2020: A Year of Learning, Innovation for Taiyo America
Pete Starkey has a virtual visit with John Fix, director of Sales and Marketing at Taiyo America, where they discuss the changes taking place because of COVID-19 restrictions, and some of the new products Taiyo will be presenting at this year’s IPC APEX EXPO.
Pete Starkey: I’m delighted to have the opportunity to meet, albeit virtually, with an old friend, John Fix. John is director of sales and marketing with Taiyo America, and he’s also a member of the Board of Directors of EIPC. Hello John, from lockdown England.
John Fix: Hi, Pete. Great to be here. I’m here in beautiful Carson City, Nevada, where we just had a huge snowstorm, and we’re digging ourselves out of it. It’s great to see your bright, sunny face, and that’s just going to melt some snow over here.
Starkey: You say kind things, John, thank you. It’s been too long since we met face to face. I think it was at last year’s EIPC winter conference in Rotterdam, Holland, which was mid-February 2020, a year ago now. Just prior to that, it was the IPC APEX EXPO in San Diego, at the beginning of February, and before that was productronica in Munich, Germany, in November 2019.
John, it’s good to have you as a member of the Board of Directors of EIPC, and always nice to see you at European events, especially the European conferences. It’s always an excellent opportunity for learning what’s going on in the technology, but even more than that in terms of meeting people and building networks. We missed the planned summer conference in Sweden, and about now we’d be getting ready to travel to this year’s winter conference, wherever it may have been. The series of online technical snapshots has kept us informed of technical developments and been very successful in maintaining the continuity for EIPC, but it’s not the same as live events. And IPC APEX EXPO will be virtual this year. John, how do you feel about the situation?
Fix: I agree with you, Pete. The EIPC technical snapshots are great, but we all miss the networking part. I look back at all the great times we’ve had, just sitting around after dinner, talking business. How can you not learn something by having a drink with Alex Stepinski, Pete Starkey, Paul Waldner, or Alun Morgan? Those are the kinds of things I miss. Over the years, you learn little things like some history, and some of the new technologies that some board shops are going with. So, it’s unfortunate that 2020 ended up being the way it was; hopefully we can all get back out there soon.
Starkey: I think we got off to a good start last year. We had a couple of very successful events before the lockdowns happened.
Fix: We were very fortunate. Looking back, it’s crazy to think that those were the last times I traveled. My last international flight was out to Rotterdam, and then my last domestic was the APEX show. But let’s hope that things get turned around quickly, and we can have a more productive 2021.
Starkey: We hope so, and we look forward to it. John, what’s new in Taiyo America? I hear you’ve engaged some new people.
Fix: Yes, we have added some new faces. When you think about 2020 and all the negative things in business, for Taiyo it was quite good for us. We had the opportunity to hire our first direct employee in Europe: Frank-Ralf Meyer was hired as our EU sales manager and he’s based out of Germany. He came on board in March, and then about two weeks later, everyone was shut down. He’s been our lone warrior out there, but it’s great. It finally gives Taiyo that direct contact in Europe and our first person to lead the force there. Here in the U.S., we added a technical sales engineer, Kate Han. She comes to us with a great inkjet background as she used to sell inkjet equipment. We really wanted to beef up our ability on that end with all our inkjet products.
Here in Carson City, we added two chemists. One chemist is strictly focused on inkjet, and another chemist is looking at all kinds of new thermal management materials. I have a new Marketing Assistant who’s going to take us to new levels when it comes to social media, and how to do business differently. 2020 was a good year for learning, and how to do business in a different manner. We won’t be face-to-face with customers as much as we’d like to be, so we’ve had to look at different avenues. I think we prepared ourselves really well in 2020 to move forward. Lastly, we acquired Circuit Automation in July, so we have some new faces there that are offering great equipment and service under their new name of Taiyo Circuit Automation.
Starkey: I bet your R&D people have been working hard. What new products have been coming out of your R&D department, John?
