Ventec: Eye on the Future, with Automotive and Lighting Front and Center
Ventec’s Thomas Michels and Didier Mauve sat down with I-Connect007 Editors Patty Goldman and Pete Starkey and enjoyed an upbeat and enlightening conversation. Among the topics covered were the importance of working partnerships in maintaining supply chain continuity, market drivers for thermally conductive materials, and development of enabling technologies to support the automotive electronics revolution. And did we mention these guys at Ventec are having fun? They are!
Patty Goldman: It’s nice to sit down with you here at productronica. Let’s start by telling our readers about your positions with Ventec and then we can talk about your deepest interests.
Didier Mauve: I'm sales marketing manager with Ventec Europe. I'm also the leader in the team for thermal management and for the new product introduction in this segment.
Thomas Michels: I'm the managing director of Ventec Europe, responsible for the entire Ventec materials range, as well as being the global leader for Ventec's non-CCL materials.
Goldman: What materials are you exhibiting at productronica?
Mauve: A full range of dielectrics and prepregs, which cover a lot of hot topics as far as thermal management is concerned.
Goldman: What is pushing thermal management, in your opinion?
Mauve: Power and lighting in the automotive industry, and DC-DC converters, also in the automotive industry—lots of applications now are consuming and using more power, which we need to drive out of the boards. Therefore, there’s a need for new dielectrics with special thermal conductivity properties.
Michels: Well, this is about specific materials, but the other message that we would like to give to the market is that we are committed to the European market and the Western market and we have, meanwhile, two fully equipped service centers in Europe to keep the supply chain up and running. At the beginning of the year, we had, for example, a big issue regarding copper foil shortage and it's very important that companies work together. We are a part of the supply chain so therefore we like to make sure that customers understand we can help them to keep the supply chain up and running.
Pete Starkey: Thomas, you mentioned the copper foil situation. I realize it's pulling the conversation away from its original focus, but I think it's a very relevant topic. How have you managed your way through this situation and what is the current position?
Michels: Because we’ve always worked in very close partnership with our suppliers, we haven't faced a big issue since the beginning of the year. We faced allocation, but not as much as others. Meanwhile, during the last nine months we have worked very closely with our key supplier for copper foils so that they give us the right allocation, but besides this we're going to see a problem with the cost of copper foil at the beginning of next year at the latest, due to London Metal Exchange.
Starkey: Currently the supply situation from Ventec's point of view is under control?
Michels: Under full control.
Starkey: But the fact of life is that LME metal prices will push the foil prices up.
Michels: Exactly. Supply chain is under control. Costs, well, this is something we just have to follow the market.
Goldman: When there's a high demand the cost matches. There's just no getting around it.
Starkey: Sorry to have interrupted but that was very important to pick up on. Didier, back to you and the thermal management side. Thermal management requirements are making life more and more interesting for the substrate suppliers!
Mauve: That's correct.
Starkey: The applications are demanding more and more in terms of substrate capability, dielectric thickness and dielectric thermal conductivity. We started off seeing thermal conductivity of two, two and a half watts per meter Kelvin and we saw this increase through three, four, five, six, and seven. Where are we at now?
Mauve: Currently we have dielectrics up to 10 watts per meter Kelvin. And as a matter of fact, what you pointed out is correct—the thickness matters. Of course, the thinner the dielectric the lower is the thermal resistance. But on the other hand, if we consider the market for converters for automotive, there is a requirement for higher dielectric thickness.
Starkey: You're handling much higher voltages for this situation?
Starkey: So, you've got two conflicting requirements. You must maintain the thermal conductivity on one hand, and electrical insulation on the other.
Mauve: Exactly. The beauty being that we have the capability to offer the full range of dielectric thicknesses from 50 microns up to over 200 microns; that’s two mils to over eight mils, and heading towards 10 mils. We can offer our customer a comprehensive thickness range that is compatible with our process of manufacturing. For us this is not a problem at all.
Starkey: Does the customer generally know what he wants, or does he rely very heavily on you for his applications-engineering advice, and support?
Mauve: Pete, we talked about that in another interview. As you know, IPC has not yet issued the relevant standards, although this will probably happen in the coming years, when the main players and suppliers of the industry have agreed on the details. In the meantime, you have a lot of values popping up in data sheets with very different ways of measuring them.
