Dan Gamota Discusses Flex and Alternative Substrates

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Dan Gamota has spent his career in electronics manufacturing. Dan has been at the forefront of some of the most cutting-edge processes and technologies since he started at Motorola decades ago. Now as the VP of manufacturing technology and innovation for Jabil, Dan gave us his take on the current state of flex and alternative substrates and explained why modeling, automation, and process controls are likely to be key ingredients in the recipe for manufacturing non-FR-4 boards in the future.

Patty Goldman: Dan, tell us a little bit more about yourself and your background.

Dan Gamota: I’ve spent 25 years in manufacturing and innovation. I started at Motorola when cellular phone commercial adoption was ramping up. I was on a team tasked with developing a scalable manufacturing process for an elegant microelectronics technology—bare  die assembly (e.g., flip chip, C4)—which IBM had licensed to Motorola. Motorola was seeking to take that technology, which was developed and commercialized within a vertically integrated company (IBM), and prepare it for mass adoption by OSATs and PCBA services suppliers.

Motorola was tasked with establishing the industry supply chain while moving from an elegant, well-controlled, low-volume product process that had to be closely monitored (multiple in-line testing platforms) to ensure high yield to one that was compatible with high volume SMT manufacturing (few testing steps) for mobile devices (i.e., cellular phones, pagers, two-way radios).

Early on, that gave me an appreciation for electronics manufacturing, automation, and process control. In the early days of SMT, you had to ensure that there was a significant amount of discipline on the design side: DFM, process guidelines, and material selection. My active involvement with SMT and advanced microelectronics manufacturing lasted until about 2001. I was fortunate to have experienced the critical operational facets for about seven years of a well-controlled and well established manufacturing environment. In 2001, the Motorola CTO Dennis Roberson was seeking to disrupt the way that we assembled electronics and the products that we could design. With his sponsorship and my direct boss, Dr. Iwona Turlik, we started on this path of manufacturing innovation. We thought, “Instead of having a rigid circuit board, could we use other materials for the circuit board?

Could we use flexible materials such as textiles, polyesters, and paper, or stretchable materials such as silicones and polyurethane based soft materials? Could we use toughened glass that we could bend and form to any desired shape?” The search for the new FR-4 started my second stage of manufacturing innovation. From 2001–2010, we experienced a significant drive to integrate electronics into products that historically had no electronic content, which opened up people’s imagination to where electronics ultimately would be placed. That vision has driven the design of wearables and other types of on-body systems that we’re starting to see today including those products providing physiological monitoring of athletes and individuals who want to understand how their body performs. Also, other types of new systems requiring non-FR-4 substrates are being driven by the healthcare and medical fields offering point-of-care diagnostics functionality.

You’re going to continue seeing the introduction of new materials (soft, stretchable, flexible, conformal, etc.) that historically had no presence in the electronics industry.

Goldman: What was it like learning that you could basically do whatever you want to do? Was it harder, easier, or just liberating?

Gamota: I would say all three. Motorola was seeking to identify what was the next great innovation to differentiate our wireless products portfolio. And the first thing when you think about flex and conformal is larger displays to enhance the mobile devices experience.

The market seemed committed to helping realize a new technology that would allow people to have large 19-inch diagonal screens on their mobile devices that they could open up, roll up and put in their pocket.

Motorola fostered an environment that allowed people to fail while innovating, but fail fast and make changes quickly. They promoted an environment that had individuals trying to do things that had never been done before, so there probably wasn’t as much anxiety as you might see elsewhere in a VC-backed startup.

Also, at this point, I was involved in an entrepreneurial activity within Motorola where there was a sense of urgency to commercialize a product; the team worked 24/7 driven by enthusiasm rather than threat of venture closure. We were competing against the likes of Plastic Logic, Organic ID, and Poly IC—the darlings of the venture capital world in terms of startups. However, we didn’t have that door- die ultimatum hanging over our heads since Motorola was supporting us.

We had access to large teams of engineers across the Motorola enterprise (semiconductor, cell phone, pagers, 2-way radios, automotive, etc.). Also, we were able to partner with other large companies like Xerox (XRCC and PARC), DuPont, and Dow, to establish the best team. Further, because Motorola was a large vertically integrated electronics company, we were able to seek support from individuals that had experienced the early days of semiconductors and mobile electronics products.

For instance, when we were trying to design circuitry using printing methods and inks, we went to Barry Herold, a 30-year veteran at Motorola who was known for his early IC innovations. Barry is credited with many innovations that contributed to the success of ICs as far back as the two-inch wafer. We had these wonderful mentors who kind of had a second coming; they were rejuvenated.

Our team was called the “Dream Team.” We combined a veteran group of experienced talent with a rookie group of individuals who did not know the technology barriers of the past. The team believed that we were going to launch a multi-billion-dollar business based on novel products realized by a portfolio of innovations—designs materials, processes, manufacturing equipment.

To read the full version of this interview which originally appeared in the February 2019 issue of Design007 Magazine, click here.


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