Patents, Home and Abroad

The annual review of the world’s patent filings always tells an interesting story.

Some 2.9 million applications were filed in 2015, up 7.8% year-over-year. China led with 1.01 million filings, followed by the US (526,000) and Japan (454,000), reports the World Intellectual Property Organization.

But … (when it comes to China there’s always a big but) … only 4% of China’s applications were outside their own borders, while 45% of US applications were filed abroad.

Computer technology (7.9% of the total) saw the highest percentage of published patent applications worldwide, followed by electrical machinery (7.3%) and digital communication (4.9%), WIPO reports.

WIPO doesn’t indicate why Chinese inventors are by and large choosing only to protect their claims in-country. Here are some possible reasons:

1. The US requires that inventors obtain a “foreign filing license” before filing foreign patent applications on inventions that occur in the US.  “This allows the government to assess, for example, whether the technology could threaten US national security,” says Dennis Crouch, a professor at the University of Missouri School of Law and co-director of the Center for Intellectual Property and Entrepreneurship.

2. China, on the other hand, requires inventors to first file domestically, where it will then determine whether the invention needs to remain secret for security or other purposes. Only then is the inventor allowed to submit an application abroad.

In summary, domestic firewalls in the world’s two largest markets could well be hampering outsiders.

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Apple to US a Supply Chain Hurdle

It was, to paraphrase Homer, the headline that launched a thousand blogs: “Apple Could Make iPhones in US in Future: Sources.”

Cue all the breathless op-eds.

It won’t happen.

Not because Apple doesn’t care about the US. And not because Tim Cook, struggling as mightily as any billionaire could to fill the shoes of Steve Jobs, has something against American workers.

But it’s simply not that simple.

In 2013, to great acclaim, Google opened a handset plant in Dallas, where it hoped to employ nearly 4,000 workers, proving once and for all America could compete in high-volume cellphone manufacturing.

Not two years later, the search giant shuttered the site.

Almost all the components used in the various Apple iPhones are made in Japan, Korea, Taiwan or China. For the geographically challenged, that’s an ocean way from the US. Manufacturing is a supply-chain business; no company makes everything themselves. And most of Apple’s suppliers are foreign-owned. Apple is not exactly known for its generosity. Those suppliers won’t be willing to spend the billions it would take to relocate just to keep what in some cases is not much better than break-even business.

Even the unnamed source for the initial Nikkei Asian Review report acknowledges that Foxconn would be hit by a sharp rise — perhaps 50% — in production costs. “Making iPhones in the US means the cost will more than double,” the source said.

The notion, especially, that Taiwanese stalwarts Foxconn and Pegatron would suddenly build giant factories in the US is far-fetched as well. Remember that $40 million investment Foxconn said it would make a couple years ago? Pennsylvania is still waiting.

Indeed, they are likely salivating at the possibility of new US trade barriers, even for a key customer like Apple. Why? Because Apple’s gross profit margin is breaching 40%, while those of their ODM suppliers are around 10% or less. With the design, manufacturing and supply chain knowledge so firmly in the hands of the ODMs, should events conspire to make Apple slide, they are well-positioned to pick up the slack.

 

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M&A Activity is About Connected Cars

Regardless of how fast autonomous vehicles become mainstream, the connected-car is on the verge of reality.

The Siemens-Mentor deal announced yesterday is a prime example of one conglomerate’s desire to capitalize on the prospective market for connected technologies, which is projected to reach $100 billion or more in the coming decade. Another, less-publicized M&A also underscored this emerging trend.

Samsung announced it will buy Harman International, a deal that should accelerate the Korean OEM’s drive into the connected technologies market.

Harman is a major supplier of automotive electronics: its audio, infotainment, and connected safety and security systems are already in 30 million vehicles worldwide. In exchange for its $8 billion investment in Harman, Samsung will now have close ties to all the largest automakers around the globe.

