Category Archives: Printed Circuit Boards

Flexible Circuits: Something New For Everyone

As seen in the March issue of PCB007 Magazine:  http://iconnect007.uberflip.com/i/950499-pcb-mar2018/62

Just the other day, I was recording a podcast with Altium discussing flexible circuit cost drivers.  During that discussion, I was asked a question about what I see as a trend in the market.  My first thought was that I am seeing an increase in frequency of questions coming from people that are just new to flex and rigid flex design.  There are enough idiosyncrasies with flex, people are a little unsure and are reaching out with questions.  Around this same time, I had been contemplating what would be a good topic to write about for the New Technology theme of this month’s magazine.  The lightbulb went off, with flex and rigid flex, there is such a range of experience, comfort and skill that most everyone feels they are working with new technology.

Single and Double Sided Flex:

Single layer flex, flex with one layer of copper, is a place many new to flexible circuits start.  This is used when all conductors can be routed on one layer of copper.  This may be replacing wire, solving a packaging problem or even be used for aesthetic reasons in a package that will be visible to the end user.  When circuitry can’t be routed on a single layer, or shielding is needed, the progression is to move to double sided (2 copper layer) flex, or even multilayer flex.

If single and double sided flexible circuits are a new technology for you, material selection can be daunting.  There are many material options to consider, but the predominant material is rolled annealed copper/ polyimide laminate. Within this material type, there are two different options.  Adhesive based, with either acrylic adhesive or flame retardant adhesive or adhesiveless material.  Many single and double sided designs will use the adhesive based materials.  These materials are often less expensive than the adhesiveless version.  Laminates are typically provided with ½ oz. to 2 oz. copper and ½ mil  to 6 mil polyimide.  The most commonly spec’d materials tend to be ½ and 1 oz. copper with 1 mil or 2 mil polyimide and because they are the most common materials, pricing tends be lower and fabricators will often have this material in stock.  Adhesiveless materials are most often recommended for higher layer count flex designs and rigid flex construction.

Rigid Flex:

Rigid flex construction consists of a flexible section and rigid section on the same board.  What differentiates this construction from flex with a stiffener is that plated through holes extend through both the rigid and flexible section.  This construction is most often used when the design requires dense surface mount pads on both sides of the circuit.

If rigid flex is a new technology for you, there are a few key things to keep in mind.  The term “bikini cut” is important.  It is recommended to keep the adhesive within .050” of the edge of the rigid portion of the design.  Adhesiveless flex materials should be used and coverlay should not extend into the plated through areas.  There is a z-axis mis-match between the rigid materials and the adhesive that can impact the reliability of the design.

The simplest version of a rigid flex construction is to keep all plated through holes in the rigid area of the designs.  It is certainly possible to create a rigid flex with plated through holes in the flex regions as well, but this type of design requires additional processing, adding cost to the design.

The flex layers can also be “bonded” or “unbonded”.  If there are several flex layers or flexibility is a concern, one common solution is to eliminate the adhesive between selected flex layers, providing more flexibility to the overall design.  Often times this is confused with bookbinder rigid flex construction.

Bookbinder Rigid Flex

Bookbinder construction has been around for decades, but seems to be regaining popularity in the market.  A bookbinder rigid flex is similar to a hard covered book.  The flex layers are staggered, each flex layer gaining length as it is stacked on the bend so that when the flex area is bent, it does not buckle and create stress on the flex layers.  Bookbinder construction is both labor and engineering intensive and there are only a handful of fabricators that specialize in this construction.

If bookbinder rigid flex is new to you, attention should be given to the variables that need to be considered to allow the proper fit.  It is advisable to add extra length if air circulation is required to keep the flex cool in a high current application rather than tightly nest the layers.  It is also important to plan for the mechanical space this bulge will require in final assembly.  Moving along the technology scale would be dual bend bookbinder rigid flex, which includes multiple bookbinding areas that do not all bend it the same direction causing a hump on both sides of the board.

Additive Process, Sub 1 mil line and space

Using an additive process, rather than a subtractive etch process to form the circuitry, opens up significant advantages in the HDI and fine line market.  The process I am most familiar with uses a special catalytic precursor “ink” that can imaged to create the patterns or areas where conducting metal is to be deposited.  The ink controls the horizontal dimensions of the line width and spacing and the vertical dimension is controlled using an additive plating process that deposits metal only on the patterns defined by the ink.

