Avishtech Thought Leaders: Gerry Partida & Clay Swain
In the high-tech market segment of the electronics industry, PCBs frequently are not given the weight that is given to components, embedded systems or even connector technology. In fact, they are often considered to be the ugly stepchild of the other more sophisticated family members of electronic hardware.
That may be due to a couple of different factors:
- PCBs had humble beginnings:
- First, there was Rubylith which was comprised of a thin red film stuck on a mylar film. In the negative, a PCB layout was created by removing the red tape to create a trace. There were obvious limitations.
- There were no double-sided boards and placing a trace between IC pins was not possible. The finished Rubylith or negative of the layout was placed over photo resist and was then exposed to light.
- The next iteration of PCB technology was dot and tape. This involved laying the patterns of tracks and IC/transistor pads onto mylar sheets. The self-adhesive tape was supplied in a variety of widths. Two inches was a common one and when the design was completed was about 1”. The annular rings were the same material as the tape and they also came in a variety of dimensions. And, there were pre-made IC and transistor pads and the IC pads had traces between them. Creating a PCB design was accomplished by using a very fine Xacto knife to apply the dot and tape to mylar film.
- In my first exposure to actual PCB creation, I was introduced to several designers in a lab. They prided themselves on being somewhat renegade in nature. One impression that stuck was that of a designer, smoking a cigarette with a long ash hanging off it while he was placing the dot and tape on the mylar film. Near the top of the film was an ashtray loaded with several butts and ashes that were spreading everywhere.
- First, there was Rubylith which was comprised of a thin red film stuck on a mylar film. In the negative, a PCB layout was created by removing the red tape to create a trace. There were obvious limitations.
Fast forward today and you find that there are incredibly complex and featured-loaded designs onto a PCB. There are several amazing aspects to this scenario:
- We are using the laminate-based PCBs that have been around for nearly 50 years.
- Every time we bump up against what we think is the boundary of what can be practically done in this technology, we find ways to wrest the last bit of innovation out of it.
- Today’s PCBs are sophisticated and challenging and they are never just the “carriers for the components” which are loaded onto them.
- Scrapping a PCB that contains thousands or hundreds of thousands worth of components on it is not a simple matter nor is the non-recurring engineering costs and time required to redesign and create a working PCB.
The reality is that today’s PCB implementations are complicated and innovative and the divisions between PCB design, fabrication, test and assembly are continually being blurred. This blurring becomes more critical depending on the components that make up the “heart” of the electronic product. But, finding fabrication shops that are capable of manufacturing these PCBs is very challenging especially when you take into account the fact that most PCB manufacturing operations have shifted off-shore.
One of the most reliable PCB manufacturers is Summit Interconnect (hereinafter referred to as Summit). With recent acquisitions, Summit is now the largest, privately held PCB manufacture in North America. With operations in a number of different locations, Summit has expanded its manufacturing capacity in significant ways. The VP of Technology is Gerry Partida and he is highly regarded as one of the most knowledgeable PCB fabrication experts. In fact, during the days when I was working with Speeding Edge, a design consulting and engineering training company, I relied on Gerry to provide me with the best advice regarding fabrication questions when the key member of Speeding Edge, Lee Ritchey, was not available.
For this article, in addition to Gerry, I also sought input from Clay Swain who is the Senior Vice President of Marketing and Sales for Summit. Both of them are focused on educating new engineers as to the fabrication trends and challenges they see coming down the pike; the things that PCB manufacturing has to do to keep pace with these trends and challenges and how they envision what future innovations will need to be made to keep pace with the rest of the electronics hardware industry.
Clay began his career in the PCB industry in 1989 in Logan, Utah as a sales manager at Lundahl Astro Circuits and remained there as the head of sales through the acquisition of ElectroEtch in Los Angeles in 1994 and the sale to Tyco Printed Circuit Group (TPCG) the following year. From 1995 through 1999 he held positions at TPCG as a National Sales Manager and the General Manger for the Logan, Utah division. He joined TTM Technologies in 2000 as the VP of Sales and helped support the company’s IPO that year. Clay supported TTM’s sales, marketing and investor relations functions through numerous acquisitions from 2000 through 2016. He joined Summit Interconnect in 2016 where he currently serves as the Senior Vice President of Sales & Marketing. He holds a BA and MBA from Utah State University.
As Vice President of Technology at Summit Interconnect, Gerry’s dead-eyed focused on cutting-edge HDI, high speed digital, Flex/Rigid Flex and RF microwave PCB fabrication for the company’s military and commercial customers. He has been a certified IPC trainer as well as member of the IPC-6012 and IPC-6018 review committees. Gerry explains, “I have been part of the IPC committees for the last 12-14 years. In my job, it’s important to be involved in the PCB industry, to intimately understand the certifications, and to help develop future standards.”
