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Nolan Johnson checks in with Polar’s Martyn Gaudion on the evolving needs of global PCB manufacturing markets in a post-pandemic world, where generating accurate PCB specification documentation is essential to successfully navigating today's rampant supply chain constraints. Polar has positioned itself to meet these needs through agile software product developments that allow OEMs and fabricators to simulate material interactions and end-product specifications, including in-demand features like a comprehensive "structure view" that allows users to visualize all the transmission lines on a given a PCB. Though keeping pace with the demands of a rapidly growing industry has been challenging, Polar's commitment to innovation has kept its software suite ahead of the curve.
Nolan Johnson: Martyn, it feels like every step in the electronics manufacturing process has been affected by supply chain issues. What’s your perspective on this at Polar?
Martyn Gaudion: With supply chains becoming more complex and many new engineers entering the industry, communicating through the supply chain has never been more complex. Volume production is typically still in Asia, but we’ve seen some movement from there as well, which is a bit of a change. An accurate documentation set, especially one that accounts for the base materials necessary for the PCBs a client wants fabricated, is critical in this new environment. If someone wants a particular vendor’s high-speed material, that information needs to get communicated to the people at each stage in the manufacturing process, from the OEM to the PCB technologist, to the prototype house and finally through to volume production.
Johnson: Documentation is more important than ever before. All the different components involved in that bill of materials to produce a board contribute to a product’s performance.
Gaudion: Yes, they do. Depending on the type of OEM we’re working with, some people choose to give a certain degree of freedom to the fabricator to help keep costs down. Others will say, “I specifically want to use vendor A’s prepreg or vendor B’s cores or a certain type of solder mask.” There’s quite a range of materials to specify, which makes our software popular both with the fabricators, because they can get accurate information; and with the OEMs, because they can be as hard or as soft on the specification as they want. It works for material suppliers like us too because they feed our software the latest materials and we put that into our online library and make it available to our customers. As has been mentioned several times today, “How do we access materials?” It’s a big question that we’re ready to answer. Our platform allows you to list all the different brands of base material and load them directly into the tool.
Johnson: OEMs can create better specifications with the Polar software.
Gaudion: OEMS are our biggest customers. We started off with the PCB fabrication industry as our major sector. Their customers, the OEMs, started to see our documents for PCB specification and asked, “Where did that come from?” Those documents have marketed our products throughout the larger OEM community.
Johnson: Which allows OEMs to have more control over the process, as they can see which materials are going to meet their specs.
Gaudion: Exactly, and our system also ensures that nobody has to swap material further down the road. Value-added brokers—brokers that aren’t just commercial brokers—like this too; they want to be able to confidently say, “If you like that kind of board then you should get it from this supplier.” They take care of the stackup, and they use the documentation tool as part of their value-add in the chain for those who are doing lower volume and want to work through brokerage.
Johnson: Now you’ve got OEMS and CAM teams planning manufacturing together. That sounds like that’s key to not only accessing more materials generally, but also optimizing performance.
Gaudion: Very much so, and we’ve always said that you if you use our software, you’ll get the best performance out of the most economic material. You could spec everything with the best possible options, and some people really need to do that; other people can choose to compromise on the foil roughness to use a better base material. They can also go for a smoother foil and use a lower-quality base material. You can weigh all those tradeoffs with our tool; you can experiment. You can adjust the roughness, the dielectric constant, or the loss tangent and see what combination works for you. That’s always been a useful part of our tool; the modeling woven in with the stackup lets you figure out what’s best for the customer.
Johnson: You are quite literally simulating the results that you’re going to get from manufacturing.
Gaudion: That’s right. We even simulate up through the press-out of the resin, so you can ensure that there’s no resin starvation and everything laminates properly. When we press, we calculate the amount of thickness reduction so that we can figure out the separation and calculate the tracing fields accurately. Instead of just putting all that in as a finished number, our tool allows you to stipulate, “We are going to use three sheets of this type of prepreg, and then it’s pressed between two 50% copper foils,” so that you then get the finished thickness based on both the copper percentage and the resin percentage of the prepregs. It’s a really useful system. Of course, if you’re using software, you can simulate as much as you like. Setting everything up in the tool requires a bit of time, but you’re not going to waste materials to do that, so you get much closer to where you want to be when you when you start building actual boards.
Johnson: Then you can check the simulated specs against the actuals once you have physical product.
Gaudion: That’s right. You can take a cross section, take an SEM of the microsection, and have a look. We’ve got a virtual mode where we show the press thickness with a ruler overlaid, so you really can measure the dimensions in our press thickness and compare that with the SEM. You can compare the measured and the actual produced board in the speed stack.
Johnson: Can you quantify, in general, the increase in yield from simulating specs ahead of time, compared to a more trial-and-error method?
