Fabricators and designers must communicate about new technology to verify its viability.
More often than not over the past couple of decades, new technologies, processes and options we fabricators have been asked, begged or threatened to add to our repertoire of offerings were ones that could be best considered disruptive. What’s disruptive to a manufacturer may seem benign to the casual eye, as often the technology – or process – that is most disruptive is a simple one.
Indeed, sometimes that technology is nothing more than the rebirth of an older, tried-and-true, albeit significantly tweaked, process. REACH, and the prior RoHS, caused much disruption, and yet most of the plating chemistries and surface finishes in use today are essentially highly refined formulas of older plating technologies such as ENIG, silver and tin.
Old or new, disruptive technologies tend to be challenges for several reasons. First is understanding the technology and how to process it so it works as intended. Second is determining what equipment is needed to cost-effectively and robustly apply the new technology. Finally, finding enough customers to consistently order product that uses the technology, so everyone remembers what it is and how to process it!
Truly new paradigm-shifting technologies hit the scene as “must haves” so a product can function. While disruptive to manufacturers, in some ways the more off-the-wall a technology seems, the easier it is to decide whether to embrace it or wait to see if it sinks under the weight of its own hype. These disruptive technologies more typically challenge everyone to understand not only how to apply them, but how to measure success or failure so yields and costs can be determined.
In all cases, what makes disruptive technologies so unruly boils down to two issues: First is the learning curve and capital investment needed to provide the technology, and second is gaining consensus among customers that the technology is a better alternative to more traditional technologies, and they will purchase enough to warrant the human and capital investment. Probably most frustrating for fabricators is when a buyer provides no apparent reason other than “because” for specifying a new technology. The fabricator’s goal is to supply quality product they understand and can safely and consistently produce, not (inadvertently) become a customer’s R&D center, with the concurrent risks and costs.
Every new technology has at least two sides. At a recent industry gathering, a supplier mentioned a current disruptive technology we had difficulty working our way through was only one of a slew of new “enabling” technologies available to the industry. Enabling? Not to me. That is when the communication gap between design application and manufacturing competence became evident. As this conversation continued, I heard a different spin as to why a particular new technology was being specified. Understanding the benefits from the end-product perspective began to make sense and explained why this customer would have specified it, as well as why its use may become widespread in the future. The tutorial was strictly from a value-add design perspective, and it was compelling. When asked if the design community knew of the fabrication challenges the new technology caused that impacted yield and lead times, in addition to cost, the answer was honest: “Probably not.”
What’s enabling to one party can be disruptive to another. Fabricators often do not understand the nuances of pushing design to meet challenging performance objectives but do fully understand robust, time-proven manufacturing techniques. Equally, when a designer chooses to move toward a new technology, they may be excited by the functionality it offers but most likely is unaware manufacturing the board could lead to lower yield, longer lead times and ultimately higher costs.
The real issue is understanding the risks involved with embracing – or ignoring – new technology. The risks include, “Will it work, or will it only work if executed flawlessly? Will the new technology pass the test of time? Most important, will widespread use of the technology lead to cost-effective processes or equipment to ensure consistency from one application to another and from one supplier to another?”
As a fabricator, it is more important now than ever to be in touch with customers’ designers to understand what they are attempting to accomplish. Equally for designers, it is essential they are in contact with all their PCB suppliers, especially the behind-the-scenes process gurus, so everyone understands the manufacturability of new technology in the real world of the shop floor.
This gets back to the need for suppliers knowing their customer and customers knowing their suppliers – and not just at the buyer/sales rep level but at the designer/manufacturing engineer level. Knowing the intended end-result a new technology enables, as well as how disruptive that technology may be when introduced to manufacturing, the product is the best way for customers and suppliers, working together, to accomplish a cost-effective design. Too often this communication is wrongly assumed to occur. As much as frequent two-way communication should be happening when all is moving along with traditional technologies, it is critical the communication takes place when a new approach is contemplated that may be enabling for one but not necessarily for others.
The difference as to whether a technology is enabling or disruptive is determined only by the degree in which customer and supplier decide to work together. As our industry finds ways to tweak older, reliable technologies or develop paradigm-changing ones, understanding the enabling benefits and the disruptive nature will make the journey mutually rewarding.