If this additive process is new technology for you, this is your chance to use your imagination and think outside of the box.  Vias can be drilled prior to the metallization process and are then plated at the same time that the surface conductors are formed, eliminating several process steps. This process can deliver fine lines down to 5 micron in width.    There is a significant advantage to RF designs with this process.  Because the traces are formed with an additive process, the trapezoidal effect from the subtractive etch process is removed.  This process also offers the option of using metals other than copper, which is critical for applications with biocompatibility concerns.

Whether you are new to single and double sided flex, moving into rigid flex construction, thinking of using bookbinder technology, or investigating an additive process, working with new technology can be both exciting and challenging.  My best advice when working with flex and rigid flex is to involve your fabricators as early in the design process as possible.  They work with this technology every day, have an enormous wealth of knowledge and are happy to share and guide designers as they learn and adjust to new technology.

The Power of Flexible Circuits

I have a story to share.  Picture a beautiful, fall day filled with sunshine and warm winds.  Just after dinner a family is out in their yard.  The father and older son are finishing chores before dark and a little boy is playing in the yard with the family puppy.  In a split second that puppy ran into one a thick, dense cornfield and this four year old boy followed, chasing after his favorite pet.  It was one of those split second moments that every parent fears.   If you have ever been in a corn field in the Midwest, you know, your visibility is limited to maybe a row or two in front of you and maybe a row or two to the sides.

It quickly became apparent that this family was going to need help and law enforcement was called.  Within an hour there were 160 trained volunteers from the surrounding communities and a command center was set up.  Ten years ago, this would have been what you would typically think of as a man-hunt with chains of people walking through the fields.  The scene looked significantly different on this fall day.  The command center was able to utilize drones enabled with infrared and heat sensing technology, a helicopter with similar technology to cover a larger area, the GPS from the tractor that planted that field was able to accurately display where each and every stalk of corn was and all 160 of those searchers were able to communicate real-time.

So, why do I tell you this story in a flexible circuit column?  I tell this story, because each of those items just listed contain a flexible circuit.  Our industry accomplishes some pretty amazing things.  We regularly hear that flex and rigid flex is a significantly growing portion of the world wide PCB market but, speaking only for myself, I don’t always take time to really think about the end applications that flex enables.  Let’s look at a few of the known benefits of flexible circuits and what type of products we may interact with that have been, or are being, developed to take advantage of this.

Advantages of flexible Circuits:

Solve Product Packaging Problems:  Flex allows for a 3-axis connection.  It is able to bent and folded around corners eliminating the need for discrete pieces.  It is easy to think of products that take advantage of the space saving benefits of flexible circuits:  portable medical devices such as insulin pumps or heart rate monitors, hearing aids, smart phones and tablets, cameras.  As consumers, we are requiring our electronics to be smaller, lighter and at the same time have increased functionality.  Flexible materials allow designers to meet those demands.

Reduce Assembly Cost:  Flex eliminates hand-wiring and provides additional cost savings when purchasing costs for multiple wiring and component pieces are factored in.  Home monitoring bracelets and wearable electronics are a good example.  The product needs to be light weight and durable, wire and flexible circuits are both options.  A simple flex circuit eliminates time for assembly, purchasing costs and inspection costs by solving the problem with just one unit.

Reduces both weight and volume:  This is a big one.  Bulky wire harnesses and solder connections can be replaced with thin, light weight rigid flex.  It is not uncommon to see studies showing that this savings in weight and space can be near 60%.  Aerospace is a perfect example of an industry that benefits from reduction in weight and volume.  With aircraft, rockets, missiles, etc., weight is an expense.  Any opportunity to reduce weight and space translates to a product that is less expensive to operate.  The fun little TV screens that are being built into aircraft so we are always entertained, lighting systems in the airplane, engine controls, braking systems, are all products that have been able to take advantage of flexible materials.

Dynamic Flexing:  This is easy.  Anything with a hinge!  The one I use every day is my laptop.  Let’s not forget printers, disk drives, cameras, and robotic arms.

Thermal Management:  Flexible dielectrics offer a greater surface to volume ratio than round wire and this extra surface facilitate the heat away from the circuit.  Rigid PCB dielectrics often act as a thermal insulator inhibiting the flow of heat.  One area of significant growth in flexible circuit designs is the LED lighting market.  Automotive and aircraft applications, especially with the combined benefit of lighter weight and improved thermal management, are increasing the usage of flex.  Examples include headlamps, interior lighting, and interior electronics, just to name a few.  One of my favorite applications is LED lights in a pair of high top tennis shoes.  This application is not just your typical shoe that lights up when you walk; this high top was designed with an artistic LED lit pattern throughout the shoe.  It might not be the most high-tech application, but it is eye catching and fun.

