Quest for Reliability: Here We Go (Virtual) Again

It seems Santa was unable to bring me the one thing I asked for this Christmas: in-person conferences. Maybe what I really wanted was just for safe travels again, but the conference thing kind of rolls up under that umbrella. IPC APEX EXPO was the last conference I attended in person in 2020. I know asking to have it in person again is a lot to ask for (and we will get there), but for now, IPC APEX EXPO 2021 is going virtual.

For some reason, during most of 2020 I wasn’t the least bit interested in virtual conferences. I’ve sat in on many webinars over the years and didn’t think twice about the format, but conferences seem a lot different. How can I see the latest and greatest equipment? I remember, years ago, being in awe as I watched a pick-and-place placing 01005s by the thousands; sitting in meeting rooms discussing acceptance criteria; and learning about other companies’ test results looking into failure analysis. How can all of that be recreated over a Zoom call? As you well know by now, it can’t; but we can work with it this time around and hopefully we will all be back together for SMTAI in the fall. I’m buying the first round up in Minnesota come November. 

So how does the virtual IPC APEX EXPO tie in with reliability? It does by recommending we all get registered and sign up for the same technical sessions and professional development courses that you would if we were meeting in-person. One good thing about data is it stays the same no matter how it is presented.

Look at the IPC APEX EXPO 2021 website and you will see every aspect of PCBA manufacturing being covered by an industry expert. Review your process and see where you could make improvements, and then sign up for a related class. Everyone knows that it is quicker and cheaper to learn from someone else’s experience, and a conference like this is full of people who have experience with failure. That is a very valuable resource because they tend to write papers about what happened and how they fixed it.

There is no shortage of material combinations when you consider all the options, but in general, I would say the vast majority are pulling from a smaller pool. That increases the likelihood that someone will be discussing some way to improve your current process and quite possibly without adding any cost (outside the registration fee). This all speaks to the topic of reliability because with all the transferrable knowledge available you can take something you learn, apply it to your process, and see immediate results. It might not be some gigantic revelation that saves the product, but even minor tweaks to a process that is currently acceptable can further improve reliability—even for your product that “hasn’t ever had a problem,” but especially for those that “have always done it this way” and don’t see the failure coming.

At the risk of sounding like a commercial for IPC, I just wanted to highlight some of the seminars I see as having tremendous potential for value. Keep in mind the differences between Professional Development courses and Technical Conference Sessions, and how each are beneficial.

Professional Development
These courses are very in-depth, and last three to six hours. They are presented by well-known experts on the topic at hand and offer experience you never had an opportunity with. There are also options within the PD courses based on your level of experience. Some of these range from a thorough explanation of some of the basics of manufacturing up to the advanced level with detailed content and high-level discussion.

Technical Sessions
The tech sessions will normally have three speakers addressing the same topic from different angles. They don’t always go in depth, like the PD courses do, but there is almost always an opportunity after the sessions to communicate directly with the author for more information. In fact, this year there will still be live Q&A for all tech sessions. This gives you the chance to ask questions in real time with the presenter instead of trying to remember everything and follow up from an on-demand webinar situation. The schedule is packed so you will need to schedule your time wisely to take in everything you would like to. The “hallways” between session rooms are a lot shorter this year so it will be easier to go from one to the next. Based on what we see here in the lab, I would suggest PD courses that look at assembly challenges with bottom-terminated components, or BTCs. Even after about a decade we see many assembly issues related to BTCs. If you look for presentations on these components you’re likely to find just about as many as you would have found on transitioning to lead-free a week before July 2006.

On the other side of the assembly coin is a class on the topic of design for reliability. I have often thought that every designer should have hands on experience with assembling the hardware. When designers and assemblers work together with shared experience there should be fewer assembly challenges, which in turn, creates a more reliable product. I recommend the course on creating objective evidence related to J-STD-001 Section 8. This relatively new section of J-STD-001 is a hot topic within the industry because it essentially removes the acceptance criteria of ROSE testing for any new product. We get a lot of questions about this here as cleanliness testing is a big part of what we do. The course instructor is Doug Pauls, who, along with the help of an experienced and knowledgeable group of experts, wrote the section. If you have any questions, this course is a great opportunity to better explain the why and how related to those changes within the J-STD-001.

There is simply no shortage of topics when it comes to the tech sessions. You can learn about everything from raw components, printed circuit boards, and solder paste/flux all the way up to final packaging. With these being 90 minutes in length you have a chance to take in many topics and speakers in a short period of time.

IPC Task Group
There will still be IPC Task Group meetings but instead of packing 25 meetings into three days they will all take place virtually during March. While I would still prefer to take breaks from the meetings on that big veranda overlooking the San Diego Bay, the format this year will allow you more time to get involved in different types of groups. I have discussed these in the past as a great way to get involved with shaping guidance documents from the IPC that may directly impact your business. Group members have extensive experience with the document subject material and with each revision there is discussion about requirements, and a determination on whether the revision needs to be adjusted to reflect changes in the industry. If you are interested in joining one of these task groups simply reach out to the IPC and they can get you added.

My point is that while going virtual won’t be the same as being in San Diego this year, there are still so many opportunities to learn information that can increase reliability in your assembly. The internet will never replace seeing everyone in person, shaking hands, drinking adequate coffee for six hours, and hoping the next class has a cookie break, but we will just have to double up in Minnesota. Remember, I’m buying the first round.

This column originally appeared in the February 2021 issue of SMT007 Magazine.



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