From the USA Today:

The primary motivator for Samsung’s purchase of Harman is to tap into its automotive business,” said Jack Wetherill, senior market analyst at Futuresource Consulting. “This is absolutely about the connected car. Harman are major players in this business and Samsung are not. They know they need to get into it to leverage their IoT (Internet of Things), their smart home and smartphone businesses to effectively spread, develop and maximize their revenues and potential.”

What this all says is that despite the emergence of ride-share services like Uber and Lyft and Didi Chuxing, coupled with millennial angst about car ownership, no one sees the auto market shrinking any time soon.

The implication of that, then, is that there will be an equally — or perhaps even larger — opportunity for those that invest in smart infrastructure. After all, despite all the bells, whistles and Internet access, the role of the car is still to get the passenger from point A to point B as quickly and safely as possible.

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Mentor’s Final Sale

In the end, Paul Singer did what Carl Icahn couldn’t: Got Mentor sold.

Singer, the hedge fund manager known for taking large positions in companies and pushing for tough changes, breakups or sales, started accumulating shares of the EDA CAD company earlier this year. In September, it was revealed that his company Elliott Management, had bought up 8.1% of Mentor’s stock. Elliott immediately started lobbying for changes.

For Mentor, it could have seemed like a recurring bad dream. The company had been through this before, starting six years ago, when Carl Icahn, himself a famed corporate raider, began acquiring shares and issuing accusations of waste throughout the organization.

Icahn’s relationship with Mentor was public and acrimonious. Soon others joined the fray. Everything went under the microscope, from spending on marketing to the personal wealth of the directors. CEO Wally Rhines came under attack for pocketing $65 million from Mentor while the company generated only $113 million in free cash between 2001 and 2011. Icahn even offered to buy the company outright for $1.9 billion, a figure Mentor’s board dismissed as too low.

The board, however, couldn’t outright avoid Icahn and the others, who at their peak owned more than 20% of the company. Instead, they executed a “poison pill” amendment to its bylaws, making a hostile takeover more expensive and risky.

Icahn managed to land three directors on Mentor’s board but never affected the breakup or sale he had hoped for. Mentor bought back half his shares in February for $146 million, and he sold the last of his holdings in May.

Icahn certainly made a pile of money off Mentor. It took Singer, however, to fundamentally change the trajectory of the company.

Upon Elliott’s announcement, Mentor charted a different course. Instead of waging another attempt to fend off the barbarian at the gate, this time it signed on with Bank of America as an advisor to a possible sale. The deal with Siemens came quickly thereafter.

Singer’s stance was Mentor was undervalued by 20%. The price Siemens is paying — $4.5 billion — suggests even he was low.

Siemens was never a stretch as a suitor. As far back as 2011, we suggested the German conglomerate was one of a few companies that made sense to possibly acquire Mentor.

For some involved, the deal completes a circle. Mentor will become part of Siemens PLM, whose president Tony Hemmelgarn is a former Integraph executive. In fact, he was director of sales and marketing when the company spun off its Electronics Division into a wholly owned subsidiary known as VeriBest. Mentor then acquired VeriBest for $19 million in 1999.

It does spell the end to Mentor after 35 years as a standalone company. Founded by a trio of Tektronix engineers — Tom Bruggere, Gerry Langeler and Dave Moffenbeier — in 1981, Mentor added the PCB division through a merger with CADI in 1983. (Just after, Mentor hired the legendary John Cooper, who with partner David Chyan eventually developed the first shape-based router.)

In all likelihood this also means an end to Wally Rhines’ 23-year tenure as head of Mentor. He will be remembered as a steady leader during a period of great upheaval and M&A in EDA. On his watch, Mentor’s revenues grew from $340 million to nearly $1.2 billion. That’s a pretty darn good run.

Less clear is how the rest of the industry will react. Siemens gives Mentor exceptionally deep pockets, a buffer against meddling shareholders, and an extensive market for technology both as a customer and to partner with. The focus on “concept to system” just got a big boost.

