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Written by Mike Buetow   
Thursday, 31 July 2008 19:00
Caveat Lector The phone was ringing and it was Phil Marcoux on the line. Believe me, when the man known as the Father of SMT calls, you put down your comic book, take your feet off the desk and snap to attention.

“A group of us want to launch a new movement we call Solder Free Technology. The Occam Process, among others, is part of this effort.”

The Occam Process refers to an embedded component concept introduced by Verdant Electronics’ Joe Fjelstad whereby component leads are interconnected with plated copper and circuit patterns, not solder. Its debut last year led to no small measure of debate, pitting a Who’s Who of industry technologists and inventors against each other. After initial sparks, the back-and-forth banter has finally died down, even if the behind-the-scenes work carries on.

So why is Marcoux, who has spent years developing chip and packaging technology, suddenly publicly picking up the ball? “People are disenchanted with lead-free,” he says. “Medical and military folks are concerned. The disenchantment goes to a serious level. Occam could be a major new inflection point: solder-free technology.” It brings back, Father SMT says, “all these memories insofar as what’s best for the industry regarding commercialization.” And so not long ago, TPL Group, where the eternally youthful Marcoux now spends his days as director of business development, invested in Fjelstad’s other company, Silicon Pipe, and took on the heady task of how to commercialize the process.

TPL is no naive startup slouch. The global firm has spent 20 years in the development, commercialization and management of IP assets, and is known for, among other things, the Moore Processor, a high-speed (1 GHz), low-power (7 mW) design that has been licensed by dozens of companies. TPL is supporting Verdant in securing adequate protection for Occam and assisting in creating a framework for the industry.

The relationship between Marcoux and Fjelstad dates to the early days of SMT. Always on the cutting edge of technology, the pair met when Fjelstad’s company built blind via boards for Marcoux … in 1982. Says Fjelstad of Marcoux, “He sees solder-free technology more or less as I do. Here’s an arguably nascent technology, yet with deep roots dating to 1970s embedded resistor technology and chip-in-board for smart cards: all these things have been laid out before. However, everyone kept focusing on bare die, which are troublesome in terms of yield. It is more practical and beneficial to use packaged devices when eliminating solder, and the potential benefits are many.”

“TPL is extremely interested in green technology,” Fjelstad adds. “They have a number of technologists busy advancing the cause.”

Work moves on, with efforts underway in the US, Japan, Europe and Brazil to prove out the process. With Marcoux by his side, Fjelstad remains a pragmatic optimist.

“We’re seeing CSP and BGA pitches get down to 0.3 mm, which means 0.2 and 0.1 are not too far off. Can printing and soldering processes get us there?” he asks rhetorically.

A shot in the arm. We have noted in this space our expectation that large and niche Asian EMS companies would take advantage of the economic situation to buy up certain manufacturing sites on the cheap from their North American counterparts. Despite the falling dollar and skyrocketing logistics costs, this prediction has been realized only sporadically. However, as we went to press, Foxconn began work on what will be a 3 million sq. ft., 20,000-employee campus west of Juarez. That news comes just one month after a Foxconn subsidiary purchased two of rival Sanmina-SCI’s PC assembly plants, one in Guadalajara. While it’s doubtful domestic EMS firms seeking any measure of price stability consider this a welcome sign, it should send a wakeup call to competitors like Flextronics, which laid off a big chunk of its advanced manufacturing team in July, not to mention boosting the near-term growth potential of the North American SMT industry.

Transitions. Alden Johnson, the popular longtime MPM/Speedline Technologies chemical and metallurgical engineer, died July 8 at age 64. Alden was a printing guru, and co-inventor of a process for printing encapsulating material through a stencil. He retired from Speedline about four years ago, after which he performed some work for Transition Automation and attended to his family farm. We wish his family and friends the best in this trying time.

 

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