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At PCB West in Santa Clara, California, Dr. Bill Cardoso of Creative Electron held a class on advanced packaging and X-ray inspection strategy. Guest Editor Tim Haag and Publisher Barry Matties met with Bill to further discuss his class and the importance of turning inspection data into information.
Tim Haag: Bill, can you give us just a little bit of background information about your company?
Bill Cardoso: Yes, I'm happy to. Creative Electron is now the largest designer and manufacturer of X-ray machines in the U.S. We design and manufacture everything in our facility in San Marcos, California. And we have been growing very fast for the past few years mostly due to our focus on solving customers’ problems. I know that’s easy to say and everyone says that but we have Ph.D.s on our staff who really take the time to understand our customers’ applications, so we can both recommend off-the-shelf systems and our custom systems if necessary.
Haag: So, what are the primary uses of these systems?
Cardoso: Most of our sales are in the SMT world to inspect for solder joint quality inspection, BGA voids, QFNs, and other types of defects that occur in the SMT process. We also have a wide range of other quality assessment applications from batteries, bulletproof vests, to refurbished cellphones.
Haag: That’s a wide range.
Cardoso: It is. The point of X-ray is to give our customers the ability to see inside their product. From that perspective, it is easy to understand why we have such a wide range of applications. Some of our most successful products today are in material management. Our X-ray parts counter allows our customers to count how many components are on the reel without having to open the package. It allows you to see through the package, and we image the whole reel of components from 7” to 16” reels. In a matter of seconds, it identifies how many components they have without the manual process of reeling and unreeling.
Haag: When you mention X-ray, the first thing that pops into my head is medical. Do you have anything to do with the medical area, or is it all just dealing with components and bulletproof vests, etc.?
Cardoso: Correct. So, if you look at the X-ray market as a whole, there are three major areas. You have medical diagnostics X-ray machines (e.g., hospitals, clinics), safety and security (e.g., airports, border patrols), and industrial. We only operate in industrial. Within industrial, we have a sub-segment, which is the electronics industry. That’s why we’re here at PCB West with companies putting products together and needing X-ray technology—especially for bottom-terminated components like BGAs and QFNs—to check on the quality of the assemblies they make.
Haag: I understand you just taught a class here.
Cardoso: We just finished this morning. That's why my voice is going to be done in about 10 minutes.
Haag: How did the class go, and what kind of students did you have?
Cardoso: The class was on the iPhone X. We like to use high-end devices like the iPhone X as a vehicle to talk about X-ray inspection and advanced packaging, which is one of the main themes for the class. It was well attended and well received. We conveyed to the students that as things get smaller and we keep pushing miniaturization of our devices, the need for inspection is growing as well as the need for high magnification and computed tomography.
Haag: With where you're at now, what's going to be the next big step for your company?
Cardoso: We have an exciting product we released—the TruView Fusion AXI. As an inline, fully automated X-ray inspection system, it's going to revolutionize our industry, and it is AI-based. Our software team has been focusing on AI for the past four to five years, and we've seen AI solve problems that we've never been able to solve before.
We have one example of a customer that refurbishes 100,000 iPhones or smartphones a month, and in the process, you have to open them, replace a battery or component, and close it back before you ship it. Often, a screw is left loose inside the case, the operator forgets to put in a screw, or one of the components is not placed correctly, and that's a problem that standard image processing software can't solve. But you can use X-ray, and if you know exactly where the problem might be, you can design an algorithm to find it. In cases like this where you don't know where the problem might be, that's where AI has made a huge impact in solving very complex problems for customers.
Haag: When many of us have worked in high tech, we’ve been able to bring some of our work home to enjoy. What do you get to bring home? A big X-ray machine?
Cardoso: Well, I did the opposite! I started Creative Electron 10 years ago in my garage. So, my company is just a bigger garage now (laughs). I went from 500 square feet to a 30,000-square-foot manufacturing facility. We were able to design the first machines, sell them, and eventually move to this new facility last year, having outgrown our old facility. And I think there are several important messages in that.
One message is that it doesn't take much to start. I'm a big believer that you should start with what you have. If you really have a good idea, your garage is more than enough to get those first prototypes put together, and then you go from there. Just don't be afraid to get started!
The other important message is that last year, we were in a 10,000-square-foot facility in San Marcos, California. We quickly realized we were going to outgrow that facility by the end of 2017. We had a decision to make. We could have outsourced manufacturing to Asia or somewhere else and stayed in the same facility because the manufacturing would not require as much footprint. Or we had to move to a bigger facility and keep everything in-house. We opted to keep all of the manufacturing in San Marcos, go to a bigger facility, and hire more people. And as recognition, the state of California gave us a $500,000 tax incentive for staying.
Haag: That's excellent.
Cardoso: First, we stayed in California, and then we received the grant. It wasn't the other way around.
Haag: I've worked for a couple of companies that started in garages, and I love to see that kind of innovation and “make it happen” attitude.
Cardoso: That's exactly what we have, and the big challenge as we grow is to keep that startup mentality. I think that the day a company stops thinking of themselves as a startup is the first day they start dying. Because that's when you stop thinking of making as much as you can with as little resources as you can—being scrappy, innovative, and fast to market. You can start to overthink, confuse, and lose.