By comparison, on the PCB side, the door has been slammed shut on one of the exit strategies for Cadence and Altium. Dassault has been rumored to be kicking the tires on Altium; this could trigger a move. Will PTC, which shares a Boston area neighborhood with Cadence, be compelled to act as well in order not to get shut out of ECAD? As one longtime industry observer noted to me recently, “It’s about the form factor.” OEMs want to design product in its entirety, not in silos of electrical, electronics, mechanical and wire harness. Given that, it’s a safe bet the M&A in ECAD won’t stop with this deal.

 

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There’s Gold in Copper

Copper prices have jumped 25% in the past month, much of the gains coming in the past week. Can it last?

Analysts are mixed. While most agree that pricing is well above the level its fundamentals suggest it should trade at, some feel better news from China and an expected boon for infrastructure spending in the US will increase demand over time.

Others think the speculation is overblown.

 

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7 Cost Reduction Design Tips For Makers

As a maker, you really need a decent price, with good quality and good service. Contrary to what many people think, you don’t need to look outside of North America for this. You can keep your gaze west of the Atlantic and east of the Pacific.

Like everything else in the modern world, design decisions can have a pretty big impact on your cost. So, let’s take a look at seven design decisions that can make your manufacturing more affordable.

Accept longer lead times. Lead times are one of the biggest factors in electronics manufacturing. Businesses can turn a kitted assembly job overnight, but it costs a lot of money to do that. When you can, a 20-day turnaround that is much more affordable. Accepting longer lead times on PCB fab will drop your cost as well.

Avoid leadless packages Like QFNs and BGAs. Screaming Circuits builds tons of QFN and BGA boards, even down to 0.3 mm pitch micro-BGAs. That’s great if you need those packages. However, since all of the leads are underneath, we have to x-ray every part. That adds a bit of cost to the process. If you can, stick with TSSOPs and other parts with visible leads.

Use reels and continuous strips. To save costs, use full or partial reels or continuous strips of at least 12″ long.

Stick with surface mount. These days, through-hole components tend to be hand soldered. That costs more than machine assembly, so use surface mount wherever possible. Surface mount components tend to be less expensive than through-hole, too. If you do need a few through-hole parts, this is an opportunity to put in a little sweat equity by soldering the through-hole yourself and save a bit of money.

Keep surface mount parts on one side. Putting surface mount parts on both sides of the PCB is a great way to better utilize space. However, if cost is more of a concern, and you only have a few parts to put on the back side, it may be more cost effective to move them to the top side. If you’ve got a lot of parts, the additional cost for assembling both sides may be less than the cost for the extra board size, but with a small number of parts that’s probably not the case. Quote it both ways and see which is less expensive.

Panelize small boards. Sticking with a larger size makes the job easier, and, again, creates extra savings. If your board is smaller than 16 sq. in., panelize it.

Save on start-up costs. Just the act of starting out can pretty much break the bank. Software like PCB123 offers full-featured PCB CAD systems you can get free of cost.

By following these guidelines, you can get a decent price and quality service.

Duane Benson 

 

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Straightforward Explanation of MIL-I-46058C for Conformal Coatings

During your selection of conformal coating you ran in to a specification that you have seen before but not fully understood.  Conformal coating choices are vast, but with so many available, how does a user pick the correct one? Are there minimum standards that define what a conformal coating is supposed to do? Thankfully, yes there are. This column will focus on one such standard: MIL-I-46058C.

The official title for the specification is MIL-I-46058C, “Insulating Compound (For Coating Printed Circuit Assemblies).” The standard serves as a material standard, used to evaluate and document that a particular coating meets a list of specific performance attributes (more on those later). MIL-I-46058C was developed to define a uniform set of test methods and performance requirements for conformal coatings and gives users confidence that the material they select will perform.

MIL-I-46058C is managed by the Defense Logistics Agency (DLA).

DLA manages the standard and maintains the associated Qualified Products List (QPL). For a coating to be placed on (and stay on) the QPL, it must be tested annually by a DLA-certified laboratory. The data are reviewed annually by DLA to ensure that each coating proposed for inclusion on the QPL still meets the requirements of the standard. The latest version of the Qualified Products List is available from www.dscc.dla.mil.