Improved Aesthetics and Bio-Compatibility:  Appearance can impact decisions when the end user is exposed to functional elements of the product.   For example, a simple hand-held medical device being used in a doctor’s office had a wire that was visible to the patient.  Although the medical device was working perfectly, patients perception of and confidence in the procedure was not high.  This was traced back to patients not being comfortable with the perception of the wire.  That simple wire was replaced with a very simple flexible circuit, so simple, there were only two traces.  But, by making this simple change, the patient’s perception and confidence in the medical device skyrocketed.

Polyimide is also bio-compatible.  Most often, the polymide material is fully encapsulated before being inserted into the body.  New developments are exciting.  Polyimide laminate with gold, rather than copper traces are fully bio-compatible and being tested as sensors to be implanted into the human body.  This development is also aided by additive technology that allows trace size in the 5 to 10 micron range, significantly shrinking the package size as well.  There are exciting things on the horizon.

Intrinsically more reliable and reduce the opportunity for operator error:  Flexible circuits can significantly simplify the system design by reducing the number and levels of interconnection required.  Because the design is controlled by the artwork, the opportunity for human error is eliminated.   Aerospace is great example.  Spacecraft are subjected to many kinds of dynamic forces, especially during take-off.  In traditional PCB’s these vibrations contribute to failure.  Rigid flex are made to twist and flex and are a benefit in these harsh environments.  Solder joints, crimps, etc., are also at risk for failure in these conditions.  Flexible circuits can remove this concern by eliminating connections.

Yes, our industry has developed so many interesting, life enhancing and lifesaving products and for that we should all be proud to be a part of the growth in this market.  To finish the story I started earlier, this little boy emerged from the field, a little tired, very muddy and mostly angry that he still had not found his puppy.  Guess what.  The person stationed at the edge of the field that spotted him was able to notify his parents and the command center immediately with his cell phone.  Which, yes you guessed it, also contains a flexible circuit.

Contact us if you need any advice or assistance with your flexible circuit needs!

Tara Dunn, Omni PCB

 

Knowledge is Power: Reduce Cost and Shorten Lead Time

“What can I do to help drive cost from my design?”  This is a question that I am asked routinely.  That question is often followed by, “Can I get these faster?”  Both of these questions are even more predominant when talking about flexible circuits or rigid flex.  Flexible circuits are often thought of as a high-priced solution and truly, one wouldn’t design a flexible circuit without needing to utilize that technology for some reason.  That may be space, weight, packaging, flexing requirements or even aesthetics.

I think that most will agree that a quality product that is available when you need it is the primary concern when launching a new design.  But, that said, designing the most cost-effective solution to meet your needs is always going to be critical.  Today, I want to share my top 3 tips for reducing cost and shortening lead-time when working with flex.

Understand your fabricators capabilities:

In today’s fast-paced electronics world, designers and engineers rarely have time to visit a board shop for a facility tour to better understand the circuit board manufacturing process.   In a perfect world, everyone would have a chance to understand not only the basic process steps that these custom built products go through, but also understand the complexities that are involved with specialty products such as sequential lamination, microvias, flex and rigid-flex and even flex and rigid flex WITH sequential lamination and microvias.

In today’s market, there are many companies that manufacture flex and rigid flex.  There is also a significant difference in capabilities across the market.  Some manufacturers specialize in single sided and double sided flex, some in multilayer, some in rigid flex.  Within each of these specialties, there are companies that work with leading edge technology and some that do not.  All are capable of producing quality product.  But, when looking at ways to ensure you are not adding cost to your design, regularly working with your fabricator and understanding their capabilities and sweet spot in the market and then matching those capabilities with the requirements of the design can have a significant impact.

Here are a couple of examples.  First, you are working with two different designs.  One is a single sided flex with .010” line/space.  The second is a complex, 16 layer rigid flex with stacked microvias.  Your approved supplier list consists of three fabricators who offer flex:  Company A manufactures primarily single and double sided designs, Company B manufactures both flex and rigid flex, but typically works with designs that are 10 layers or less and Company C specializes in complex rigid flex.  It can get a little tricky.  It is very likely that the company that will have the best lead-time and pricing for a complex rigid flex will not have the best pricing for the simple flex.  If cost isn’t a factor, it can be easier to order both from the same fabricator, but if cost is a factor, then finding the best fit for each technology level is going to be most cost effective.

