Living Up to Their Name at Alpha Assembly Solutions
At SMTAI in October, I spent some quality time with Alpha Assembly Solutions' Jason Fullerton, who caught me up on Alpha's innovative new products. He also discussed a paper he was presenting, which compares two lead-free, silver-free alloys in a selective soldering application.
Judy Warner: Jason, it's good to see you.
Jason Fullerton: Thanks for having me.
Warner: What's new with Alpha? Are you exhibiting here?
Fullerton: We have a booth here and we're exhibiting on the assembly solution side. We have a couple of our newer products out to demonstrate and show to people. We also have some display information about our reclaim service where we take and refine solder waste and dross and turn that back into virgin metals, which gives some value to our customers. We pay them for the material. So we're turning their waste into value again, and they get reimbursed for that.
Our assembly customers, who can't do anything with the waste materials, pay companies to come in and take it away, especially the leaded materials because they're hazardous. We'll take it away, refine them back into virgin raw materials and then we'll pay them for the value of material recovered from that waste.
Warner: Wherever we can recoup some margin, right? That's great. What other products are you featuring here that you're sort of showing off?
Fullerton: We have two new products we introduced in the last year. One is a new variant of one of our cored wires. We have a cored wire called HF-850 and it's been available for a couple years now in a couple different alloys. It's in tin-lead and SAC lead-free, but we just introduced that into our silver-free, lead-free alloy. That's a new product for those who are concerned about cost, because the silver content in the alloy can drive up cost in the wire. It's really advantageous for people that are building low-cost products. It's also advantageous for people that are already using a silver-free alloy in their soldering processes. They can rework it with another low-cost alloy instead of having to use a silver-based alloy.
We also have a new flux gel material called HF-1 that we've introduced recently. That's a flux gel that's designed to be used in conjunction with other assembling materials such as SMT solder paste residues, wave solder fluxes, and cored wire fluxes. It can be used in conjunction with those for the rework processes without sacrificing anything on the reliability side. We've done some comparison testing and combinational testing of a variety and suite of materials for all the potential processes that could be applied to a circuit board with this material used on top of that to demonstrate the reliability is still there even when you use this secondary material.
Warner: Reliability obviously is a huge deal, especially on the mil/aero and medical side. It's becoming increasingly important across the board. Do you see that in your customer base?
Fullerton: Well, reliability has always been a key focus for our company. We recognize that the key to success for our customers is not simply providing the right material for the right problem today, but being able to put that into their product and service environments that can last as long as the customers need. We've been very strong in the military market, historically. We've been very strong in the automotive market as well. Those markets drive us to design products with the utmost reliability, both from the metal side and from the chemical side. In order to play in this market you have to have high-reliability products and those benefits trickle down to our customers that may not be as concerned or maybe aren’t sophisticated enough to test all of those aspects. They can be very confident in the materials we are selling.
Warner: I would think that would be a key asset to working with you, right? Is that trickledown effect and supporting high-reliability applications impacting all the products you support?
Fullerton: Absolutely. One of key core policies is in the strength of our technical service both from the R&D stand point, designing materials that meet today's challenges and future challenges, as well as our application support out in the field with a customer technical support (CTS) group that I'm a part of. We have five people in North America that are solely dedicated to working with our customers troubleshooting application problems, helping them select the right materials, identifying the key factors in their process and choosing the materials that are appropriate for those applications. It differentiates us from some of our other competitors that don't have such a strong R&D and technical side to them. All of these services come included in the price of business with us. If you're an Alpha customer, you have access to our CTS field service group that I'm a part of, as part of being a customer.
Warner: That's fabulous. Nothing beats a good technical marketing guy in your back pocket, right?
Fullerton: Absolutely, and I'm not even marketing. There are actually a couple differences. Technical marketing people tend to be more about how to market the products and explain the technical aspects. My job is to delve down into the actual applications and ensure I understand what our customers' challenges are, how to meet those challenges and how to help them recover in situations where they may have problems that are affecting their ability to meet their own challenges for their customer base. Our marketing people are very technical. Our field sales people are very technical. Obviously, our CTS and R&D groups are very technical. All around, our whole organization is full of technical people in different roles.
Warner: That's really unique.
Fullerton: It's one of the things that differentiates us from competitors in our field.
Warner: You have that full technical spectrum, which helps you to come along side and be a true partner I’d imagine.
Fullerton: Right. That's the way we look at it. We are partners with our customers, and when they are customers are successful, we're successful. We see that as our path toward success. We're not just trying to sell someone material and then walk away and wish them luck. We're going to have them pick the right material, help them implement the material, and help decide if what they're doing is the right thing to do with the materials we provided them. If not, then find the right material for the job or find the right way to process that material properly.
Warner: What do you see as the pain points in the EMS/CM industry as far as the different applications and how Alpha is specifically helping to stand in the gap with EMS companies?
