Nothing revealed shook the industry, but after a year of natural disasters, that was a good thing.

If Productronica is, as many believe, the bellwether for the printed circuit board industry’s health, 2012 should shape up better than most prognosticators are currently forecasting. Although the annual Internepcon and JPCA Show in Tokyo are larger, at least in attendance, Productronica remains the de facto prism through which the industry is observed.

Traffic at the biennial trade show in Munich was busier than in 2009, with event organizer Messe reporting attendance up 34% to about 34,000. That’s still below 2007, when it was a reported 40,000, but welcome news nevertheless. Traffic was slow on the first day, but very busy the next two, before tapering on the final day.

Compared to 2009, the physical show itself seemed smaller – and this is relative, as it remains bigger than almost all the other major electronics assembly trade shows combined – with traditional powerhouses like Siemens, Universal Instruments and other placement companies occupying booths that, while they would still qualify as monstrous at any other show, no longer fill entire halls on their own. (This is a good thing.)

For its part, Messe reported the total exhibit space was larger, but we think it was dissembling; several large lounges on the show floor were there to fill holes. Plus, we recall when the U-Bahn stopped at both entrances of the massive New Munich Trade Fair Center; this year, the East entrance to the hall was no longer needed.
Productronica is shaping up primarily as an assembly and test show, with roughly one of its halls devoted to fabrication and bits and pieces of other industries (backend packaging, plastics, solar, EMS) mixed in. Most equipment advances seen were evolutionary, with incremental improvements in speed and accuracy. There were perhaps a dozen EMS companies, mostly Germany-based. Most are heavy into serving the industrial end-markets. All but one suggested that 2012 would be flat. For additional color, we were looking forward to the CEO roundtable late Tuesday morning, but as it turned out, the event was held in German. Verflucht!

Material Issues

Comments regarding low-Ag solders were cheap and plentiful. Most solder vendors agree that, despite the lower cost, assemblers find having to perform yet another round of alloy testing a turnoff. Moreover, there are questions over the applications for which they are best suited. Europe is pushing for nonflammable alternatives to freezer sprays. Europe and the US are not in sync when it comes to MSDS standards. Europe has standardized on a form, while the US is coming under fire for failing to do the same. AIM showed its NC258 no-clean solder paste, which debuted earlier last year. Electrolube displayed an array of new sprays and coatings, many driven by REACH requirements. Likewise, Henkel had a new paste and flux, the Pb- and halogen-free Multicore HF200 solder and halogen-free, no-clean MF390HR flux, and two new adhesives: Ablestik ICP-3535M1, a single-component electrically conductive adhesive and ICP-400, a conductive silicone. Senju rolled out the M40 line of low-Ag paste, but a representative said its industry outlook for 2012 is poor.

DEK president Michael Brianda said the company continues to develop dispensing technology that supports the printer for customers that do not need a dedicated high-volume dispenser. (See the full interview at Speedprint added a glue and paste dispenser to its SP 710 printer.

Asymtek named as president Peter Bierhuis, formerly president of March Plasma. PVA showed a pneumatic pump, DPCC, said to reduce air pressure on the conformal coating fluid reservoir and thereby prevent bubbles from forming. It can be installed on the new PVA6000 coater and dispenser. They also mentioned a trend toward solvent-based conformal coatings and higher flow underfill. Ersa debuted the F1 screen and stencil printer.

Placement OEMs are always the highlight of Productronica, and none of them would consider skipping this show. Juki showed several new machines, including the KE-3010, a high-speed placement machine capable of 80,500 cph per IPC-9850, and the KE-3020V, which handles everything from 01005 to 50 x 150mm and 75 sq. mm parts. Assembléon debuted a multifunctional platform called the iFlex, which potentially would compete with the Yamaha lines it has for years distributed. For its part, Yamaha has been gearing up to establish a direct US and Europe sales and service presence, hiring staff (including GM Scott Zerkle, formerly of
Assembléon) and developing a new North America channel with one of its longtime Asian distributors, Transtech. Samsung showed its new SLM 110 Smart LED mounter, a dual-head machine with a patent-pending feeder. Universal debuted its latest Genesis pick-and-place machine, GC-120Q.