The second example has to do with understanding the capabilities matrix for each supplier.  It is important to understand for each supplier that you work with, what is considered standard, advanced and emerging technology.  Using drilled hole size as an example, certain manufacturers consider a .10” drill to be standard and increased costs are incurred at .008”.  With others there is no increase in cost until you reach .006” drill.  This in no way reflects on the quality of the product at each manufacturer, but more reflects their comfort level and their specific cost drivers at a certain level of technology.  Once you understand where those thresholds are, you can thoughtfully weigh the cost vs. benefit of moving beyond the “standard” technology.

Select common materials and materials that are in stock

There are many different types of material available for flexible circuits, and that number grows exponentially when you consider rigid flex construction.  To simplify, using the standard copper/polyimide laminates as an example, the laminate is available in two types, adhesive based and adhesiveless material.  For both types, there are a vast number of combinations of materials.  Copper is typically available in ¼ oz. to 2 oz. copper and polyimide thicknesses typically range from .5 mil to 6 mil.  Sounds great, right?  Absolutely!  But while all of these options are available, it does not mean that they are all commonly stocked at a fabricator or that they are low cost.  The best advice I can give when designing for cost and reduced lead-time is to work closely with your fabricator to develop a stack up.

In general terms, laminates with ½ or 1 ounce copper and 1 or 2 mil polyimide will be less expensive than other combinations.  BUT, cost and lead-time will boil down to the materials that your selected fabricator works with most regularly.  Please don’t spec an adhesive based laminate just because it should be less expensive.  If your fabricator manufactures with more adhesiveless materials (highly recommended for rigid flex), they may be purchasing laminate in enough volume that pricing is reduced and that savings will be passed along to you.  The same thing is true for lead-time, designing with materials that are in stock will eliminate the delays from material lead-time when the prototype is placed and lead-time is critical.

My recommendation is to work with your fabricator for a stack up and be clear about your requirements.  Let them know if materials are not critical and ask that they use commonly stocked materials.  That eliminates all assumptions and will result in the lowest cost, best lead-time scenario.

Communicate clearly in the fab notes

Typically, 75% of flex and rigid flex designs go on hold while being tooled at the fabricator.  A significant portion of those questions that need to be asked stem from unclear fab notes.  An unclear stack up is a very common issue with rigid flex.  Please make sure that you are clearly calling out which layers are flex and which are rigid.   If you have asked for the stack up prior to releasing the design, this is simple to include.  Flex and rigid flex designs can make people unsure and the basics are sometimes over-looked.

Another requirement that can be easily overlooked on the fab notes is the UL requirement.  There are many examples where after failing a burn test and investigating the cause, it is found that the UL requirements are clear in the assembly drawings, but not in the fab notes.  Your fabricator will not necessarily default to UL materials in the absence of the spec and the contract manufacturer will routinely separate the fab notes from the assembly drawings when asking for a flex quotation. Always clearly state any quality requirements in both the assembly drawings and the fab notes.

What do all of these have in common?  I believe the best way to reduce cost and lead-time is work with your fabricator throughout the design process and communicate requirements clearly.  They say experience is the best teacher and they work with new designs every day.  Take advantage of that knowledge!

Mina: Trouble Free Soldering to Aluminum

I always love to hear about interesting new IoT applications. The other day, a friend was explaining a new product he had recently developed, a home-built RFID-based tracking algorithm used to help improve and change how conferences and events are done around the world. Essentially, this tracking system—enabled by RFID tags and card readers—allows event organizers to analyze attendees’ preferences and interests and create personalized recommendations on topics, somewhat like a Netflix recommendation engine. Thinking about the RFID market and the significant growth projected in this market, I decided to do a little research on RFID tag manufacturing. During this research, I learned of a relatively new offering, Mina, an advanced surface treatment technology that addresses the common constraints of large scale manufacturing of Al-PET circuits.

Aluminum on polyester (Al-PET) circuits are becoming more popular and have found wide use in RFID tag and single-layer circuits to reduce cost. However, both aluminum and PET have their own constraints and require special processing to make finished circuits. Aluminum is not easy to solder to at lower temperatures and PET cannot withstand high temperatures. Conventional low-temperature solder cannot be used to attach components to these circuits without additional processing or using conductive epoxies. These add costs, which limit the use of Al-PET circuits. Initially developed to help a customer with a manufacturing cost issue, Averatek has recently developed Mina, which can be applied to the antenna as it is being manufactured on high-speed roll-to-roll lines. The antenna can then be sent to customers who assemble the die and then on to the tag makers. This relatively new surface treatment paves the way for large scale, low cost manufacturing of Al-PET circuits.

