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Peter BigelowOld fabrication equipment never dies. It keeps getting reengineered for the future.

How far can you push the envelope? I have asked myself that question for years as I watch the advancement of technology and the fabricated PCBs that anchor that technology. And just when it appears a new and insurmountable challenge has come along, our industry devises a creative solution that catapults us even further ahead.

So, I continue to wonder. I have seen processes and equipment developed when 12/12 spacing was cutting-edge honed and dialed in to reliably produce 2/2 spacing. Drilling equipment that once could drill no smaller than 12 mil holes now regularly forms holes half that diameter. “High aspect” was once defined as 5:1. Now 10:1 is low aspect. All this on old equipment. Install the latest generation of equipment and capabilities exponentially improve.

But equipment alone has not enabled ongoing advancement. Materials and supplies have pushed far beyond what anyone thought possible even a few short years ago. Chemistry viscosity, film stability and laminate capability went hand-in-hand to enable digital complexity, signal speed and thermal management that exceeds the wildest dreams of our industry pioneers. The creative new materials being developed, refined, and launched into production are equally impressive. Creativity is alive and well in our industry.

And creativity itself is what separates our industry from so many others. It’s the secret sauce that has continually enabled the envelope to be pushed to extremes. We produce commercially viable advanced technology, melding basic additive and subtractive plating with photolithography and drilling processes. Our industry possesses some of the most creative minds, which in turn creatively reengineer legacy manufacturing processes and materials to produce the wow! of advanced technology.

Just how far can existing processes and materials go before they are unable to propel PCB technology forward? That is in some ways the more interesting question. Tech pundits for decades have predicted gloom and doom for PCBs. The predictions have had nothing to do with geo-economic shifts or capital investments (or the lack thereof). Instead, the dire observations have centered on the belief it is impossible for lithography, plating and CNC machining processes to produce product sufficiently small, thin, dense, or flexible to support tomorrow’s technology. Said pundits also frequently jump on the bandwagon of the current hot paradigm-changing disruptive technology, often prematurely inaugurating it the path to the future. So far, all have failed to obsolete the tried-and-true printed circuit board.   

The reason so many would-be disruptive technologies have not displaced printed, plated and machined PCBs yet is because of the creativity of the incumbent technology’s supply chain, which takes aspects of the new and incorporates them into existing systems.

Take printed electronics. It certainly has a place in the industry, but has not displaced traditional printed circuit boards, as was initially predicted. However, technologies utilized in the printing of printed electronics, especially nano inks, have contributed dramatically to the economic viability of inkjet printing to apply solder mask, letter screen and serialization printing, and replaced manual processes traditionally performed via silkscreen.

Same with 3-D printing. Often heralded as the crucible that will obsolete the printed circuit, 3-D printing hasn’t taken off. 3-D printing software has enabled other applicable improvements, however. The ability for software to merge differing dimensional data to create a part has enabled equipment manufacturers to utilize and harness similar approaches to connect varied equipment throughout a PCB facility to share electronic “tooling” data. Such examples of harnessing aspects truly helpful to improve more traditional manufacturing processing continue to demonstrate the creative side of our industry, while holding at bay less-viable alternatives.

That may be the key: viability. New technologies often razzle and dazzle with what they could do, but too often harsh reality sets in when the accountant balances the ledger, and economic viability extinguishes the new. The wow! factor is great, but if the cost of what is being made is greater than the value the technology creates, that wow! quickly becomes whoa!

Creative minds often are at their best when they see an emerging technology and can discern where the true value of that technology is, verses where the non-value cost drivers are, then quickly utilize only the features that add value to improve existing and reliable processes, products and materials. It may be less revolutionary, but evolutionary change has been, and continues to be, the hallmark of our industry and why it continues to produce the most viable mix of technology and value.

Evolution often is what is necessary to catapult a revolutionary concept or technology, so it can – eventually – be a new paradigm. Consider the evolution of lasers in our industry. They were introduced to create microvias when that market was in its infancy. The cost was as prohibitive as the need was minimal. Laser technology – viable laser technology – however, morphed into other aspects of manufacturing. Lasers for depanelization and laser direct imaging emerged as viable processes. The exposure throughout the industry resulted in significant volumes of equipment sold, which reduced the cost. As more lasers were used, more applications the technology could be used on were identified. Today, lasers are a mainstay of our manufacturing equipment arsenal.

Creative minds harnessing the latest technology to continually improve capability have successfully kept our industry on the cutting edge. How much more can we push the envelope we call printed circuit boards? I don’t know, but I’d bet much further!

Peter Bigelow is president and CEO of IMI Inc.; pbigelow@imipcb.com. His column appears monthly.

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