Fix: We’ve got a couple of things that we’re highlighting at the APEX virtual event. One product from Japan is a dry film solder mask for flexible circuit boards called FLEXFINER. We’re seeing a lot of interest here in North America, as well as parts of Europe. With so many people building flex, we’re hoping they’ll check out our virtual event where we’ll provide big details into flex. The product comes in amber and black, and some very thin thicknesses—as low as 15 microns and up to about 40 microns. It has different thicknesses and colors, and wonderful, flexible properties. With dry film, it just makes handling flex materials a lot easier.
Starkey: This is a product that I’m really intrigued by. This is the first time I’ve had any knowledge of it at all. I had some background in flexible circuits years ago, and I can remember struggling with flexible coverlays. I dreamed of the day when we could replace those coverlays with something like a solder mask. Is dry film a new venture for Taiyo?
Fix: Yes. Well, for Taiyo Japan we used to have this subcontracted. A couple of years ago, they built their own dry film manufacturing facility. We’ve brought all that in internally now, so we have a very large production facility that only does the dry film solder mask. We have our FLEXFINER brand, as well as the high-end IC packaging type, dry film products. But for the North American market, we have lots of people building flex, and I think this FLEXFINER product line is going to be very successful. We have some of the major customers here in North America looking at it, and we’re really excited about it.
Starkey: How does it differ fundamentally from a conventional coverlay?
Fix: With coverlays in the past, typically you had to punch them, and then you had a laminating process. But that causes accuracy issues, and you have bleed issues with the adhesive. Our product is a full dry film photoimageable product, so you just vacuum-laminate the whole circuit board, and then you go through your standard imaging process. This allows you to get extremely fine features; it’s a DI-type exposing dry film, so you can get that great registration capabilities and that fine resolution. It meets a lot of the requirements of North America and Europe, just to start with. That’s the driving force—quick turn high-end boards.
Starkey: Great. You mentioned vacuum lamination, John. Is this the same sort of vacuum lamination we used to do with previous generation dry film solder masks on rigid PCBs?
Fix: Yes, it’s very similar to the old days of the Vacrel dry film, or Morton’s Conformask. It’s the same principle: You’re dealing with a three-dimensional circuit board, so you’ve got to get that air out of there. For typical inner layer stuff, you don’t have to worry about that, so you can use a hot roll laminator.
Starkey: I was going to say, is this the sort of equipment that a flex circuit fabricator in the U.S. would already have, or would they invest in new equipment?
Fix: Yes. Fortunately, a lot of these customers have it from the old days. They’re probably dusting off their vacuum laminator from the back room where you’re storing stuff on top of it. But for the most part, people have the equipment. And if they don’t, it’s still popular equipment that is being produced, so I know that you can buy it. There are companies out of Italy that do it. And of course, you can buy this equipment anywhere in Asia.
Starkey: Effectively, you’ve got a fully conforming photo-imaged mask. It’s really taking the place of an adhesive-less coverlay.
Fix: Yes. The big push recently on the IC packaging side has been in getting thinner and thinner coatings that are flat. As we all know with liquids, if you screen print or spray something, it will always have a ripple effect. With the dry film systems, they generally vacuum the air out. But just before it comes out, while it’s still hot, it’s hit by a metal plate, and it flattens it out, so you get this really nice flat surface. For all the assemblers, that’s right up their alley: a nice flat surface, the under-fill’s going to flow well, and everything’s going to process out really well.
Starkey: It sounds like a product that will have an enormous amount of interest. In terms of its durability, does that align with the durability you’d expect from a normal rigid solder mask?
Fix: Yes. It still passes all the required IPC type testing, and you have the flexibility as well. It has the VTM-0 UL rating, so it’s going to meet every requirement, and it already has many end user approvals. You’ll probably find it in just about every mobile phone out there, so you can tell which end users are approving those. But for the most part, it’s pretty much a drop-in product. We have all the big end users that already approve it. It’s pretty much an established process; people have been processing dry film for ages, so it’s nothing new. It’s just a matter of making that commitment to installing it into your production line.
Starkey: I’ve learned something that I think is really exciting. Thank you very much, indeed, John. I’m sure there are other products that are coming out of R&D.