Gerry began his career in the PCB industry at Everett Charles Test Equipment. From there, he went to Oprotech/Orbotech. He was a member of the team that introduced several key advances to the industry including CAM automation, net list compare and AOI CAD reference.
Summit was formed in 2016 following the acquisition of KCA Electronics and Marcel Electronics International (MEI). The goal was to create a well-capitalized custom circuit board company with advanced manufacturing capabilities, industry expertise, and a software platform that makes it easy for customers to get their PCB designs reviewed and manufactured. With the recent acquisition of three new factories, the company now has a total of eight factories that total over 500,000 sf of manufacturing space and a more than 1250 employees.
Clay states, “The strategy behind our acquisitions is to look for companies with unique capabilities that will strengthen our business and further position us as a leading North American PCB manufacturer. We have both quick turn and production facilities that can provide a significant amount of tooling capacity, which allows us to quickly fabricate all types of PCBs from standard technology to highly complex.”
Through its acquisitions, Summit covers a wide range of capabilities. Clay notes, “A lot of our factories support sequential lamination and HDI. We also have unique capabilities with rigid flex, coin technology, metal-backed boards as well as Teflon materials for RF/Microwave products. We provide boards in all shapes and sizes.”
The company now offers a complete portfolio of PCB products for rigid, rigid-flex, flex, ATE, semiconductor, and RF/microwave designs. Each location specializes in a unique niche of the market, allowing Summit to meet a wide range of PCB needs from prototypes to production quantities and standard to advanced technologies. Summit is heavily focused on high-growth markets that require complex, high-reliability PCBS.
Mil-aero continues to be the biggest market sector for Summit but, as Clay explains, “With our recent acquisition of Royal Circuits, we have increased our end market diversification and exposure to commercial customers.”
Smoothing the Transition from Design to Fabrication
When it comes to ensuring the successful transition from the PCB design to fabrication process, there are number of factors that come into play and, no surprise, the devil is in the details.
As Gerry notes, “The first things product developers need to do is to give us the stackup so that we are clear on what material is going to be used. Then, the class of the board needs to be called out because that’s what defines the reliability.”
In terms of the various classes for boards, they are broken down into three divisions relative to device performance.
- Class 1
- This is used on basic level commercial devices such as the remote-control device for a TV.
- Class 2
- This is the class for commercial devices.
- Class 3
- This is the class of PCBs used in military products.
Additionally, there are the letter classes that determine the specs to which the boards must be built. Again, the division is in three classes. Gerry states, “Class A is the easiest to build and designers have to give very generous lines relative to spacing and annular requirements. At the Class B level, you need to have a really good board shop that knows what it is doing. Class C is where the yields are not going to be very good.”
And the structural elements that go onto a board are also determined by the above classes. Gerry explains “There are different things in the design books that dictate things like pad size. Class A is bigger, Class B is smaller and Class C is the smallest. When a product developer turns the design over to us, they have to state that the board is to be built in conformance with whatever class to which it has been designed. And, they then tell us which performance class the board requires. “
“In addition, they need to tell us the productivity level along with the stack up and aforementioned class requirements,” he continues. “The more detail we have, the better we can build their boards for them in the shortest amount of time possible.
Getting Down to Specifics
If there is a major area that will bring a fab effort to a grinding halt it’s in the documentation. This happens for a couple of reasons.
- People don’t provide a complete set of documentation for their designs.
- They don’t make sure that the information for the fabrication process matches their actual designs.
The above points will be discussed in detail below. But, first, the good news is that there’s a lot of existing information that provides detailed guidance of what designers need to provide to fabricators. And it can be found in a variety of specifications that are readily available and easily accessed.
Gerry notes, “There are standards that will tell people what needs to be supplied with the board when it is given to the fabricator. These standards can be found in IPC 1612, 1613 and 1618 specifications. In IPC 6012, there is a table that states ‘if you don’t specify something then the fabricator is free to conform to the following rules.’”
“Then, there’s IPC spec 2614 that tells designers what they should include in the drawings that they provide to their fabricator. It even tells them where to put certain requirements such as ‘in this corner, put in this info.’ And it breaks down the information by the various performance specs, Class A, Class B or Class C.”
“These are the performance specs that we build to and then we evaluate the boards we build against them.”
In addition to the foregoing, there are IPC design specs for the particular types of board construction. They include:
- IPC 2221 which is for all boards.
- IPC 2222 for rigid boards.
- IPC 2223 for rigid flex.
- IPC 2228 for high-speed RF boards (coming soon).
Gerry says, “Developers should read these specs but they don’t need to memorize them. If they are working on a particular design and they think they might be violating a design rule, they should go look it up. This also holds true if they think they are pushing the envelope that is recommended for the design at hand. If this is the case, they need to call their fabricator and review it with them. For instance, for Class C boards, we know that we can bend the rules outside of what is in the design spec because we are really good at managing our manufacturing, drilling and registration processes.”
