Will Moisture Management Expand to the U.S. Market?


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Rich Heimsch, Super Dry director, chats with Nolan Johnson about the growing demand for moisture management in North America versus its earlier adoption in Europe, and how moisture management fits into Industry 4.0 and the smart factory.

Nolan Johnson: Tell me what Super Dry does, Rich.

Heimsch: We manage moisture in sensitive devices and materials, which most people think of in terms of BGAs, but it also encompasses PCBs and even assemblies for rework. In this humidity control context, it generally applies across the board, as in it was always there, but the awareness of the need is increasing. We’re a European company. The significance of that in this moisture management context is that it’s a process that, in North America, is still perhaps five to seven years behind Europe.

Johnson: In terms of adoption by customers?

Heimsch: In terms of adoption. Let me give you an electrostatic discharge (ESD) analogy. You go into a shop today, and you don’t walk in without a heel strap and ground tags. A few years ago, maybe you wore heel straps, or maybe you didn’t. Maybe there was that scenario with the yellow tape where the floors were taped off in an ESD-protected area. You never see that anymore. That is where the moisture-sensing device (MSD) for moisture management is in this geographic market.

Johnson: That makes sense. The less moisture you have, the less likely you will have an accidental arc.

Heimsch: Managing ESD now is fundamental for assembly houses, but managing moisture is not fundamental to all assembly houses. One of the ways ESD is managed in some big assembly houses is to raise the humidity and spend a million bucks on it, especially companies in the northern Midwest where they take this 10–12% outside air in the winter, heat it up, and pump thousands of gallons of water a day into the factory air system. This is one of the additional ways in which ESD is managed. ESD can more frequently create an end-to-line failure than an MSD event. The moisture damage happens during reflow. The moisture tries to escape and must escape as the temperature rises. It exceeds the elastic limit of the encapsulant and creates a micro-crack.

The historic reference to popcorning is where you could hear popping in the reflow oven; that’s an extreme example. The reality is you don’t generally see with the naked eye the moisture damage that has occurred during the reflow process. It’s a micro-crack where the organic substrate and the encapsulation meet, or the moisture escapes at the weakest part of the encapsulant, which would be the thinnest part—for instance, the underside of the micro-BGA—and they are maybe not microscopic cracks, but close to it. That device or that assembly will pass ICT and functional tests, and away it goes into the field. It’s not until some months later when air has come and works its way up to the wire bonds at the die that you get the failure. It’s typically some kind of intermittent failure.

Johnson: God forbid if you have an intermittent in the light detection and ranging (LIDAR) system in your autonomous car.

Heimsch: Correct. Your anti-lock braking system (ABS) or heart implant are another level of liability. Certain industry segments have always been way more aware of the issues and are more motivated to control them than a company that is making a device and saying, “I can just calculate out my warranty costs, and it’s acceptable.”

Fifteen years ago, with the adoption of RoHS legislation in Europe, virtually overnight, every component in a shop now needed to be managed and tracked. Lead-free reflow profiles basically triple the saturated vapor pressure in a component. That’s the same amount of moisture inside that encapsulant, which is three times the pressure to try and escape that different reflow temperature. The RoHS legislation drove the Europeans more quickly into seeing and needing to deal with the problems.

Granted, most of the paste that is sold in this market geography is now lead-free, but there still isn’t the same view of moisture management as there is ESD management across the board. It’s increasing, but because it’s not typically an end-of-line yield problem, a manufacturing manager can say, “It’s not doing anything for me,” or, “I have this list of capital equipment requirements, and it’s on there—I understand—but we’ll need to wait until next year.”

Johnson: It seems to me that there is increased attention on-field failures, not just end-of-line inspections but in-the-field failures. And that’s being driven by automotive and medical and IoT. That’s changing the perspective. When automotive is telling us as an industry—and this was a part of the conversation at the automotive forum last year at IPC APEX EXPO—that we need to deliver about two orders of magnitude more reliability. You have to pay attention to every step.

Heimsch: That’s right.

Johnson: Now, moisture sensitivity becomes more of an issue because, as we’re paying attention to the root cause analysis on the field failure; you simply can’t have that.

Heimsch: The motivation is much higher where you have to get into that level of reliability.

Johnson: Do you see that shift when talking to your customers and your prospects?

Heimsch: People in the automotive industry have always been leaders in this awareness. On the awareness curve, they have been leaders with the medical electronics people as well. Military has always had a high level of awareness, but that, in my opinion, was driven as much by long-term storage, which is an automotive issue as well. That’s another dimension and topic of discussion. Now, when we’re talking about this geographic market, it’s still the case where; unless the EMS provider’s customer says, “You get an MSD program in place, or I’m pulling this work,” they can avoid it.

Johnson: They need a compelling event.

Heimsch: Step one, they say, “I have safe storage, but am I utilizing it properly? Do I have a process? I have a hunk of equipment.” AOI was that way, not that many years ago. That’s not the case now, but there are stages. Twenty percent of the cabinets I sold last year, roughly, were the customer’s first cabinets. We’re a European company, and other European companies asked, “Were there that many startups? Is it some phenomenon that there’s manufacturing springing up?” No, these companies have been in business for 20 years, but they haven’t addressed it until now.

Johnson: And now they do?

Heimsch: Yes, and some see a competitive advantage. I have a customer in Texas that bought their first three cabinets and uses them for three different phases of his manufacturing. He mentioned that it’s quite the centerpiece to show off to prospects when they come through. “Here’s our moisture management. We have this extra control in the process.” That gap is closing in terms of the geographic markets, which isn’t to say that the European manufacturing community isn’t continuing to get more and more sophisticated about their moisture management and associated quality control details.

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