Starkey: Even when there has been some international agreement on standards.
Mauve: We generally use IPC specifications for our products, if IPC has released something. When they do not exist, we refer to other specifications that the main players are using.
Starkey: Ventec publishes good objective data sheet information. To what extent do the customers understand the specifications, understand the data sheets, and know what to specify? And to what extent do they call in the guy who knows, and ask “This is what we want to do, how do we do it?”
Mauve: That’s a very good question, because we must translate the data sheet into a language that the customer and the end users and designers can understand, and use the values in their materials calculations.
Goldman: When you say customer, a customer can be many things. It can be the PCB manufacturer, the end customer and so on. That's very important too, right?
Mauve: This is a good question, again. I consider the “customers” to be the people doing the designing, because you see a lot of IP involved with thermally conductive materials, much more than comes with FR-4 standard product. It is like the situation with a low Dk/Df product, where the design is going to be based on particular product properties, rather than on a generic specification. And we are not only focusing on single-sided single-layer IMS base materials—we also have a comprehensive range of thermally-conductive laminates, thin cores and prepregs that can be incorporated into hybrid multilayers, with one, two or more thermally conductive layers that you can electrically connect and thermally connect to the top, where you have high temperature-emitting components. This is much easier to do than using copper-invar-copper; it is much simpler to adapt this process, and then you can really be successful compared with the old thermal dissipation techniques.
Starkey: Didier, do you see many new developments in the applications of your insulated metal substrates in situations where you have embedded components?
Mauve: Yes, we do. We have customers making more and more embedded-component structures, where you must take the heat out of the embedded components, and the components have to be surrounded by the prepregs and by the resin system that's pulling the heat out of the components. Of course, this is a totally different ballgame than the single-sided, single layer, IMS-based product, but it is thermal management as well. So, you must evacuate heat and avoid vibration, because more and more of these components are located near the wheels or in the power-train where vibrations are a concern.
Starkey: These applications are mainly focused on the automotive electronics sector?
Mauve: Most of the applications are coming from the automotive sector, at this time, and the rest is coming from aerospace, because in space you don't have air; you have to manage heat transfer as best you can. You cannot force air into a device because this is vacuum, and air is a poor thermal conductor anyway—you can use air for thermal insulation rather than conduction! The magnitude and the span of the application today is still quite vast, because automotive is the driving force right now. If you look at automotive in the coming 10 years, the cockpit is going to look more like an aircraft cockpit, and the spec isn't going to be that far away from an aircraft if you look at the temperature, although of course we are not talking about -70°C. But as far as the pricing, because by nature automotive is looking to drive product cost down to make it affordable to the masses. This is not going to be the same spec, but this is very challenging for us. At the same time, where you have some price and cost constraint by the aerospace and aircraft industry due to the low numbers that you have to issue, automotive on the other hand gives you the perfect leverage for that.
Starkey: Particularly when you're servicing the automotive industry; again, you've got two conflicting requirements. On one hand, you want the performance and the reliability, and on the other hand, you want the minimum cost. I'm sure there are occasions when you could offer them a perfect technical solution, but at a cost that could not be afforded. It's about intelligent applications engineering.
Mauve: The automotive gives you this safety of four years or five years visibility. This is a good thing. Of course, you understand the name of the game is you are going to be under extreme cost constraint, and you know that for sure. You don't take for granted that you're going to be indebted for the next 20 years, but it is still very challenging in. And then you have the volume at the same time. The learning curve is exponential, because you get the volume, you get the production, you learn how to do it, you do it better and better, and improve your process. It’s a win-win game in the end.
Goldman: I have a question for you, Thomas. What percentage of your business is thermal laminates now? What was it, and how do you see it increasing, perhaps as a percentage of the laminate business, if not yours, in general?
Michels: Five years ago, we started these thermal management discussions because we were contacted by some big automotive OEMs. At that time, we had a small amount of business in IMS for LED lighting and other stuff. After two years, it was 1% of the business. Two years ago, it was 3%. Last year, it was more than 6%. This year, it will hit double digits.
Goldman: And you see it only going up, I presume?