Ersa released two soldering lines, including the small-sized EcoSelect 1 selective soldering machine, and a hybrid rework system, the HR600. IBL showed several vapor phase machines, including a new inline model, the CX600. SMT-Wertheim showed its QP-L-Plus reflow oven. Vitronics has sorted out its production; wave machines are being made in China, reflow in US, and selective in Netherlands.

There was at least one potentially significant cleaning advancement: Speedline Technologies introduced its first batch cleaner, the Aquastorm 50, which uses patent-pending technologies common to the Aquastorm 100 and 200 inline cleaners to deliver dynamic energy to the board. The system’s rinse control reportedly guarantees desired board conductivity, and the drying technologies dry product to 0.1g of prewash weight. It is expected to be introduced in the US this quarter and elsewhere in the June quarter. Aqueous Technologies CEO Mike Konrad revealed 85% of its customers are cleaning no-clean flux. Zestron introduced Vigon N, a flux residue cleaner. After attending graduate school and spending several years running its US operations, Zestron CEO Harald Wack has settled back in Germany with no issues. Kyzen debuted the E5321 alkaline cleaner for pallets and general maintenance.

BPM Microsystems’ Model 4800 automated device programmer line can now program 36 devices concurrently, including all types of flash memory. Data I/O had its RoadRunner 3 automated inline chip programmer, which connects to MES or other shop-floor control and ERP software, including Aegis, with whom Data I/O just inked an agreement.

Goepel’s Opticon 3D x-ray  offered real-time multi-angle image recording at test speeds of 40cm²/s. Meanwhile, the Opticon AOI can handle up to 32 devices under test simultaneously using a top camera and bottom-side scanner. Viscom mentioned its Europe and North America markets have been strong. The company is marketing Viscom as the sole inspection company that covers all test gates, from wirebond to assembled component. Mirtec exhibited its latest benchtop enhancement, the MV-3 AOI, featuring one top-down and four angled 10 MP cameras. Vitrox showed the 510XL x-ray, which handles maximum board sizes of 610 by 610mm (24 x 24"). Dage debuted X Plane technology, a software tool that mixes certain component adjustments, retrofits and new software in order to separate the component package, wirebond and board layers to reveal voids and other hidden defects. While solder volume characterizations are not possible, it was suggested they are potentially not far away. A rumor began, then subsided, over Koh Young’s patents on dual lighting. The patents have been challenged in several nations as being overly broad. Koh Young reports courts in Korea and China have upheld the patents, however. DJ Tech, the Japanese AOI company, showed a 2D/3D SPI. Acculogic had the Flying Scorpion FLS980 DXi double-sided probe tester.

Etek Europe has moved into its new $1 million headquarters. The Scotland-based distributor has added 14 staff in the past 18 months and is adding a demo room and possibly IPC training. It also has registered Etek USA. Managing director Mike Nelson did not sound like Etek will come to the US in the near term, but it could be on the horizon.

Rise of the Robots

The PCB fabrication exhibits have shrunk over the years and are now down to about one hall (although exhibitors were spread over two, intermingled with large lounge areas and contract assemblers). Like the (much bigger) assembly sections, exhibitors felt Tuesday’s traffic was slow, but Wednesday and Thursday were strong. Ten years ago, Productronica featured lots of large plating and develop/etch/strip lines and lamination equipment designed for large and heavy backplanes. Meanwhile, machines shown at the CPCA Show in Shanghai could fit in a shoebox. That equation has completely flipped: Productronica is now characterized by ample models of small-scale prototype and batch production equipment. Still, the number and quality of lines far outpaces that of all other Western shows (namely IPC Apex/Expo). Notable for its absence was Hitachi, the world’s largest PCB drill supplier. Nor did we see any laser drills onsite.

In the fabrication halls, robotics were the rage. Around 2000, sensors seemingly overnight showed up in almost all equipment. We witnessed perhaps the beginning of a similar surge in robotics: Several systems had robotic arms or handlers, including Kuttler’s Cleanline loader.

