Technology Ambassador Alun Morgan
Barry Matties speaks with Alun Morgan about his new position as technology ambassador for Ventec International Group. In this position, Alun will use his wealth of knowledge and experience to inform the supply chain better when it comes to topics like thermal management and the sometimes shaky connection between designers and material suppliers.
Barry Matties: First, why don't you talk about what the role of a technology ambassador entails?
Alun Morgan: Basically, my role is to advocate for Ventec. As you know, I travel quite extensively. I give presentations for Ventec, and I see my role as being one that promotes the company and its technologies. It is a great fit as Ventec is active in a number of different technology sectors, many of which I have been involved in in the past. New products are being developed and launching all the time. I see my role as being somebody who advocates for the company and its products to audiences worldwide.
Matties: I know there is also an educational aspect, I would think, to your role. It’s not just about the product, but about the process, if you will, from the user's point of view where they may need to know some new information.
Morgan: As you know from my career to date, I have always focused quite strongly on the educational aspect and will continue to do so. I think it's very important that we explain to designers what's possible—what can be done. That plays a big role in my remit and is very important to me personally too. The other thing that feeds into a company like Ventec—a company that is growing and continuously developing new products—is that they really benefit from the feedback from the market. Getting to know first-hand what is required is key, so they can target the developments in their R&D. That is also a big part of my role.
I work closely with the Ventec team at their headquarters in Suzhou as well as their regional offices across the world, and I just returned from Ventec’s global sales meeting where we discussed many of the market demands and developments that I come across. Because talk to lots of people, I travel around the world, go to a lot of trade shows, and hear from lots of sources the way the market is moving, and the requirements of today and the future. Ventec is a global company. Its manufacturing is based in Asia, but it has an established a strong global connection through a fully controlled supply chain. I am Ventec’s ear on the ground and can provide valuable insights and other perspectives on requirements, and offer guidance on the direction of travel.
Matties: In the current marketplace, what trends or issues do you see from the community out there?
Morgan: That depends on where you look. Reliability, of course, was a massive issue for many years and still is to a large degree if you look at sectors like automotive. Reliability is what they are really looking for. We went through the lead-free assembly cycles many years ago, and products are available in those spaces. The area that I wouldn't have predicted would be quite so strong is thermal management. That was something that came around some years ago—insulated metal substrate (IMS) materials and products—that allow you to manage heat within the material.
These came around largely because of early LED lighting for street and house lighting, and other applications that we see all around us today. If you look at where that's gone now, it's moved away from that area. Automotive lighting—even high-powered lighting—uses LEDs with IMSs. The same technology can be used to manage heat in general. When you have high-powered dissipation devices or small devices dissipating large amounts of heat, it becomes a big requirement. What originally you might have seen as a consumer-oriented product for early LED lighting has become a very high-end and specialized area. Ventec has leveraged that. They have a comprehensive tec-thermal range of products right through the value chain on thermal management, which is very successful. I am quite keen on thermal management.
The other area that you have heard me talk about many times is signal integrity, and low-loss, high-speed materials. There is no doubt the whole market has moved in the direction of high-speed, which makes loss and Dk big factors. Managing those electrical properties becomes quite critical. Again, Ventec offers a whole range of products starting from typical FR4 style Dks right down to almost PTFE values. That is an important growth area as well. There are many players in that market, but there are very few that have significant market shares, and many of those have limited capabilities.
I see the market growing perhaps at a higher rate than the supply chain and base in many cases. You often hear of long delays in getting materials with weeks and even months of lead time. That is one of the things that Ventec does well in terms of supply chain management. Ventec has a much quicker, sleeker supply chain than many others. I think that is a critical area as well, and we certainly see a lot of activity around the tec-speed 20.0 series of high-frequency performance products that have just been released—the 3.48-Dk products that also combine high-reliability and excellent loss characteristics. There's a whole area of interest in that space for me as well.
Matties: The interesting thing here is that you really have two customers: one that buys the material—the case could be made that the OEM buys the material, but the fabricator orders it—and second, you have a designer. Somehow, those two have to connect in a way that makes it a successful product. How do you connect those?
Morgan: It's been a hot discussion topic for many years—how to get through to the designers and explain what's available. What typically happens is that a designer uses a standard product they have maybe used before or just something that comes off the shelf, and then talk to the board shop eventually for advice on final selection. That works perfectly well in many cases. However, in the last 10–20 years—and particularly in the last few years—there's been such a proliferation of materials available and different choices for the designer that it’s now more important than ever that the designer talk to the manufacturer and try to gain knowledge of what is available at the start of the design process. That is something we are definitely working on.
I've done a lot of work on it in the past as well—organizing designer days and offering training on what's available. It was fairly straightforward in the past but certainly isn't now. For example, when you look and say, “I want to buy an FR-4,” that can range from a massive range of different products. There are so many properties now in the mix even the discussion we’ve had recently around halogen, halogen-free, filled, unfilled, and CT and loss values. It would be quite easy for a designer to get confused about what they should select. There is no kind of universal or magic material that fits everything. Now, applications need very specific materials with certain properties. One shouldn't forget that cost has a big impact as well.
It might be fine to use a particular substrate for an application, but you end up being uncompetitive because you haven't chosen the best material available from a cost perspective, and then you lose out to competitive pressure. Everything comes into play—properties, cost, and supply chain integrity. When we innovate and develop products, we need to have a reliable supply chain that can help get those products to market. If you have to wait six to 12 weeks for materials, you may end up missing an opportunity.
Matties: As we look into the designer community, we see an aging population in America and a newer generation moving in. How do you view the two generations?