Fix: Yes. You always hear about our updates on inkjet, so on March 9 at 11 a.m., with a replay at 4 p.m., we’ll have our virtual APEX New Product Presentation. You’ll see a presentation on our flex technology, and we’ll give some updates on inkjet as well. Right now, our lab is working on colors. We all have the standard green, but as you can imagine, in North America and Europe, the quick turn and prototyping requires different colors. So, we’re working on the basics: black will probably be next, followed by some blue, and red and white. Eventually, we’ll have the whole rainbow for inkjet. We could probably print your tie there, Pete.
Starkey: But this one has got the full periodic table printed on it (laughs).
Fix: We’re excited about inkjet, and Don Monn will be giving that update at our March 9 virtual presentation. It’s growing, and we keep telling people; you start small, but it’s doubling. We have many customers who are installing this, with more in the pipeline. We’ve already heard from three other customers who said that in the next three to four months they’re going to be installing an inkjet machine. It’s exciting when you see that people are grasping onto something new; they’re accepting it, and the end users are starting to accept it as well. We have some pretty impressive end users that have approved the inkjet through some of our customer base.
Our other new product is thermal management, and our technical manager, Jesse Session. will talk about that. Years ago, Taiyo introduced a heat spreader solder mask. This was a solder mask that would suck the heat out of the circuit board. When we first introduced it, and took it around to the end users, they weren’t all that impressed with our results, which was about two to three watts per meter Kelvin. We got great feedback from them, and they challenged us to try to get that to double digits. I went back to our lab, presented them with the challenge, and they came back with a material that dissipates 10 watts of heat. When you think about that, we’ve run tests on a circuit board, and you’re seeing that, under the same heat conditions, the circuit board is about 20°C cooler using this material.
It’s exciting right now. We have a couple big end-users looking at it, and it’s an interesting product in the sense that it has multiple applications. We see where it could be used as an under-fill, so if you have some type of processor or some type of chip package that creates a lot of heat, you could actually use this as the adhesive to help pull that heat out. It could just be a standard thermal interface material for the LED manufacturers. We have one that’s testing for that. Then, the simplest form is filling the via holes with it. We have a lot of products that we currently sell to the HDI market, and now this one adds an extra feature to it; it pulls the heat out. We have some testing going on with that, and we’re excited to introduce this. This is more of an OEM-driven type product that we need them to accept and pull through the supply chain. So, we’re focusing on doing that as well.
Starkey: I think thermal management is a big, big topic now. And what you’ve described has such a broad spectrum of applicability. That sounds like another a big winner. I’m really looking forward to hearing what Jesse Sessions has to say in the virtual presentation, John.
Fix: Yes, we’re looking forward to that. When you think of how our world is changing with the advances in 5G, internet of things, and autonomous cars around the corner, maybe people don’t realize all the circuitry involved in that. And with all that data being transferred, that’s energy, and energy is heat. We had to address this problem early on so that you didn’t have autonomous cars and other things overheating, and then a lot of the components wouldn’t work. That’s really a safety issue. With EV, you have a whole new technology there with battery packs. Thermal management has always been an issue and it’s becoming a bigger issue. You look at everyday things and everyone wants them to be smaller and more functional. But when you make these circuit boards smaller and tighter, where’s that heat going?
Starkey: Yes, it’s clear that solder mask has developed a little way beyond the green paint that we put on rigid circuit boards (laughs)!
Fix: We always say that it’s not a commodity. There is a difference between one solder mask and the other.
Starkey: It’s become a very, very technical product. John, thanks for your time, it’s been delightful to see you face-to-face, if only virtually. It’s been really interesting to listen to what you’ve had to say. I’m sorry we’ll miss the actual face-to-face at APEX, but I very much look forward to the virtual presentation. You’ve got some exciting products. I wish you well in the market, and we look forward to the next time we may meet.
Fix: Thank you, Pete. It’s always a pleasure, and it’s always fun seeing you. Give my best to Lyn. Hopefully I’ll see her the next time we do an EIPC event. All the best to you, stay safe, and I look forward to it.
Starkey: Thank you, John.