Conventional Methods to Assemble RFIDs

Assembly of RFID tags involves mounting of chips onto the pads of the circuit. Although the use of solder is preferred, soldering to aluminum is difficult because of the presence of a thin layer of aluminum oxide. This layer forms when the bare metal is exposed to air. Since the manufacturing of Al-PET substrates is done in atmospheric conditions, all aluminum surfaces are covered with aluminum oxide. While the formation of oxide is self-limiting, its presence prevents the bonding of solder to the base aluminum.

Special processing can be done on pads to remove and prevent the formation of aluminum oxide. These include ENIG, nickel-palladium or nickel-silver plating. These need a series of process steps and extensive wet chemistry, which add costs that make it prohibitive for mass production.

Anisotropic conductive paste (ACP) is a common solution to this problem and is widely used for attaching components to aluminum based RFIDs. It is applied on the face of the chip, which is then attached to the antenna using heat and pressure. However, ACP has its own challenges. It is made of adhesive epoxy filled with conductive metal particles, usually silver. These are typically syringe applied, require longer cure times, have pot-life issues and are electrically inferior to conventional solders. In addition, they must be stored at low temperatures in special freezers to control the polymerization of the epoxy.

Assembly of RFIDs with Mina

Evaluations began last November for Mina. This surface treatment can be printed directly on the aluminum pads where components need to be assembled. Any of the conventional printing techniques can be used including screen, stencil, etc. The aluminum surface does not need any surface cleaning or preparation. Once printed, it is then thermally cured and leaves the pad surface active and ready to accept solder. Cured Mina is non-conductive and makes room for easy printing registration. To attach a component, it simply would need solder on it via plated bumps or printing, placed on a Mina activated pad, and then passed through a re-flow oven. Mina removes the aluminum oxide layer and allows the formation of a true metal-to-metal bond between the solder and the aluminum on the pads.  Both the electrical properties and the bond strength are better than ACP. In addition, Mina can be stored at room temperature and reused multiple times.

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Figure 1: Production and assembly process using Mina.

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Figure 2: Graphic of Mina application.

Benefits of Mina

  • Screen-printed on pads leaving an active, but non-conductive surface
  • Cost-effective as it allows the use of conventional solder and only on pads
  • Mina can be applied to the pads and cured in a conventional, low-temperature oven
  • Solder can be plated or printed on the chip using conventional methods and then reflowed onto the active pads
  • Enables solder to bond directly to aluminum metal, ensuring good electrical properties
  • Has no pot-life issues; Mina can be printed, stored and re-used at room temperature

Given the significant growth projected for the RFID tag market in the next several years, it will be interesting to see how this relatively new advanced surface treatment is adopted into mass production and to see what other markets benefit from enabling the ease of soldering to aluminum.

For more information, please contact us:  www.omnipcb.com  Tara Dunn, 507-332-9932

Flex Material Handling: An inside peek

As more and more designs move to flexible materials to take advantage of space, weight or packaging benefits, it has been clear that flexible circuits require a different set of rules than their rigid counterparts. We spend quite a bit of time working through the design to make sure that the flex is as robust as possible. We also spend quite a bit of time on material selection, again to ensure that the flexible circuit withstands the flexing that will be required and performs properly in the end environment.

One thing we do not often talk about is what happens behind the scenes during the fabrication and assembly of the flexible circuit. What types of special handling considerations are in place throughout the manufacturing process to accommodate these thin materials? When you are auditing a potential new supplier, what things should you be asking about and looking for in their procedures?

Undoubtedly, the largest source of defects in flexible circuit manufacturing can be traced back to material handling. Drawing from my own knowledge and soliciting the expertise of several industry veterans  involved in flex circuit manufacturing—David Moody with Lenthor Engineering, Anaya Vardya with American Standard Circuits, Jim Barry with Eltek and Mike Vinson with Averatek—I have put together an insider’s view of the nuances involved in manufacturing flexible circuits.

Fabrication

Everyone agreed that it is the handling of the thin flexible materials that is the key to the successful manufacturing of flex and rigid-flex designs. A wrinkle, ding or dent in the copper material can easily, and will most likely, cause a defect. In fact, wrinkles are typically the leading cause of defects for trace and spaces errors in process imaging. So, what do fabricators do to mitigate this damage?

Skilled technicians are at the very top of the list. Thin, flexible materials require a unique set of processing parameters and significant time and effort is put into training operators on material handling. The movement of product between process steps is as critical as the precautions that need to be taken during each process.