Morgan: It is interesting to have that discussion. If we're talking about Europe, a few weeks ago, I was at the FED conference. FED is the large German design community organization. They award young designers. A school kid received one of the awards, which was phenomenal. It made me really delighted because we weren't all people with gray hair sitting around the room, so there is that community there. I will say, Barry, that when I go to Asia, I see far more of that; I see lots of 20- and 30-year-olds designing. The community is very different there.
Of course, as soon as you’ve reached and guided one set of designers, they move on, and new ones come in all the time—the new generations. The design community worldwide is massive. There are so many people designing circuitry and interconnections that to get to them all is quite hard; it is a continuous task. We need to keep redoubling our efforts, organizing seminars, and developing and offering training courses and presentations to that design community, so this continues all the time.
The individuals who are going to retire have already built their knowledge, and some will no doubt pass it on to the next generations. There are so many young, innovative designers coming along with great ideas that need a foundational understanding of what the material selection criteria might be. Someone like myself or Ventec can impart that knowledge very quickly to new designers, and also enhance the skills of those who have been around for a few years. We see it as a two-stage process: continued development on the one hand, but also giving the necessary knowledge and understanding to the new designers. Again, that was acknowledged by the FED very strongly. We don't have to deal with just one community—there are a lot of communities in design. If I look outside of Europe, I would say that's very clear as well.
Matties: The other thing that we see a lot of conversation around is 3D electronics and additive processing. How does that impact the plans of a base material supplier?
Morgan: We're talking about the use of thinner, flexible substrates. Combined materials, like rigid-flex materials, which you see quite a lot of in the sectors now. From Ventec's perspective, we have products in the range of 25 microns now as not all materials are reinforced with glass either. Many new products are coming along and have been for some years in that area. We shouldn't forget when we come to these additive processes that they tend to target specific niche markets; that's really important, and there’s no doubt those areas will tend to grow. However, there's still a very large area in high-density multilayer materials comprised of thin layers that are still rigid, glass-reinforced materials.
We have to see this as being one aspect where things can move on, and we think of flex materials as an important area. Also for Ventec—which has a large take in automotive as well—I think we will see all of these things start running together. I don't see any shift in the whole range of materials to one particular platform or kind of material. You can draw different threads from the materials, and each of these must grow in its own way.
What's important for a supplier is that you have a presence in a number of sectors and can show technical leadership in some of those sectors, and perhaps more than one. From Ventec’s point of view, thermal management is one. Another we should mention is low-loss material and polyimide, which is traditionally a higher reliability material. Ventec has made a lot of market progress into some of those sectors, and possibly filled materials—perhaps non-reinforced, liquid crystal, or polymer materials—have a part in the future as well, although only for very specific application areas.
Matties: When we look at the supply chain, copper is widely used in the battery market, and we know that is a favorable industry for suppliers with fewer quality demands, and of course, the price of material. If you compound that with the tariffs or so-called trade wars that are going on, what impact should a fabricator be prepared for?
Morgan: That's a very difficult question. For example, we know the market has been through some terrible times with copper shortages in the last two years. Originally, a large reallocation of supply was going into batteries. The position, as we talk today, is somewhat eased. The pricing even in the last few weeks has reduced further. However, we have to face the possibility that this could come back at any stage and potentially cause issues. As a technology ambassador, I work with Ventec to prepare for and manage such circumstances to mitigate the impact on customers.
The same is true with the trade-war discussion. It just takes a comment from a person in the U.S., China, or somebody who works for one of the big supplying countries to say something, and suddenly you get a run on demand, or there could be all kinds of issues. In theory, there could be a terrible result from this. You might end up with a major supply chain shortage. On the other hand, if you view it more logically, the posturing is to get a good deal for somebody. Usually what happens is the deal is done before you get to that crunch point when you fall off the cliff.
That’s what we've seen so far. We've heard a lot about tariffs and the possibility of supply chains coming to a halt. It hasn't happened so far. Anybody looking at this was nervous, and we probably all should be and take some defensive positions at least. I can certainly imagine speaking as we are now that there's probably some volume in the supply chain building up just in case. I’m speaking to you from my perspective where Brexit is a very big topic at the moment as the U.K. prepares to leave the EU. Again, there could be tariffs and all types of issues when that process happens. Anybody with an ounce of sense would be taking a position against that and making sure there is a bit more meat in the supply chain right now.
Matties: Alun, again, congratulations on your new position. Is there anything we haven't talked about that you feel like we should also include in this conversation?
Morgan: Thank you. I will add one thing about Ventec as a company. I've been involved in PCB materials for my entire working career. Ventec is a relatively new player having been founded in 2000. Having personally visited their facilities in Suzhou and around the world, one thing I would comment on is that if I look back at the last 20–30 years, laminate production was traditionally large scale with a limited product mix. What I see with Ventec is a much more agile, flexible manufacturing model. Instead of big monolithic machines and massive production lines, there are a number of flexible smaller lines that can cope with a higher mix. I think that's very valuable today.
If you look at the complexity now of the products that are being supplied and the variety of products that go into a PCB shop, this number has increased massively over recent years. Perhaps coming to the market in 2000 has given Ventec the vision to install a flexible manufacturing structure that is capable of handling this high mix. This could explain why supply-chain control and ownership have been such an important part of their progress. From the beginning, the DFM facilities have allowed that to manifest. That was my observation when I looked at the facilities installed at Ventec.
Matties: Thank you for spending some time with us today, Alun.
Morgan: It was my pleasure, Barry. Nice to talk to you.
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