Michels: Our forecast for next year is that we think that we can increase by another 50%. Polyimide used to be our high-quality product driving us; now thermal management is clearly the superstar. This is the story. This is where Ventec has a good amount of product where we have nice three, five, or seven percent, and still we outperform the market when we talk about our growth, but for the IMS, as I said, we are in an area of 50% growth. So, within two or three years I wouldn't be surprised if we have 25% of our business in thermal management. It could be even higher.
Mauve: Our guys in R&D have gained a lot of knowledge from their experience with polyimide—how to handle the resin system. It incorporates fillers, filtration, magnetic and standard, you know how to mix the resin system, how to make it better, and you learn a lot. And then, you can reproduce that and make a very high-tech and high-quality product. Nothing is a surprise.
Michels: I think one of the reasons why we are so successful with this is we are a medium-sized laminator. We understand the challenges, and we have adapted our R&D. Also, we are in China. We are a Taiwanese company, as most people know. We have, meanwhile, more than 7% of our workforce in R&D. We are an R&D-driven company. That's why we have success, because we saw the challenge, and we said, "Okay, we’re going to ride the wave. Let’s do it.” So, we invested.
Goldman: And we see automotive as a growing factor, among other things—the components get denser, regardless of what they're for.
Mauve: I have crossed the Atlantic three times since September, and we did three wonderful shows; you should see Detroit today. Detroit is booming again. Detroit is bouncing from its own ashes, and eCars is going to be the industry—already you notice that. Everywhere, they are looking for solutions, the American people are looking into it, and it's a serious market going on. Tesla showed us and paved the way, and all the big names now in the Detroit area like Ford and GM are all into this sector.
Michels: I would like to say something regarding Tesla. Tesla paved the way, as you just said, and this is exactly right. They paved the way and the old-style car manufacturers hadn’t taken them too seriously at first. Now they take them seriously! BMW and Mercedes announced day before yesterday that, by 2022 at the latest, 20% of their entire sales will be eCars or hybrid cars. Tesla is now talking about 500,000 new Teslas next year, which they won't reach anyway, but when you think about Volkswagen or Toyota, the manufacturers of volume, they produce 10 million cars, or 20 times that, so they are the real deal.
Mauve: In the U.S., what you notice is this is not pushed by government enforcement or large incentives, compared with Europe, where the big car manufacturers had to turn a proportion of their production into eCars or hybrids. But in the US, more people are wanting green cars. For example, in California you see that people’s consciences are coming out—what they want for the future of their kids. This is exactly what it is about. In America, the market is 17 to 18 million cars a year, so if you do the math, and let's take a conservative 10-12 %, that’s over two million cars a year.
Starkey: I think Ventec has made some very good business decisions at the right time to focus their R&D effort.
Mauve: I have fun! In parking lots I’m looking at cars, and I’m looking at lights.
Starkey: You very much enjoy what you do, Didier. It's always great to talk with you because you speak with such enthusiasm about it.
Mauve: Yes. It's because we are making the new technologies possible, and we are offering that to a wider number of people and making it affordable. LED lighting two to three years ago was just for some happy few. Today, you make it affordable for everybody, and you see it on the Spanish-made SEAT Leon or even get it on the SEAT Ibiza, which is a lower-end car for about $600. It's nothing. It's affordability, security, and safety. And you will see, eCars will be the same. We are going to find some solutions and we’re going to find new products and make them even more affordable.
Starkey: And you’ll stay ahead of the game and be giving these guys what they need, as if you were their future.
Mauve: Exactly. We're part of that. Ventec, and our good competitors, are the base for that, and that's fun. The electronics industry is always surprising!
The electronic content in our life is huge, and it's increasing. I remember, many years ago, the old guys came up with the transistor, then they came up with microprocessors, and they only talked CPU. Now you see that this is the “coming back” of the old power electronics guys, because it is used in eCars. The power electronics guys that nobody talked about are now in demand. The high voltage, the high current, nobody had to deal with that. When you deal with the CPU, you deal with milli-volt or milli-amps, and here we are talking lots of amps and we are talking thousands of volts, so think about it. That's good time for high performance dielectrics!
Goldman: Thank you so much for your time, both of you, for this interesting information.
Michels: Thank you very much.
Mauve: It’s always a pleasure. Thank you.