When moving flexible materials between process steps, transport frames, slip sheets, and trays are required to provide the extra support needed to keep these panels absolutely flat—remember a ding or fold in the material will create a defect. When picking the material up for processing, consideration needs to be given to grasping the opposing corners to keep the panel flat.

Special consideration and handling is also needed when processing. Most equipment is not specifically set up to handle thin core, flexible materials. For example, moving product through the etching process or other conveyorized equipment requires “leader boards” or some type of frame to be taped to both ends of the sheet of flex material to provide stability and prevent the sheet from being caught up in the equipment rollers. If not done carefully, the process of applying the frame or leader and the subsequent process of removing the support structure is also an operation prone to damaging the thin materials.

Prior to wet processing, the panels are in full copper sheets. Once the excess copper has been removed to form the space and trace pattern, the panels are even more susceptible to handling damage. Care is given when creating the panel artwork to leave as much excess copper as possible on the panel. This could be the outer edges of the panel, the outer edges of each array, and between individual parts. It is not uncommon that the need for extra copper to add stability takes priority over the desire to maximize panel utilization.

Dimensionally, flex is far less stable than glass-reinforced rigid boards. The added copper in the panels also helps mitigate the material movement. This material movement creates unique challenges for registration both with coverlay application and in layer-to-layer registration for both multilayer flex and rigid-flex. Each manufacturer has a preferred method for registration and how they set up their tooling pin systems to best fit their processes.

Lamination is another area with unique requirements and special equipment for flex processing, including both lamination plates and specific lamination driver materials. Specialized materials are needed to fill air gaps and provide support through lamination. In the case of very thin core (.0005” polyimide) a base support layer may be needed.

More and more fine line flex circuits, particularly medical and sensor applications, are using extremely thin polyimide substrates with densities requiring additive processing rather than subtractive etch processing. These products are primarily double-sided with one side much more densely plated than the other, using both gold and copper to form traces on 0.0005” polyimide or thinner. Because of this, any plating stress will cause the parts to curl. For routing operations, UV-sensitive tape can be added to the panel to improve stability and support and improve handling.  This technology is similar to what is used in wafer processing. The parts will remain flat until the UV tape is removed. When removing the UV tape, the simple effort of being aware of the direction the material stress will cause curling, and then removing the tape by pulling against that direction, will help minimize the effect.

Assembly

Whether the flexible circuit has just a couple of components and is hand assembled, or the circuits are going to be run through a surface mount process, the number one thing that needs to be taken into consideration is the need to bake the material before subjecting the flexcircuits to high temperatures. Hand assembly is especially prone to defects with flexible materials. This process requires special consideration as to temperature and time and is yet another area that operator training is critical.

Flex circuits (and thin core boards in general) require some support mechanism to run through either wave solder or a reflow process. There are several options to accomplish this. A design with many FR stiffeners may move forward by using an FR4 carrier panel designed to provide stability to the array until assembly is complete and then have the excess FR4 removed, leaving the intended stiffeners. While that is one approach, it is more common to build the flex circuit as a single, individual piece and have a carrier fixture made to transport the circuit through the assembly line. This allows the fabricator to maximize the panel real estate and provide a lower cost unit price for the flex circuit. Carrier tooling is relatively inexpensive and is generally more than off-set by the lower cost flex circuit.

Flexible circuits are certainly a growing segment of the market and require not only special design and material consideration, but special handling throughout the manufacturing process. With material handling cited as the largest cause of yield loss during manufacturing, this is an area with (and for) continuous improvement. We all agree that employee training and on-going education is the key to success. Many facilities specialize in just flex and rigid-flex processing and others have teams dedicated to this product subset, but the common theme is knowledge and specialization. Flexible circuits often have a slightly longer manufacturing lead-time than their rigid counterparts and this is often related to the special handling and processing required for flex. Whether that is extra time in tooling and process planning, extra time during wet process, extra care needed to properly register the layers prone to material movement, or extra care needed during assembly, all special handling is done to maximize yield and provide a robust product to the end user.

Click here to read this blog in The PCB Magazine.

For additional information, contact Tara Dunn.  www.omnipcb.com

A glimpse into PCB Sales

Here is a little sneak peek into the daily life of a PCB sales person.

Prospecting:

sales-quote-there-is-a-chance

Somebody not in PCB sales might get a little laugh, but those of us in the trenches see this and and think, haha, is that me? Yes, it is! It is incredibly hard to get in touch with PCB buyers or designers and when someone answers the phone, we do a little happy dance. THEN if they don’t say “no, thanks”, we are SURE they will one day be a customer. We just have to be patient.