Most major laminate and material vendors were there, including Kingboard, Isola, Nelco, Rogers, ITEQ, OMG, Uyemura, Dow and others. There was a difference of opinion as to how important halogen-free materials are today, with some vendors asserting they are of low priority and others (Shengyi Tech, for one) indicating high demand, especially in Japan and Europe. Many echoed Arlon, which said it saw plenty of demand for high-temperature materials. ITEQ sees business flattening, while others willing to comment were slightly-to-somewhat more positive. Most felt the next two or three quarters would be bumpy, and there were complaints of Chinese knockoffs of raw materials and finished laminate. The good news is that shortages of glass and other raw materials brought about by the March earthquake in Japan have receded.

Isola said its high-speed digital business is growing, and the company is adding capacity in Taiwan. Rogers was busy, with customers mainly from Germany and Europe. Shengyi Tech said lead times are stable. Kingboard noted higher interest in Pb-free laminate materials. CCI Eurolam shared a booth with Isola, whom it distributes in Europe. It showed its Zetalam base materials.

Italian OEM Chemplate showed its Indubond 130N inductive bonding machine, said to facilitate pin registration for printed circuit board innerlayers. Bungard showed new lamination, UV exposure and drill and route machines. Dave Howard said 2011 was a record year for Bürkle, buoyed by a strong first half in photovoltaic and other non-PCB equipment sales, but he did not seem as optimistic about 2012. CA Picard agreed that after 18 strong months, the market has been quieting down since September. Dynachem has introduced two new machines in the past two years, including a new cut-sheet laminator, the SmartLam 5000. Activity was hopping at Kuttler Automation, which displayed a new Mylar peeler (P650), featuring an optical-based off-center adjustment. It also reported on, but did not have at the show, a new copper recovery system. 

It is remarkable how many Germany-based equipment manufacturers remain, even though the continent has seen its bare board industry decimated. (It’s more or less AT&S and then everyone else.) Walter Lemmen, another of the miniature line makers, had a UV LED maskless lithography machine and a compact final finish line (named, appropriately, Compacta). Posalux sold a drill to HMP. Lenz had a CNC drill and router. LPKF said the show was busy, with interest from both the fabrication and assembly side.

Orbotech’s booth was busy, in part because of its success in the LDI market. Miva has a new photoplotter and direct imager aimed at low-volume and prototype markets. Apollon-DI had a UV-LED direct imager.

Known for its continuous plating lines, PAL had no equipment to show because most US and European fabricators use batch plating. Pola e Massa had some robotic advancements to its wet processing and handling equipment.

Atotech shows several new products ranging from via fill to photoresist adhesion materials to the Touchless Transport System, which offers lateral guided transport of touch-sensitive surface, such as embedded circuits for its Uniplate systems. FujiFilm is expected to announce Multiline as its distributor in Europe. Interest in white solder mask is growing, especially for LEDs.

Polymer Ag had a slick new cross-sectioning system for laser-drilled holes. The aptly named Micro Hole Cross Sectioning sections holes down to 0.003" starting from the center of the via, and can lop a two-hours-long manual process down to about 4 min. Luther+Maelzer showed the A5 flying probe tester. Lloyd Doyle is a shell of its former self.

Unlike PCB assembly, Eastern Europe has been slow to adopt or attract fabrication. When asked, most exhibitors pointed to the region’s lack of process knowledge.
2011 likely will go down as a transitory year. Business dropped from the big rebound in 2010, but not so much as to call it a recession. By and large, the electronics design and manufacturing industry outpaced the broader economies, a testament to tighter business and process management. Yet the supply chain had to deal with multiple significant disruptions, and all these vectors will influence changes in the years to come. News out of Bangkok was that the waters rose so high, some factories were soaked on their second floors. Expect a big wave of new machines to replace the thousands lost in the flood. This should help give the equipment industry a bit of a reprieve from a slowdown that is expected to last at least three quarters. Some placement companies reported receiving more than 100 orders to date.

Also, the big drop in the solar market will claim many victims. Some think, once the bloodletting is over, there will be only a handful of companies left. Others aren’t so dire, but the clear consensus is that there is tremendous overcapacity in solar (estimates run north of 35%), and that it will be two to three years before demand and supply reach equilibrium again. In the meantime, expect companies as varied as DEK, BTU and Bürkle, plus a host of materials vendors, to spend more time concentrating on SMT again.

Mike Buetow is Editor in Chief of PCD&F/CIRCUITS ASSEMBLY; This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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