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Goldman: You have certainly been installing a lot of new equipment.
Gray: We've had a capital equipment growth over the past three years. We've been growing and expanding. I'd say we have tripled our capacity and output over the past three years.
Goldman: What started you into extra-large panels?
Gray: About eight years ago, a very-small, two-man company in Buffalo, New York was closing its doors and they gave us a call because we had been working with them on another project. They had just an etcher and printer and it was kind of a garage operation, but they did have a customer list that we were able to get from them, to provide support so they didn't leave anyone hanging. And that is what started us down this path.
From just three customers it has grown to over 15 customers that require large boards that we're able to satisfy. That makes it a lot easier on my sales trips when I can mention, "By the way, we can do up to 48” x 96” boards." And that information usually gets passed through their organization, "I found someone who can do large boards." It started to steamroll from there and we got the word out that we can make a really big board. We also have a close relationship with the material manufacturers, so for instance, Rogers makes non-standard master panels, and we'll buy those master panels from Rogers direct and sell it to our customers who have large board requirements. A lot of times Rogers salespeople will help get the word out, as well.
Goldman: I didn't even think about the fact that you needed extra-long laminate to make those boards.
Gray: Yes, the material OEMs such as Rogers, Taconic and Nelco do a great job with supporting us, and our non-standard, large-panel requests.
Goldman: I take it those are the ones that would normally be sheared or cut up for everybody else?
Gray: Exactly. They’re shearing down, but we take it as a master panel.
Goldman: You've been building this business mainly by word of mouth, shall we say, but what industries use these kinds of boards?
Gray: Aside from the CERN research experience in Switzerland, electronic digital chalkboards are very large, so they need a technology that's not an LED screen, but it's similar. It’s their own custom assembly that requires a large board. We also do large radar assemblies for a lot of the defense OEMs, like Ball and Raytheon. They know to come to us for their large, non-standard-type boards. There's another board that we make that is a leather cutting tool for high-end luxury cars, where they actually lay the leather out on a table and a machine will detect defects in the leather so they can highlight and correct the defects. I believe only one in 100 hides make the grade to be used in a finished Rolls-Royce.
Goldman: That's a rather interesting automotive application. So it's not just one industry.
Gray: Yes, a lot of industries, a lot of separate applications, which is nice to see; there are not only commercial requirements, but also the defense requirements from customers like Ball Aerospace and Raytheon. They seem to have a small group within the companies that still require large boards. It's very interesting.
Goldman: Are you coming across people that say, "Oh, now I can design that because somebody can build it?"
Gray: Yes. We're able to help designers to expand their original intention because we can go much bigger than, say, 30” x 50”, which is the next size that someone can do, but we can go much bigger than that—almost double.
Goldman: Can you envision applications that maybe you haven't seen yet? Where do you see the growth in this large panel market?
Gray: Where we see the growth is space and satellite communications. There's an increasing interest in building high-layer-count large boards, even a 41” x 41” circular pattern with high layer count. There's a lot of interest in that, but that's a new frontier. Nobody has built a board quite like that on a large scale so we're basically conducting research and running tests right now to get those high layer counts with HDI small features. The next frontier is space application.
We're trying to apply what we've learned over many years in the RF and microwave arena and apply that to the large board business because normally the large boards are simply digital boards or print and etch, but they're large. They present their own difficulties. This would require applying years of very intense manufacturing of high layer counts, small holes, small features from RF and microwave to a very large size, which creates a lot of problems. The material movement on a large piece of laminate is tremendous when you try to maintain ±3 mils. Even if you have one tenth of a mil movement on a feature, and that's duplicated 10 times on a large piece of material, you're going to have a lot of movement from one point to another.
Goldman: Exactly. How about a lamination press to do this? If you're talking multilayers, you would need to be able to laminate, unless you're counting on your material suppliers to help you out there.
Gray: Right. Plus we have a very large dry film laminator. We have 2 full panel laminators that are 48” wide, and then a laminator that is up to 60” wide. We're only limited by the dry film manufacturers, since they stop at about 48” in width, so 48” is our cutoff for this lamination. We have the equipment to support it, so it's very exciting. We also bought a brand new multilayer lamination press that's 4’ x 8’, so we can make multilayers. It's a very large press as well. That I believe is on our website.
Goldman: Are you already making multilayers in this very large format?
Gray: We are! Now, it is lower layer counts, up to six layers. We're running tests and studies right now for the higher layer counts. But it has proved to be a new frontier for high layer counts on a large board size such as 41” x 41” or even 38” x 38”. It hasn't been done before so we're really pioneering methods to manufacture such a large high-layer-count board.
Goldman: That's very interesting and impressive. Is there anything else you'd like to discuss here?
Gray: We are a small business and we are qualified with all the major defense OEMs; we're growing by the day and we're in a pioneering time. It's an exciting, new kind of territory. I always tell people that PCB technology at its core is very old. Moore's Law does not apply to our industry; every two years the technology does not double. Really, over those years, the only technology that is greatly improved is laser direct imaging, and maybe some laser drilling. Other than that, it's still basically print and etch. It's an exciting time in our industry and technology is progressing, and we're trying to maintain it and be on the forefront of those technology changes.
Goldman: Well, thanks very much. It’s been a pleasure talking with you.
Gray: Perfect. Thank you so much, Patty. I appreciate the opportunity.