Fullerton: One of the big challenges of EMS companies is they have a very high mix of product base because they have a large suite of customers, as opposed to an OEM that makes the same board all the time every day. In that field, they have different applications, different products and different challenges. We help them identify the right tool for the job when they try to meet those different challenges for their widely varied customer base. On top of that, EMS companies are in a very competitive market. They have to be cross competitive and provide quality and value to customers. We try to support our EMS customers in the same way. We may not be selling solely on price, but we look at the overall value and value in the process so that if there are problems that can be solved with the material, a small increment of cost in the material may reap big ROI on the back end when they reduce their manufacturing cost. That's where the big opportunities lie and that's how they remain competitive against their own competition in their field.
Everybody has SMT and wave solders and so on. We all have the same capabilities, but it's how you apply the abilities and how you choose your materials that ensures you're meeting your own customers’ objectives.
Warner: Beyond a broad mix, are there other specific things that you see as pain points for OEMs or EMS companies that you're addressing? I know you wrote an article for us about head-in-pillow. There's always also a lot written about tin whiskers. Is there anything like that you’d like to speak about from a technical standpoint? It seems like we go through these seasons where it's all about tin whiskers, for example.
Fullerton: There’s always a problem of the day.
Warner: And what's your prevailing problem du jour?
Fullerton: The one that's floating to the top now is voiding. Voiding in solder joints has become a very critical characteristic. We've been looking at voids in solder joints for 10–15 years, ever since we adopted lead free. But 10 or 15 years ago when lead free was brand new, it was primarily on the area array packages where voids were relatively straight forward. There is not as much of a relationship between voids and reliability in BGA or area array applications. Now there are types of packages that are out, bottom terminated components, where you’re using that termination as a heat sink, or LED packages where you're actually using that to drain the heat away from the LED. Especially with LEDs, it’s been an extremely difficult challenge to meet, because they're using that solder as a thermal interface material. The more voids you have in that solder joint, the lower your thermal conductivity. There's a very strong drive right now to develop products and processes that can minimize the amount of voids especially in the lighting and power device market.
Right now we are developing material and we have released a material for the lighting market that is designed to be ultra-low voiding. We did this by modifying the flux chemistry to minimize the reactions between the flux and other materials in the solder and on the surface finishes to minimize the amount of voids forming in the first place. That's something we pushed heavily into LED markets because that's where the biggest impact is on voiding and the biggest direct correlation.
Warner: Sounds like you need to write a new article for us, Jason. Hint, hint.
Fullerton: That's certainly something we've been talking about. It's relatively new to the market so there isn't a lot of field history with it yet. We have some customers that are currently using it in production. As we develop more experience with that, we'll have a stronger data suite of the material used in the field. We have strong data from our R&D source, of course, but what works in the lab can be different than how it works out in the world. There are variables you can't control in the real world that you can control in the lab. As we get more and more field service, that's where I tend to be stronger with bringing information to the table because I'm involved in the application base. So the combination of the R&D chemistry on the front end and then supporting of our customers in troubleshooting and learning how the material works in real-world applications helps strengthen our ability to provide that solution to customers.
Warner: Okay, we're going to stay tuned for that. Sounds like as you get some case studies and get some data and long-term efficacy reports, we would love to hear about that. Jason, I understand you are presenting a paper this week. What can you tell me about that?
Fullerton: The paper I’m presenting tomorrow is a comparison of two engineered lead-free, silver-free alloys in a selective soldering application. It's a very specific application, that's for sure.
Warner: I would say so.
Fullerton: There's a widely known material that's been out since the advent of lead free that's very commonly used. In the last two years, we have released a product that competes directly with that. However, we struggle because there's a large install base with our competition, and we don't have that large field history of use to fall back on yet where our competition does. The initial intent of this project was to demonstrate to a selective soldering equipment manufacturer that our alloy was as good as another alloy they were very familiar with.
But what happened was as we developed this experiment, we actually realized that not only was it as good as it, but it showed some significant improvements in the ability to meet the challenges on certain difficult applications. I'm presenting data tomorrow that shows the comparison of the settings that are required from the process inputs, like pre-temperatures, solder temperature, and contact time during the solder process. This shows that you have a wider range of settings that can provide suitable quality and meet or exceed the requirements for through-hole selective soldering compared to our competition. This is going to be used, of course, to show that we have a competitive material. We're non-commercial here at the conference, however my field sales are also going to use that to demonstrate to customers currently using our competition’s material that there may be a better material out there for them to use.
Warner: Will that white paper be posted on your website for folks to grab or you going to have that posted on SMTAI’s website site?
Fullerton: It will be part of proceedings in the conference when they are released. We do publish the white papers we present and have them available for our customers on our website.
Warner: Well, it sounds like you're a busy guy. Thanks so much for coming by.
Fullerton: That is for sure. There is a lot to do at the SMTA International Conference and I try to get as much benefit from these events as I can.
Warner: It was great to talk to you. We look forward to seeing you again. Good luck with the show.
Fullerton: It's always a pleasure.