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Recently, I caught up with Meny Gantz, VP of marketing and new product introduction (NPI) for Orbotech's PCB division, to discuss their new technology for the ever-growing flex market. The first solution is direct imaging on a roll-to-roll setup. And the second solution is UV laser drilling, also for roll-to-roll and sheet-by-sheet. I asked Meny to provide an overview of the new equipment and share some insights into the growing flex market.
Meny Gantz: As you know, flex has become an increasingly important element inside many of the electronics that we use in our daily lives. If you look inside any smartphone or advanced device, you will find flex. Some of the most advanced smartphones include up to 22 flex circuits, many of which are highly complex. They are used to enable different capabilities or functionalities including, for example, the many small form-factor cameras that have become a standard in advanced smartphones. Focusing in on 5G smartphones, their multiple antennas also require flex. All this has to be mass produced in a cost-effective way. On the manufacturing side, there is also a lot of discussion today about the need for smaller manufacturing systems in order to save floor space in the yellow rooms and total production rooms – the eco-friendly aspects.
We looked at all these requirements and put them inside the systems which we recently launched. The first—Orbotech Infinitum™—is for roll-to-roll direct imaging. The second is Orbotech Apeiron™, which is for roll-to-roll and sheet-by-sheet UV laser drilling. Both target flex printed circuits. There are many drivers for flex PCBs, the first of which is 5G. I say 5G because everything “next generation” is related to 5G, such as the 5G smartphones. There is also medical devices, and we know today more than ever that everything needs to be done remotely. Other drivers include wearables with their small form factor, and work- and learn-from-home (WFH/LFH) devices—all of these include flex.
We see that the increased demand for flex includes smart automotive, which is interesting. Weight is very important in electric cars and the systems need to be as lightweight as possible. In the past, cables were used in cars for electricity, etc. Today, many of these cables have been replaced by functional flex PCBs, some of which are as long as the entire length of the car. In order to produce them we need to have the ability to do what we call unlimited flex, which is very long, or even infinite flex.
Barry Matties: That’s a big market.
Gantz: I believe it will become even bigger and the demand for flex PCBs will grow from this.
Matties: You’re probably seeing that in the aerospace market as well.
Gantz: We don’t always know because some of this is confidential, but we are hearing that there are requirements for longer flex PCBs in aerospace. Now, when looking at the challenges of flex manufacturing, we identified some key areas. The first is how to produce advanced flex PCBs. It is not that easy if you want to retain high complexity and good registration, and still achieve higher yields.
Matties: When you look at photolithography yields, Meny, where do you see the greatest dropout? Is it registration? If not, what is the primary cause?
Gantz: There are three main factors that influence the yield when manufacturing flex. The first is material handling which is critical, particularly with very thin, delicate flexible materials which can easily be damaged if not handled properly. The second factor is imaging quality and registration. Due to the nature of flex, distortions are commonplace, and the system needs to compensate for these through the use of sophisticated algorithms.
The third and final factor is the impact of foreign particles during the lithography process. These particles are generally introduced by photo tools or the environment. With Orbotech Infinitum, all these three elements are addressed. The controlled tension mechanism of our unique drum-based system ensures optimized material handling; registration driven by advanced algorithms is an embedded capability in all Orbotech's DI solutions and as Orbotech Infinitum is a clean, digital solution, the particle issue is mostly a non-issue.
Matties: And when you say more complex, is it basically density that drives complexity?
Gantz: A few things are driving complexity. The first is density, and the second is the additional layers. If there are additional layers, then width can also create additional complexity. Today, PCB makers are mostly using 260mm roll widths. They would very much like to move to 520mm roll widths but they are hesitating because of reduction in the yield. The wider the material, the better the registration needs to be and the more difficult it is to handle the material. Without digital equipment, it is very difficult to make that registration. This is why we have presented these two new products for UV laser drilling and for direct imaging, both of which support digital compensation and are designed for up to 520mm flex widths.
Matties: Having a matching system makes sense because they’re talking to each other.
Gantz: Having a holistic solution with multiple systems from a single vendor provides significant benefits and synergies for the PCB maker. It really is an issue of the whole being greater than the sum of its parts. I think it is clear that everybody wants to manufacture with higher quality and better total registration in order to be more competitive, have better capacity, reduce production costs, and have better solutions than their competitors. At the end of the day, this benefits the consumers of the electronics industry: We can buy our smartphones and other devices more cost-effectively, and this is enabled by the manufacturers producing with better yields and better throughputs.
Registration and line/space widths in flex have become even more important. These were the needs, now let’s talk about the solutions. The first product is the Orbotech Infinitum, which is driven by three main technologies, some new and some successfully field-proven. The first is a new technology and is called DDI Technology™, or drum direct imaging.
Matties: Yes. I noticed you were imaging material as it was passing on the drum. It’s not lying flat.
Gantz: Yes exactly. I’m sure that you’ve visited some flex maker shops where you see the “natural way” of handling flex PCBs—in rolls. With DDI technology, the Orbotech Infinitum writes on a drum, but this is possible only because of our two other technologies, both of which are field-proven. The second technology that drives the Orbotech Infinitum is our Large Scan Optics (LSO) Technology™ which is in use in nearly 2,000 Orbotech DI systems worldwide. This technology is proven, and we know how to work with it. Its major advantage is that it writes with a very sharp beam on a very small spot. Typical DI systems which are DMD-based, cannot image on a drum because they will have depth-of-focus (DoF) issues due to the drum's curvature. But if you are using LSO, you are always printing on the top and utilizing the system's high DoF. Actually, the beam is smaller than the top which is how the LSO technology allows us to write on a drum. The third technology is our MultiWave Laser Technology™ which is used in our Nuvogo systems, now in about 600 systems.
