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At the Atlanta SMTA Expo and Tech Forum, I met Neil Hubble, president of the metrology systems provider Akrometrix. If you’re not sure exactly what metrology entails, you’re in luck. In this interview, Neil explains why metrology is becoming a critical part of PCB manufacturing. We also discuss the company’s capital equipment, testing services, and why Akrometrix counts many of the top PCB and semiconductor manufacturing companies in the world as their customers.
Andy Shaughnessy: Nice to meet you, Neil. How is the show going for you?
Neil Hubble: Great. Nice to be at a show near home for a change.
Shaughnessy: Give us a quick background on Akrometrix and metrology.
Hubble: Sure. We were founded in 1994 out of Georgia Tech, not far from here, originally to address issues with server boards, but now we are the industry leader in thermal warpage and strain metrology.
Essentially, what we do is we use full-field optical techniques to measure a surface flatness or the x and y expansion. And then we have the capability to heat those surfaces to emulate a reflow oven, for instance. Surfaces may change, as well as components, boards, sockets, connectors, or wafers. Whatever it is, we can measure that surface.
Shaughnessy: How long have you been president of Akrometrix?
Hubble: About three years. But I was I was on the applications side and then I went into product development for a bit. I've been with the company a little over 17 years now. I went to Georgia Tech and then got my MBA to handle the business side, and I learned that side of it.
Shaughnessy: Who are your primary customers?
Hubble: We're in the 14 of the top 15 semiconductor manufacturers and in the top eight OSATs, so we're doing okay; we have the majority of this niche market. We have equipment all over the world, with a lot in China and Taiwan, of course. But we're very vertically integrated in this area.
Shaughnessy: How does metrology equipment work? Is this X-ray?
Hubble: No, it’s not X-ray. We’re often measuring before component attachment, so we can predict what is going to happen during attachment. For instance, with components and the PCB attach area, we have software that can marry those two up, and when that solder ball is freezing, we can say, “In this corner, we have 150 microns of distance, and that's likely going to be problematic.”
The PCB fabricators and the contract manufacturers deal with the challenges of attaching surface mount components and getting a high yield, and they can run it through our equipment to find out what's going to happen in the real world. We are heating the components and showing how they move and what they're going to do during actual production. We'll try to catch problems as early as possible in the process.
Shaughnessy: What are the biggest challenges that your customers come to you with?
Hubble: Well, some of their challenges are due to the lack of industry standards. There are industry standards on component warpage. But there's very little on the board side, and there's really nothing on connectors and sockets as far as standards. There are industry standards, but a lot of OEMs are requiring their PCB fabs to adhere to a certain number. Certainly, the big OEMs, for a specific model will have a number. They’ll say, “Hey, it's got to be below this number, and it has to maintain that through reflow.”
In terms of applications, we're seeing a lot of the challenges with the very large BGAs. We're starting to make BGAs in the 100-ish millimeter scope, and they're still using about the same set of solder balls that they were using on smaller packages. Think of that from a warpage perspective: If it's a radius of curvature, then you have a much bigger gap in the corner of those. Those are very high-value components, so they need to work.
Most often, it’s measured on the components side by whoever's doing the packaging. They're doing sampling of each lot, so some of them, especially in the mobile phone industry, are running 100 at a time through our system and the software is very automated. They can run 100 of these components and get thermal warpage date on all of them and do statistics and things like that. The customer wants this data, the temperature profile—they want to see what they're paying for. Basically, they want to know, “What happened?”
Shaughnessy: And you all are based right here in Atlanta?
Hubble: Yes, we're located just inside I-285, not far from here. We buy locally and we manufacture right here. We have representatives and distributors all over the world. It's not that high a volume, because it is a niche world. It's definitely a niche thing.
Shaughnessy: What do you see as far as your technology in the near future?
Hubble: Automation is definitely an ask. And then we’d like to grow more into the practical production side, right? Because they're mostly running our equipment in labs, and a lot of our customers are coming to us with acute problems. So we do contract testing as well, so people will just send us samples, and we'll send them data as opposed to running the tool itself. But I do believe that the technology could serve some purpose on the assembly line. And we do have cases where that is true. We do make room-temperature tools, but they’re not widely used in that aspect.
Shaughnessy: How big is the company now?
Hubble: We’re at about 18 people. We've been very fortunate to keep our core group together. It's very scalable. But as I said, we're in most of the big players’ facilities, so a lot of it is selling them new products, or selling them updated versions and updated software and that sort of thing. And we write all of our own software. That's a big part of it.
Shaughnessy: Is there anything that we haven’t mentioned?
Hubble: I think that covers it. If anybody is unfamiliar with our technology, get us a sample or two, and we can get you some data within a week. That’s usually how customers first start with us; just take a sample and send it to us. Then they see, “You know, I kind of get it now.” That's an easy barrier to entry. You don't have to buy capital equipment to understand metrology.
Shaughnessy: I almost understand it after 10 minutes, which is a good sign. Thanks for speaking with me, Neil.
Hubble: Thanks for the opportunity.