When a customer calls:

thumbnail_sales-quote-there-is-a-problem

I know…..someone is reading this and thinking, “really? The PCB sales people I know like to take long lunches and spend their afternoon’s golfing. They don’t want to help me”. Old stereotypes are hard to overcome. But, I have been in PCB industry a very long time and have had the privilege to get to know many PCB sales people that are very good at what they do. In my opinion that is often because they truly enjoy getting to know their customers and helping to solve problems.

As I was thinking about what I wanted to say about PCB Sales in this column, I thought it would be both interesting and educational to ask both customers and manufacturers their thoughts on PCB Sales. I was pleasantly surprised at the enthusiastic response I received.

Question #1: In your opinion, what traits do good PCB sales people have in common?

From PCB Users:

* A better than average knowledge of PCB construction

* The ability to offer suggestions and solutions when we struggle with a new design and technology need

* Respond quickly when there is a request or issue

* Provide follow up to the details so I don’t have to worry about what is being completed

* Know the line between persistence and annoyance. PCB’s aren’t the only thing on my plate

* Excellent communication skills

* Understands when I call with an issue and helps work with manufacturing or engineering to resolve the issue so I can focus on other things

* Takes the time to learn how we prefer to work and customizes responses to fit as best as possible

* In depth knowledge of the PCB market, new materials, supply issues, etc. and provides information on what might be important to us

Got it: Knowledgeable about PCB’s and the industry, organized, strong communication skills and customer focused.

From PCB Manufacturers:

* Persistence and tenacity to follow thru and listen more than they talk

* In-depth understanding of the customer, how they like to work and what additional business is available

* Respond quickly and thoroughly

* Consistently find new opportunities and new business

* Great follow up, know their customers, aggressive when they need to be and very personable. Did I mention organized?

Got it: Knowledgeable about customer’s needs, organized, strong communication skills and brings in new business. These two lists are actually pretty similar.

Question #2: What do you wish PCB sales people did that they currently don’t, or currently don’t do well?

From PCB Users:

* Advocate for annual cost savings on behalf of the customer. This would foster trust and repeat business

* Understand our systems and market pressures outside of ordering the PCB. There are a lot of different considerations and decisions made that may not be apparent to the PCB manufacturer but are critical to us.

* Proactivity. Offer suggestions for cost or lead-time reductions. We are not the experts in PCB design and would be interested in how we can improve

* Provide the very best price the first time, especially with larger programs. Don’t come back with reduced pricing after I give you feedback. That wastes time and resources for both of us.

Got it: Detailed knowledge of customer’s business and proactively advocate for your customer’s best interest.

From PCB Manufacturer’s:

* Ask for the PO and know how to sell value, not just on price!

* Stop relying on price to differentiate and win the order

* Close more business in a timely manner

* Identify customers that find value in the quality, customer services, and fast response that we offer rather than sell on price.

Got it: Differentiate the manufacturer’s offering so the comparable factor between offers is not price alone. Interesting, this is similar to the message above also; advocate for value of the manufacturer’s strengths with your customers.

Summarizing the feedback from both customers and manufacturer’s, the most successful sales PCB sales people are organized, take a genuine interest in their customer’s needs and business challenges, have a better than average understanding of the PCB industry, fully understand the manufacturer’s strengths and capabilities and have the ability to advocate for both to find the best solution. There is room for improvement by being more proactive in solving your customer’s challenges and in understanding the differentiating value of the manufacturer to sell on total value rather than price.

You will get all you want in life if you help enough other people get what they want. – Zig Ziglar

My closing thought is that it truly is difficult to reach a comprehensive level of understanding of both the customer’s needs and the needs of PCB manufacturing. The information that is easily obtained, is often just skimming the surface of the full picture. Sales people continuously search out opportunities to interact with their customers outside of the conference room. Those relaxed conversations often offer the best glimpses into what people really need from their sales person. There is no roadmap to use, every customer has different needs. If you attend an IPC show, SMTA expo, IPC Designers Council meetings or even Geek-A-Palooza, there is no shortage of sales people trying to increase their technical knowledge and get to know others. I strongly encourage PCB users and PCB manufacturers to do the same. The more we all know about each other’s needs, the stronger the relationships will be for everyone.