MIL-I-46058C evaluates conformal coatings to an extensive list of properties. The tests are:

  1. Curing time and temperature: Coating must meet the requirements of the standard when cured according to the manufacturer’s instructions.
  2. Appearance: When cured per manufacturer’s instructions, coating should be smooth, homogenous, transparent, free of bubbles, pinholes, etc.
  3. Coating thickness: The recommended coating thickness shall be 1-3 mils for acrylic, urethane and epoxy coatings; 2-8 mils for silicone coatings; 0.5-0.7 mils for parylene coatings.
  4. Fungus resistance: The coating cannot support the growth of fungus.
  5. Insulation resistance: The average insulation resistance of all coated specimens shall be a minimum of 2.5 x 1012 ohms, with no specimens having a measured value below 1.5 x 1012 ohms.
  6. Dielectric withstanding voltage (DWV): Coated specimens subjected to 1500 VAC for 1 minute shall exhibit no disruptive electrical discharge (spark over, flashover or breakdown). The measured leakage current shall not exceed 10 microamperes.
  7. Q (Resonance): The resonance values for the coating, measured before and after immersion in DI water, must not change beyond specified limits.
  8. Thermal shock: Coating materials are subjected to 50 cycles of thermal shock. After thermal shock, coating must meet the Appearance and DWV requirements.
  9. Moisture resistance: The insulation resistance of the coating is measured under high temperature and humidity and must meet minimum specified values. After temperature / humidity exposure, the coating must meet the appearance, insulation resistance and DWV requirements.
  10. Flexibility: Coating is applied to a test substrate, cured per manufacturer’s instructions and bent 180° over a 0.0125” diameter mandrel. There shall be no evidence of cracking, crazing or adhesion loss of the coating.
  11. Hydrolytic stability: Coated specimens are subjected to four 28-day exposure of 85°C / 90% RH. After this exposure, the coating can show no evidence of softening, chalking, blistering, cracking, tackiness, adhesion loss or reversion to liquid state. The coating must also remain transparent enough to view nomenclature and color codes used to identify the components over which the coating is applied.
  12. Flame resistance: Coating shall be self-extinguishing and non-burning when subjected to a flame test.
  13. Shelf life: Coating must meet appearance, insulation resistance and DWV when tested after storage for six months at 25°C.

MIL-I-46058C was declared “inactive” in November 1998. This deactivation meant the standard was “inactive for new designs, except for replacement purposes.” This certainly does not mean MIL-I-46058C disappeared from the landscape. Today, MIL-I-46058C persists for coating users and specifiers due to its requirement for independent third party certification and remains the only published conformal coating standard with an associated QPL.

Caution!  As a user you have many choices of conformal coatings. Many materials claim to “meet the requirements’”of MIL-I-46058C. These are coatings have probably not been fully tested to the rigorous standard required to obtain and maintain MIL-I-46058C qualification. Treat these coatings with caution: “meets” does not mean “is” on the QPL. There is only one way to verify this and that’s through the DLA website.

The conformal coating selection process involves a check list of many variables. One of these variables is the need for MIL-I-46058C qualified coating. We hope that this article helps you understand not only how to find such a coating, but also what is behind this qualification.

Jeff Sargeant
www.humiseal.com

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As We Were Saying

And in today’s headlines from India:

  • Foxconn Likely to Shy Away from $5 bn Investment in Maharashtra“: “Although the world’s largest contract electronics manufacturer — which makes Apple’s iPhone and iPad — had entered into a pact with the state government in August last year, the company is yet to start its production unit in the ‘absence’ of customers.”

As we were saying

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Simple Recipe to Avoid Conformal Coating Blush

Your conformal coating film is supposed to be clear and transparent, but it’s cloudy-white and dull … it’s blushing. This condition is an indication that your coating film is trying to tell you something, and it isn’t that it’s embarrassed.  This blog will help you better understand why your conformal coating film is blushing from acquired moisture contamination and help you eliminate this defect.