Gaudion: We know that customers love this platform and that they keep asking for more. People who use our tools get very good correlations between what they predicted and what they produced, and if there is a difference, it’s because what they produced isn’t actually what they thought they produced. When that happens, it’s good to have a way to analyze what went wrong—a red flag that indicates, “we thought these materials, undergoing this process, would produce this—so what happened that we didn’t ask for?”
Johnson: Your products carry a lot of credibility because they can help customers say, “Wait a minute, what we have doesn’t match what we simulated through Polar. Something changed in the process that’s undocumented.” It makes sense that you’d have a global presence with systems like that. How are the various markets performing for you right now?
Gaudion: The European market is strong, and the U.S. market is strengthening. Some of our customers are reenabling capacity in the U.S. We haven’t seen Asia fall off, but we have seen the U.S. grow, so now the U.S. has become our main area, and that’s been a shift for us. Design is a significant part of our business in the U.S., and that’s been growing well. Despite all the talk of doom and gloom, electronics are in everything now, that business is growing overall.
Johnson: Are you seeing growth in the U.S. OEM market?
Gaudion: Yes, that’s a sector with big growth. We’re also seeing fabrication expand, but for us, OEMs are where the big growth is in the U.S.
Johnson: What’s your strategy for reaching OEMs?
Gaudion: OEMs love being sold to over the web, so we’ve really embraced using online tools, whether Zoom, Webex, or Teams; the efficiency of selling in that way has been fantastic. Our tools really lend themselves to being sold online; moving our support online has also been great, because we can just remote into somebody and help them out.
While many of our customers prefer to access our products online, we’ve had to remain flexible in our approach, especially for our defense, aerospace, and government customers, whose security requirements mean that offline access is a must. We maintain on-premises versions of our online libraries, so there are no internet calls whatsoever. We offer all our tools both online and on the premise. For on-premises versions, we securely deliver the libraries directly to the customer so that they can take them through their security. Maybe five years ago, we thought we’d need to transition our tools exclusively to a cloud version, but now what we need is both online and on-premises for security.
We’ve also found that U.S. trade shows like electronica here in Munich are on the rise. DesignCon has always been good for us, but PCB West and the other trade shows are coming back and provide excellent ways of meeting new and existing clients. Having a face-to-face presence is crucial; besides the tools themselves, that’s the way we get into new markets. When customers share the reports from our tools and someone in the manufacturing chain asks where it came from—well, you’ve got a printout with the Polar logo on it right there.
Johnson: Word of mouth is great for your business, I’m sure.
Gaudion: I’d say word of mouth is about 80% of our marketing.
Johnson: Seeing your logo on that printout as it moves up and down the supply chain is powerful. Let’s talk about some other stackup flavors, the kind that reside inside the chip package. There’s a lot of action right now in advanced packaging, chiplets, substrates, etc. Are you investigating that market?
Gaudion: At the moment, we’re completely loaded with what we’ve got, but we do get requests for other types of materials. We’ve added additional flex materials, and we’ve got requests for IMS materials. We’re always open to putting in more material types, so we often look at what our customer base is asking for; if they drive it, then we look at adding more materials in. Like you said, it’s another type of stackup, and if we need to do it, we do it. But like many software companies, we get so much feedback that it’s very hard to filter out the noise. We’ve been using our ticket system to identify and filter who our best customers are, who’s got a good idea, and from there, we work hard to narrow things down so we can figure out what the most popular option is.
Johnson: So that you spend your resources on the right thing?
Gaudion: Exactly. Recently, we’re finding people are putting many transmission lines on PCBs, many more than previously, so we’ve added extra views into our software so that you can see a complete “structure view” of all the structures in one place. You might have five 50 ohm lines, several 93 ohm lines, a few 100 ohm lines, etc., and you can see all of those at once, whereas before you had to move through them one by one. Now you can visualize the many different high-speed lines on the layout all at once. People used to lose track because for each high-speed family, they might need to put a different transmission line, but each line might be the same impedance. Now, they can nominate each line for each particular family set the net class and load that data directly into their CAD system from our stackup tool.
Johnson: Interesting. I hadn’t heard that feedback as far as what’s changing in design trends. Are you seeing any other emerging shifts in design style?
Gaudion: One thing we’ve noticed is more people are using broader types of vias and different via fills, so you can get resin filled or copper filled capped vias, or stacked vias. I don’t know why they are doing that, but we get asked for more and more parts. Each time we’ve released the software, we have to document additional types of microvias, as well as back drilling. Obviously, it’s been some time now, but with the advent of precision depth control drilling, we added in cut layers specifying it in the stackup because there’s increasingly more interest in wanting to precision back drill. It lets them use conventional vias but at very high speeds, so that’s an area that’s grown.
Johnson: Martyn, thank you.
Gaudion: My pleasure.