Troubleshooting Flex Applications

I imagine that everyone has been in this position at one time or another, despite everyone’s best attempt at creating the perfect design, PCB fabrication and assembly, something goes wrong and the trouble shooting begins.  I had the opportunity to sit down with Ed Knutson, the President/Founder of Dimation, to swap some of our best war stories.  Ed specializes in quick turn assembly and design and I bring the fabrication piece to the discussion.  Our banter back and forth was primarily focused on flexible circuit applications for aircraft and Mil/Aero projects.  I am not sure if that is because of the more stringent requirements for those applications or more likely because that is an industry segment that we both work with regularly.   At the end of our discussion, we concluded that most of the war stories could be traced back to a break-down in communication and often times simply not fully understanding how each piece of the design-fabrication- assembly puzzle fit together.  We want to share a few of our stories and lessons learned.

UL Materials

Aircraft applications typically require materials rated to UL94V-0.  The assembly is complete and the burn test fails.  What happened?  The perfect storm.  When the design files were created for the PCB fabrication and assembly, the UL requirements were noted in the assembly files only and called out by test requirements, not UL 94V-0.  This was an ITAR application, so the PCB fab files were separated from the assembly files and forwarded the flex manufacturer.  Because there were no UL requirements listed on the fabrication notes, the supplier defaulted to their standard materials and the flex was not built with flame retardant materials.  That explains why the final assembly failed the burn test.  Lesson Learned:  Always clearly communicate UL requirements and include the requirement in both the PCB fabrication notes and the assembly notes.

Coverlay

There were many stories along this line, but this one is classic, we have both seen this more than once.  A particular application, on a tiny flex circuit, requires a very tight pad pattern. Standard, adhesive based coverlay, was called out in the stack up.  As the flex manufacturer was setting up the tooling, they asked if that area could be “gang opened” because the tight features would cause fabrication issues when aligning the drilled coverlay.   That is a very common question that I have seen asked and approved hundreds of times.  The designer agreed that would be fine and that pad location was left free of coverlay.  But, once the parts arrived at the assembler and they went to screen print the paste, the area shorted out.  The problem was ultimately solved by using photimageble coverlay to accommodate the tight feature pattern.  Lesson Learned:  Review even the “standard” requests with a critical eye for the next processing steps the flex will see after fabrication.   The size of this particular flex combined with the tight features was the perfect combination to cause an issue with something that is routinely done.

Bend radius

By definition, flexible circuits are designed to bend, fold, and flex during installation and/or use.  That doesn’t mean that the copper will not crack or break when it is overly stressed.  There are two very important things to be aware of.  First, RA (rolled annealed) copper versus ED (electodeposited) copper.  There really is a significant difference in ductility.  With a tight bend radius, or for a dynamically flexing application, specify RA copper.  Second, involve your fabricator.  The flex manufacturer is only going to see the design in a two dimensional view.  They will not know exactly how this is going to be used in your final assembly.  If you are concerned about bend radius or otherwise stressing the copper, ask for their advice.  There are many different “tricks of the trade” that a flex fabricator can recommend to ease the stress on the copper and improve performance.  Use their knowledge!

Array configuration for assembly

It is common knowledge that assembling flex can create challenges.  A lot of trial and error is done to find the best way to handle it.  Flex circuit size, array configuration, component placement and stiffener requirements all play into the decision, which just may be equal parts art and science.  The first decision is whether the assembly will be done by hand or machine.  If the assembly is not done by hand, whether to use a stiffened array or machined pallet needs to be determined.  Here are a few examples:

For a small flex, with a few components on just one side and no stiffener requirements, consider creating a FR4 stiffener pallet with adhesive on the outside perimeter only.  After assembly, the flex can easily be peeled away from the stiffener pallet.  Caution:  a stiffener pallet with adhesive in selected areas only can easily be misunderstood during fabrication.  Make the objective very clear in the fabrication files.

For a long flex with stiffeners, we suggest cross hatching the copper, or adding in a copper pattern to maintain as much of the copper in the array as possible to add stability.  The flex can be pre-routed with tabs left to hold this into the array during assembly.  Once parts have been assembled, simply cut the tabs to release the flex from the array.  Caution:  stencil tolerance over this long length is an issue to be aware of.

A custom pallet is another common choice for assembly, especially when you are running more than a few panels.  Most often this is designed with FR4 material. The benefit to this is stability and flatness during assembly and also the ability to nest the flexible circuits in the tightest configuration possible to reduce the cost of the fabrication.  There is no need to add in extra copper area in the array for stability.

These are just a few of the lessons learned that we have accumulated over time.  I hope that these provide insight and suggestion that will help with your future flex designs, or at the very least, let you commiserate and know that you are not the only one challenged with these types of issues.  Feel free to get in touch and share your stories with us!