He adds, “Then there are times when we will have to say, ‘this rule is in place for a good reason, and you are going to have fall out (failed boards). If the customer then says that they can’t make the board work any other way, then we have to tell them that they are going to lose about 50% of their yields and they will have to pay us twice as much because we are throwing half of the product away. Bottom line: product developers need to understand that when they are pushing the design guidelines, they need to contact the manufacturer and make sure that they can reduce the compliance requirement or accept that is going to be a more expensive board.”
Sometimes, it’s possible to turn a failed board into a successful one by understanding and following the guidelines. Gerry cites, “We had a customer whose product crashed and burned due to specification non-compliance and a bad design. It was a complicated board with vias from layer 1-10 and vias from layer 11-20 with a tin-lead finish. With tin-lead, we need to drill the holes bigger because the holes close down from the tin lead. The drill to copper was 7-mils for 5,000 holes and we were getting 25% yields. When they submitted a new design, we told them that they would have to pay 4x over the original order because we had to throw 75% of the boards away.”
He continues, “The customer then asked us if we could help them fix the design. I worked with the designer and we followed the IPC rules. We did not change the components or the location of them. We did add a few components such as bypass caps and discrete components here and there. We went from 5,000 ‘dangerous locations’ down to 24. The designer then said that they couldn’t make any more changes. I told him we could live with those odds and that, in most cases, we would be fine with just a little bit of risk. The boards were redesigned and sent to us and following fabrication, we had 88% yield.”
“We designed to spec, were able to reduce the risk from 5,000 down to two dozen and increased the yield to 88%. We put a more reliable product in the field and the customer got a lower price because the yield was much more predictable. It should be noted that this was not a simple board. It was a double blind—two blinds on the top; two on the bottom and it went through five lamination cycles. We changed from tin lead to ENIG and we reduced the drill size by 2-mils in diameter. This gave us greater space and it made the board safer relative to its reliability. But the main improvements were having followed the guidelines and applied the design rules. There can be a lot more success stories out there by doing this.”
The other challenges surrounding documentation arise from developers not checking to ensure that the fabrication process matches what is in the documentation provided for a new PCB. Gerry notes, “People will write down all the requirements on their drawing, but they don’t actually check to see if they are in the actual design. You said there’s a 1,000 holes but there’s only 999. What’s correct? The drawing or the data? Is this the wrong rev of the design? Did you update the rev or is this simply a typo? People need to check and then update us or tell us that there are 999 holes and they just dropped one drill.”
He continues, “People need to go item by item and look at the design to make sure it works. Is a dimension different because somebody typed it in wrong? Is this an older revision or is this a current revision or is the Gerber data wrong? They need to check every word and every sentence. People will call out an impedance on a layer as a 4-mil line on layer 3 and there are no 4-mil lines on layer 3. There’s a 5-mil line but is that a 5-mil line with a 50-ohm impedance? Did you not put in any 4-mil lines and can we just ignore this rule? The project goes on hold because we have to clear it.”
“Every dimension and every instruction needs to be verified. Documentation is the key reason that most jobs go on hold. 60% of new jobs go on hold and it’s all due to documentation problems/errors. For example, if there is a typo and a big military customer has to revise a design and sign off on it, it could be a 9,000 board that was going to be rejected because it was too thick. The board was measured at the transition zone from rigid to flex and the variation was 0.001 of a mil too thick. The spec says that you don’t measure at the transition zone because there is variation at that site and nothing can be done about it. They moved the measurement over by 59 mils (the thickness of a fingernail) and it was within tolerance. We were able to save two dozen boards that cost $9,000 each. We knew the rules but the source inspector did not. There’s lots of nuances within the specs and their requirements.
“Our industry really needs to work on educating product developers, manufacturers and inspectors on the design and inspection rules. It’s why we are advocates and participate in various technical conferences. We want to share our knowledge so that people will know what the parts are and understand what is acceptable and what is non-conforming.”
Challenges in the Next 2-5 Years
Looking forward to just a few years ahead, Gerry notes, “There isn’t enough capacity domestically for what the industry needs to build. We are already starting to see companies bringing more of their PCB manufacturing back to the US. There has to be a robust PCB industry in the United States to support the military. Otherwise, we won’t have the advanced technology needed for national defense.”
“The real challenge is that you have a lot of people, including myself ‘graying out’ in the industry. The IPC is doing some great work helping young people gain the knowledge and experience that took us decades to learn. For example, the IPC has the education foundation wherein they have set up chapters at universities and the students have ready access to the IPC documents. Recently, we had 22 students, an instructor and a professor from Cal Poly in our Anaheim facility; and we gave them a tour so that they could see what manufacturing a circuit board is like. Our CEO, Shane Whiteside, is a big proponent of this and has reached out to the universities to have them bring in students so that we can assist them as they become future engineers.”