Coatings appear cloudy because they have inadvertently acquired moisture, either due to their hygroscopic nature or by artificial means (a cooling mechanism created by solvent evaporation), which then reacts negatively with the coating resin –  exhibiting itself as a milky, colloidal-type substance.  Many different types of conformal coating chemistries can be sensitive to blushing under certain circumstances.  These circumstances are usually related to specific ambient conditions, application, cure, condition of the assembly/substrate/associated components, storage environment and/or equipment under use.

blush-conformal-coating-example

These conditions include:

  • High humidity, ~70% or higher
  • Low (or cooling) temperatures, ~16oC or below
  • Assemblies and associated components exposed to ambient moisture during storage prior to coating, can significantly increases the chance of blushing.  To overcome this, baking is often recommended. Not baking your boards after cleaning is a prime source of moisture uptake into assemblies
  • Storage conditions (opened containers, inside pressure pot, RH resident in the charging gas of the application equipment) and interaction with moisture already on the assembly.

blush-conformal-coating-example-1

In conjunction with this variety of circumstances, certain solvent-borne chemistries can aggravate this condition due to the fast evaporation of internal solvents.  This creates a cooling mechanism as they volatize from the film.  This cooling mechanism will condense any moisture vapor that may be present in the immediate atmospheric area.

High solids, low volatile room temperature vulcanized, or UV conformal coatings (with secondary moisture cure functionality) may also show some degree of “blush.” They are more sensitive, possibly hygroscopic, to the presence of ambient moisture vapor as this is utilized to activate their primary or secondary curing mechanisms.

Problems that can be created due to moisture vapor intrusion/blushing:

  • Surface tackiness/incomplete cure
  • Below standard aesthetic quality
    • Coating discoloration
    • Poor gloss retention
  • Poor adhesion
  • Wrinkling during second coat application/over-coating.

Here are some simple steps to start with … DIY:

  • Maintain nominal ambient humidity in the production environment between 45% and 65%.
  • Maintain nominal ambient temperature in the production environment between 18oC and 27o
  • Increasing the flash time between coating application and cure may help, as moisture vapor in the wet film may have the potential to re-evaporate
  • Use different thinner to change evaporation rate.
  • Use desiccated air/nitrogen to push coating through applicator
  • Post-bake assemblies after aqueous wash (if applicable) to eliminate any entrapped (under or between components) moisture.
  • Ensure that all partial containers are properly sealed when stored. Nitrogen purge in partially used container helps to eliminate moisture.

We hope that this helped you understand what blushing is, how it occurs, and how to prevent/alleviate it from occurring.  Remember that moisture is the root cause of cloudy or blushing conformal coating.  With many potential sources of moisture contamination, following our simple recipe will lead you back to a crisp, clear, and transparent film, and zero defects.

Nick Naumovic

www.humiseal.com

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Fab Drawings or Assembly Drawing Standards?

It’s not always possible to have all of the information needed for a successful PCB assembly printed on the blank PC board. When this is the case, we ask for an assembly drawing – like I suggest here. But what about things that are important at the PCB fabrication stage rather than at assembly.

That’s where the fab drawing comes in.

One of the problems with this system is that the “standards” for fab and assembly drawings are only loosely adhered to, if you can call them standards at all. If in doubt, label the fab drawing “Fab drawing” and the assembly drawing, “Assembly drawing.” That may seem obvious, but in the wide world of technology, obvious too often is anything but.

benson-oct25

(image from xkcd.com)

Clearly label anything that the fab shop needs that isn’t obvious from the Gerber files, make a PDF, and label it “Fab drawing.pdf.” Do the same for any assembly information and instructions and label it “Assembly drawing.pdf.” If information is needed by both the fab shop and us, the assembler, put it in both drawings.

We recently had a case where a component polarity wasn’t marked on the board or in the assembly drawing, but was in the fab drawing. We do our best to catch such things, but it ads a bit of ambiguity to the process. If you’ve been reading this blog before, you’ve likely picked up that I do not like ambiguity. I do not like it one bit.

Duane Benson
Vote for clarity! Kick ambiguity out to the street

http://blog.screamingcircuits.com

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