Consumerisation of IT challenging UK electronics manufacturers

Author : Adam White, Technical Director, Exception EMS

14 March 2014

Back in the 1990’s electronics miniaturisation was firmly on the agenda in UK electronics manufacturing. Mobile phones were just beginning to hit full volumes, which was driving designers to develop ever smaller product in what had traditionally been a “beige box” marketplace. Then the dotcom bubble burst about the same time as the low cost geographies in Asia and Eastern Europe became capable of building high technology electronics. The result was a rapid and massive exodus of high volume elect

Predominately, the manufacture that was left behind in the UK was the Aerospace and Defence industry, bespoke industrial products and those products without enough volume to make sense to offshore.

Now, ten years after the nadir of UK electronics manufacturing some of the cycle is beginning to reverse and the demand for miniaturised electronics is beginning to grow. This is in part is due to the success of UK plc in growing centres of excellence in electronics (e.g. Cambridge) and also due to the declining (and at an ever faster rate) attractiveness of low cost geographies. This has manifested itself as prototypes and preproduction batches (sometimes of thousands) now being done in the UK or companies realising that the total cost of supply is lower with UK manufacturing. There is also movement towards miniaturisation in some of the more traditional sectors, such as Oil and Gas, and industrial sectors are now being driven to use smaller electronics to meet the demands of their marketplace.

Equipment demands

This leads to new challenges for UK manufacturing as it is increasing demand for high technology processes from what is increasingly becoming a fully depreciated plant and equipment base.  Indeed Ian Stewart, Deloitte's Chief Economist in the UK recently said that worn out stock and increasing demand was going to fuel an investment boom in UK manufacturing generally. Certainly this appears to be the case with some SMT equipment vendors reporting increasing interest in new high capability machines rather than the second user market which has been the their bread and butter in the UK for the past decade.

But before you get your chequebook out, perhaps you should take a closer look at your plant and equipment and see what it is really capable of?

As equipment ages some of the performance aspects drop away but others do not deteriorate in the same way. For example, with SMT equipment the pick and place errors increase, leading to slightly higher attrition - but the placement accuracy generally holds firm.

The solution is to get engineers engaged to give it a go, perhaps by devising a set of experiments to verify each aspect of the capability required. Perform a set of robust qualification tests to ensure you have the repeatability and reliability that you and your customers need.  This qualification needs not only to demonstrate that you can do it but also establish the DFM (Design for Manufacture) rules you need to apply to get your process to work repeatably.

A customer example

In one example recently. Exception EMS was asked to build some product using 0.35mm pitch BGAs for one its silicon design customers. The customer asked for a very specific requirement; that the process should yield BGA joints that would bring confidence that every unit of the several hundred would survive its HTOL (high temperature operating life) test cycle.

To do this Exception EMS first developed a set of product independent trials that the company could use to demonstrate the process capability of each piece of equipment. For example the company designed a PCB with pads of decreasing size (down to 180µm) and then stencils with different apertures (round, square with different corner radii). The company then did some print trials using paste with different grain sizes. Finally it chose the best results and ran a bigger sample to ensure that repeatability was right and the printer settings and cleaning intervals could be optimised.

After the samples were built, they were tested to ensure that they were fit for purpose. For a qualification methodology was built that matches the end use requirements. In this case, a series of Ersascope, X-Ray and Micro-sections to verify joint formation followed by an ESS regime designed to provide confidence of field performance.

Miniaturisation is not just a challenge at the very small scale. Traditional industries are now seeking higher levels of performance through more use of electronics and some of this needs to be small to meet these needs. For example, down-hole instruments in the oil and gas sector are becoming increasingly complicated and are now using BGAs for the first time.  Exception EMS is being asked to design a 400pin 0.8mm FPGA into a test vehicle to qualify these parts at 175oC.  The same qualification methodologies apply, however this time the company’s processes are being challenged to deliver small pitch BGA technology that works reliably at temperature and under vibration. Here, however, the problems are more do with alloy selection, joint strength and ruggedisation schemes rather than paste release and placement accuracy.

Investment is key

The new challenges presented by these market changes represent real business opportunities for those who can solve them effectively. What might at first seem a step too far can quickly become reality given the right investment in process engineering.

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