliably. While conventional prepreg (B-Stage) historically struggled to fully and consistently fill vias, there are now specialized prepregs and bonding materials specifically engineered to do just this process reliably.

One laminate company produces a series of FR-4, lead-free, polyimide, low-loss and other high-performance laminates and prepregs.  Within their product line they offer a sub-set of prepreg (B-Stage) called the VF-series (whereby VF is an abbreviation for via fill).

Via Fill (VF) prepreg product, where core and prepreg are combined to create a pure, homogeneous material package.

Via Fill (VF) prepreg product, where core and prepreg are combined to create a pure, homogeneous material package.

 

Where we have the instance of a buried via filled with one ply of VF material, the blind via is fully filled with resin, and the dielectric distance between outer foil and inner sub assembly is very uniform. In this case, the VF matches the family of core and prepreg it is combined with, so that it permits the creation of a pure homogeneous material package, eliminating the need for a hybrid material / laminate package. The VF prepreg has been engineered for enhanced rheology and filler content so that during the lamination process the blind and buried vias found in a sequential lamination sub assembly will be fully filled.

VF Prepreg is just one example of available materials designed to fill vias during the lamination process, thus eliminating the need for a secondary operation. What process and material should you use? To make the best decision, you need to understand not just what result you want to achieve, but why.

Not long ago I had an application involving a customer’s requirement of a specific brand of conductive ink to fill a small through-hole via. The assembly was a double-sided PCB on a relatively thin (0.010″ thick) PTFE/Teflon material.

The ink-filling process requires a planarization or sanding operation after the ink is cured in order to remove excess ink from the copper surface. The planarization process always includes some inherent risks and/or limitations such as:

  • Dimensional distortion of the panel of PCB material.
  • Imprecision, resulting in uneven copper thickness and poor control of circuit etching.
  • Reduced peel strength of the surface copper.

In this case, all these negative aspects of planarization were amplified because the material was a soft; thin Teflon with RA copper. This material is highly unstable to begin with and susceptible to distortion.

The PCB manufacturer struggled to meet the customer’s requirements, but excess cost, time to produce, delays, and lower yields resulting when compliant product was finally produced were a real problem, prompting further discussion with the customer.

A breakthrough occurred when we began to ask why we were using certain materials and questioned the necessity and benefit of each step in the process. We realized that the via filling; i.e., the specific material requested by the customer, was being used to prevent solder from flowing through the vias during assembly. But what else was it there for?

After critical examination, we realized:

  • That there was no need for conductivity in the filling material , let alone any reason for it to be limited to the customer’s specifically preferred ink material.
  • There was no need for a copper pad to be plated over the surface of the material or via, since nothing was being soldered on top of the via.
  • There was no need for a specific brand of ink material.
  • Alternative materials and processes could therefore be explored.

After all, we began to examine the real purpose that the via filling was intended to address, and more importantly, what it was not there for. The material had been used, all along based upon a group of assumptions that, when examined, weren’t true and did not justify the use of that specific (and costly) ink material. Its use simply could not stand up to challenging questions, such as added reliability, electrical advantages or mechanical aspects or even thermal characteristics or properties. It contributed to none of these justifying criteria.

 

Buried via fully filled with resin; note that the dielectric thickness between the outer foil and the inner subassembly is very uniform.

Buried via fully filled with resin; note that the dielectric thickness between the outer foil and the inner subassembly is very uniform.

In summary, when evaluating a new product, manufacturing process, etc.:

  • Challenge any long-held assumptions.
  • Gather information from multiple sources.
  • Qualify that what you have been told by others is really best for your needs and not skewed merely to support the choice of a specific product.

Manufacturers must talk with the designer to understand what designers really want to accomplish and why. Designers must speak with manufacturers in order to understand the intricacies of the process. Finally, as technology evolves and more innovative solutions for emerging applications or enhanced solutions for existing ones are found, cooperation and collaboration are the keys to optimizing decisions and selections.

Roy Akber

www.rushpcb.com

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