In the last two years, our world has been confronted with events that, while not seeming to directly impact the PCB industry, have had an undeniable effect on how it is operating now and into the future. The three most prominent ones have been:
- The long, on-going influence of COVID.
- The world-wide semiconductor shortage.
- The recent, on-going war in the Ukraine.
Clay explains, “The semiconductor shortages have created uneven demand. Customers are designing around the component shortages by using chips that are available, while others are waiting to place their circuit boards orders until they know the components they want are available. In some instances, there’s a 12-month lead time on chips.”
He continues, “We recently saw China go through another COVID shutdown. The lockdown impacted the supply chain and in addition, inflation is driving up fuel and operating costs. As a nation, we’re putting an emphasis on semiconductor infrastructure here in the U.S. and there’s a lot of discussion around this in Washington D.C. But, until that happens we’re dependent on China and other Asian countries for most of our component supply needs. Finally, political instability in the world will likely drive-up demand for defense products. I think we’re going to be experiencing all of these issues for quite a while.”
“We’re expecting an increase in demand from defense customers to replenish stock levels. We’re hearing that some of the existing supplies used for defense are now being expedited for replacement. As a result of all of this, we think the National Defense budget for next year to be higher than last year and potentially at a record level. The need for the U.S. to invest in meeting this need is not going to go away and, in fact, is getting more pronounced.”
Clay adds, “As an industry, there’s a big realization that we need to have some control over our manufacturing beyond the rollup of acquiring companies that are already in existence. We need to start building additional capacity and investing in infrastructure to address future demands.”
“In our experience of expanding capabilities through acquisitions, it can take months to a year to align vision and deploy systems so that we all have the same information and are working off the same sheet of music. Having a strong information infrastructure is one of the most important factors in realizing the full benefits of a good acquisition.
And, not unlike many other industries and market sectors, the PCB industry across all segments is facing the same kinds of challenges that other industries are encountering. Clay says, “Having a skilled staff of people is quite a challenge. We need to take the actions to create a positive work environment with room for growth so that we can attract and retain new talent.”
To maintain consistency in operations, Clay states, “We’re trying to step into robotics. It’s always good to have the right people but it’s getting hard to find all the people we need. So, we’re thinking outside the box. We’re starting to use some robotics on the factory floor to do some of the repetitive tasks that can be automated.”
Despite the long history of the PCB industry and the assumption that the circuit board is just a carrier for the components which are mounted on it, the truth is that PCBs are continually complex and there is little latitude in terms of design “wriggle room.” In particular, high speed, high data rate designs are pushing traditional PCB and component implementations to the edge of what is achievable from a design, manufacturing and reliability standpoint. And the boundaries between these disciplines is getting “blurrier” almost on a daily basis. For product developers, having a working knowledge of manufacturing processes and the specs that determine their design and performance criteria goes a long way toward creating a product that is successful, reliable and profitable.
Epilogue about Gauss Capabilities
Full disclosure: Gerry is a strong proponent of Avishtech’s Gauss products. In particular, the ability to have insight into downstream aspects of the product development process goes a long way towards creating a design that is right the first time and every time thereafter. More detailed information on the various structures in a design, the wide variety of material options that are available and a new detailed level of information relative to these material properties and their performance characteristics is a significant advantage. And we’re continually upgrading our Gauss Stack and Gauss 2D products with new, in-depth information to further enhance the transition process across all of the product development process from design to manufacturing to assembly and test.
Kella Knack currently serves as Director of Strategic Marketing for Avishtech, a leading provider of EDA software design tools–Gauss Stack and Gauss 2D. She assists in the company’s marketing communications, positioning, tradeshow, PR and outbound messaging efforts.
Prior to this, she served as Vice President of Marketing for Speeding Edge, an engineering consulting and training company focusing on the design of high speed PCB and system design. She oversaw the redesign of the company’s website; implemented the establishment of Speeding Edge as a publishing company; developed all of the company’s marketing materials and managed tradeshow activities. She also established key strategic relationships in Germany and Denmark and oversaw the expansion of the company’s presence in Europe, Canada and Asia. In addition, she served as editor and coordinated all layout and printing efforts for the publication of the company’s two technical books, “Right the First Time,” Volumes 1 and 2.
Before this, she was the Founder and President of KJ Communications, Inc., a marketing consulting and public relations company based in Silicon Valley. She served as a strategic adviser for a number of highly successful marketing campaigns for clients that ranged from start-ups to multimillion dollar companies in the EDA, networking, SOC IP, semiconductor, embedded system design and database management market sectors. Once the programs were defined, she assisted these clients by coordinating their press activities; preparing press releases and assisting with the development of other marketing materials. Before this, she was an editor of various industry technology publications including PCB Design, LAN Computing and ASIC and EDA Magazine.