Matties: The Orbotech Infinitum looks like it has a nice small footprint as well. You’re getting a lot of functionality, and the print time looks like it’s going to be fast, too.
Gantz: There are two models and both of them are very fast. When we talked about productivity and throughput, this is our response to customers who want to understand how they can produce in a much more effective way.
Matties: Now I see the control panel. You have one panel on the front. I’m sure you guys are doing a great graphic user interface, but there’s really not much for the user to do here, right? It’s all going to be fed through a computer system. They just flip the job number.
Gantz: The Orbotech Infinitum is basically all automated. All the operator needs to do is load and unload. All the detail and requirements set out in the CAM are automatically loaded and implemented.
Matties: And then, assuming it’s just on a roll, you could run multiple jobs on a single roll, so it can run as long or as short as you need it to.
Gantz: Have you been talking to our customers? It sounds like it (laughs). Actually, we didn't initially think about this – our focus was mass production. Some of our customers asked if changing jobs in the middle would be possible as they have a very long roll and a few jobs that don’t need the entire roll. The answer is yes, it is easy to print multiple jobs. This capability gives our customers an advantage, especially those that are doing multiple jobs and need to have some ability to do it in a digital, more sophisticated way.
Matties: This seems like it may be a good technology for Europe and North America, as well as the mass producers in Asia.
Gantz: Right. Capacity is very high, up to 2,700 meters per day, which is a really amazing number. And the system is eco-friendly and very small—seven square meters—including the imaging mechanism, handling mechanism, cleaner, winder and unwinder. For some of our customers, the small footprint is a major advantage. The first Orbotech Infinitum systems are already installed at a few customer sites in Asia and we've already received acceptance from some. We are seeing a lot of interest in this solution.
Matties: Great. Now let’s talk about the Orbotech Apeiron roll-to-roll UV laser drilling solution.
Gantz: The Orbotech Apeiron is very interesting. Again, this system is designed for roll widths up to 520mm widths, and you can have as many drills inside the roll as you like. There are field-proven as well as new technologies in this system. The first is our Multi-Path Technology™, which is a technology that we use in our existing UV laser drilling solutions. We also have the new Continuous Beam Uniformity (CBU) Technology™, which controls the shape and uniformity of the beam, and therefore, the uniformity of the holes along the roll over time. As a result, the beam shape remains consistent at all times.
The third technology is the Roll-Inside Technology™. Typical systems have rolls on the outside, but with Roll-Inside, everything is inside. The rolls are actually under the table, and the replacement of the roll is easy and fast, which makes operating it very simple. This is also an eco-friendly solution and has a very small footprint—about five square meters—so you don’t need to have a big facility to have your roll-to-roll UV laser drilling.
Matties: It looks good. And again, that’s a hands-off operation once they load it, right?
Gantz: Once the roll is loaded, all the operator needs to do is insert the recipe and then the system operates automatically. The Orbotech Apeiron uses four channels. The minimum hole size can go down to 20 micrometers, + 12 micrometers on the accuracy. The material handling in this system is also unique and very efficient and it's very small compared to other solutions in the market.
All the key parameters that we identified as important to our customers are answered in these systems. With the Orbotech Apeiron drill, in addition to roll-to-roll we also have the capability to do sheet-by-sheet, which many customers want. It’s very efficient because we allow for putting two sheets together, which is almost like double throughput.
Matties: You’re saying that if they don’t want to do a roll, they can put a sheet in individually, sheet-by-sheet. How’s that being clamped down? What’s the clamping mechanism? Is it a vacuum?
Gantz: It is a vacuum mechanism, which has been successfully field-proven in many of our solutions.
Matties: That does give them a lot of versatility.
Gantz: Yes. We know that customers want both options. The roll-to-roll and sheet-by-sheet processes are different from each other, so this versatility is extremely helpful.
Matties: You mentioned you had several customers using the systems, both the direct imaging and drill, correct? As a combined package?
Gantz: One customer is testing both systems and we are at a very advanced stage there. We believe that more and more customers will look for a comprehensive, holistic solution for flex manufacturing and Orbotech Infinitum and Orbotech Apeiron answer this need.
Matties: So you’ve got two systems using two different ways to position the material. One is on a fixed roller and you’re moving the beam. The other one’s on a moving platform underneath a fixed beam. Do you get significant or noticeable differences in accuracy or performance between those two machines? And why does one machine use one method and the other machine use another?
Gantz: It’s a different approach. When you are drilling, it’s not continuous because the holes are in specific places. You don't need to drill one line, but you do need to drill on the same surface. It would be very difficult to drill on a drum. The actual technology of the drilling is different. In order to achieve optimal drilling results, the material needs to be flat and drilled in sections because each time, the drilling is happening in a different area. When you are printing or imaging, the benefit of having a continuous beam writing allows you to work on a drum base. You need to consider what has to be done with the material and what state best suits it.
Matties: This is a lot of investment into the flex market. What sort of growth do you anticipate in flex?
Gantz: Flex is growing significantly because of a few elements. What we see is the growth of components that will require flex. All the wearables need flex, as well as automotive and smartphones. A while back, you and I discussed the amount of flex circuits inside the smartphone. At that point it was something like 12 flex circuits. Today, in the most advanced smartphones, there are 22 flex circuits. As we've already discussed, some of these flex circuits are very complex and they enable the camera, the antenna, 5G and more. Once we fully move over to 5G, new flex materials will play a major role and then we will see additional momentum with flex.
I am positive that the solutions that we bring will serve our customers and increase their ability to manufacture more advanced, eco-friendly solutions with better yield, throughput and cost-structure for their customers
Matties: Meny, this has been very informative. Thanks for the overview.
Gantz: Thank you.