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Weis: It is application-dependent. For high-power applications, we usually go for polygons to optimize current carrying capability. For such cases, simulation won’t cover signal processing. If the customer want us to take it into account, we also model these parts, but a little bit more time is required. To optimize simulation, we remove not-needed parts before simulation. For sure, there is a trade-off between fast simulation speeds and accurate results. Based on our experience, we optimize it as well as possible.
Matties: To shift gears a little, let’s talk about the embedded application. When should a designer consider utilizing this technology?
Weis: Extreme miniaturization needs enough space for components. That’s why embedding introduces more assembly layer. Additionally, the housing of the silicon die can be spared as the PCB itself replaces it. A rule of thumb says that the silicon is about four times smaller compared to traditional, overmolded packages. It’s clear because it adapted the density between the chip and PCB. There are some requirements for our connections to the copper structure of the PCB, but they are much smaller compared to solder joints. That’s why miniaturization is the first trigger for embedding. Currently, we also see trends toward 5G. Customers need optimized designs to transmit high-frequency signals in a reliable manner.
Matties: With embedded, you also improve reliability.
Weis: Correct. Our in-house laboratory can do reliability tests according to IPC standards. We can show that embedding can achieve longer lifetimes compared to standard molded packages. Prototypes are usually tested electrically only, and reliability is an interest in product development and mass production.
Matties: But it could be a part of the impetus for moving to embedded because people want more reliable products.
Weis: Definitely. Reliability, to some extent, can be simulated, but this is a process that is starting to get implemented. Automotive is one of the main drivers for reliability. It needs to be clarified at the front end before a product will be used in cars or trucks. As packaging is extremely material-dependent, daily life in the lab is to gain information about material combinations, copper layer structures, and PCB specific values to ensure quality and reliability in all of our products.
Matties: This is a new era of circuit design, and you mentioned how people who’ve been doing this for 30 years. That may be a struggle for them.
Weis: To get an understanding of embedding and an optimized PCB layout, people need to start thinking in three dimensions. Usually, two assembly layers require some mechanical drills. An HDI board has laser drills included as well. It is no longer possible to drill a through-hole at every location as there might be an embedded component preventing this. We also developed a check at our site to ensure that through-holes are in non-assembled areas only.
Matties: Do you do additive as well?
Weis: Manufacturing technology is related to manufacturing sites. In Austria, for example, we do semi-additive and subtractive manufacturing. In our production facilities in Asia, we also do modified semi-additive, which is similar but optimized for mobile applications.
Matties: Is that driven by the mobile device industry?
Weis: It is. It’s about processing line and space requirements. Now, this is the only way we use it. In addition, a different semi-additive process is installed in Chongqing, where we produce IC substrates because of ultra-small scaled line and space requirements.
Matties: Are you combining embedded and additive as a process as well?
Weis: We do. Embedding is an additional processing step. In general, it can be combined with nearly all production processes.
Matties: Is that commonplace now?
Weis: Yes, especially for signal processing it is. For power applications, it can become challenging because the high currents require high copper thicknesses. There are several process steps possible. We also develop solutions in this area. It is a work in progress.
Matties: The other part of manufacturing today is Industry 4.0. How digital is your manufacturing now?
Weis: We are evaluating that right now and doing some implementations. Now, several concepts are available for the machine park here in Leoben-Hinterberg, Austria. The problem is that we do high mix at low to mid volumes. A highly flexible concept is unavoidable. Also, new tools are needed, as it is not possible to upgrade all used machines. For embedding, it is even more challenging. I can tell you that we kicked off several projects underway on the topic of Industry 4.0 and the digitization of smart factories. We have a specific department working on these topics, evaluating variants, and making sense of the lifecycle of machines and if they should be replaced.
Matties: Are you working primarily with the system designers and layout people?
Weis: We work closely with the customer’s technical department to ensure fast and reliable PCB layouts. There is knowledge on both sides, which is combined as good as possible to find the optimum.
Matties: Densities are getting smaller. The load is being put on the designer right now, and many don’t have the historical knowledge or all of the education required.
Weis: A PCB is designed according to many mechanical and electrical rules. The computer is doing automated design rule checks during layout as well as after it. Checklists ensure good data quality. Additionally, we introduced design review meetings to indicate issues before production. As in-house data transfer format, we use ODB++, which contains nearly all necessary information for manufacturing.
Matties: You’re making a case for the digital factory because the questions that you’re asking are the recipes that your equipment needs to process the work. Once you have that done, then it’s easy to route it to your etcher and say, “Adjust the pressure to this level.”
Weis: That’s true, but for high mix and tailored solutions, you even need to have several gates to apply checks. Humans still need to check the automated work of the computer. On the one hand, computers do work fast, but, on the other hand, your operator understands the behavior of the machine if it is not a standard solution. When optimizing production steps, you can only use artificial intelligence if you have operators who have been working for years.
Matties: I think what you’re saying is you have to transfer the knowledge of the operator into the computer because the 20-year operator is going to retire.
Matties: But you’re still making a case for a digital factory.
Weis: Yes, and that is also what is work in progress. Nearly all scripts are static in programming; machine learning will be the next step.
Matties: The AI part will come in with the digital recipe. If you start on the front end with the designer and have all those questions answered, the equipment can adjust it. We already know this can happen because it has been done in other industries, so there’s a definite shift in thinking occurring.
Weis: Yes! AT&S is also hiring people who studied engineering, designing, and electronics. Together, we will keep track of AI and work on a concept to optimize production as much as possible.
Matties: You have around 10,000 employees, which is as big as some cities. Talk a little bit about the company culture.
Weis: The AT&S culture is very customer-oriented and future-oriented. If a customer asks to develop a challenging product, we can find a solution in a very short time at a reasonable price. With our “more than AT&S” strategy, we are working to turn into an interconnect solution provider and offer highly integrated solutions to our customers going forward.
Matties: The other part of being an organization is being a good corporate citizen. Can you tell me about your green efforts?
Weis: We are trying to reduce our wastewater and CO2 footprint, and we have defined a roadmap. In addition to what I mentioned earlier, the culture of the company is not only to maximize the turnover and have optimized financials but also to have a deep look into environmental friendliness into water conservation and CO2 reduction. For example, our location in India has more or less a largely closed water circuit because the water that comes from the river is already polluted. We have to clean the water before we use it in the production process. We use it in a circuit, and when it leaves the factory, it’s cleaner than when it came into the factory. We are putting a lot of effort into that, and we are also driven by our customers to meet environmental and ethical standards. We are also keeping the production floor and other areas as clean as possible. We want to avoid chemical residues on the floor. It is part of AT&S strategy toward the highest quality standards in our industry.
Matties: Your air quality is good too.
Weis: The factory in Leoben is ventilated by temperature-controlled filtered air. We only have humidity-control at the manufacturing sites in Asia.
Matties: What patents are you pursuing?
Weis: We are covering a variety of things, from the production of PCBs to the separation of PCBs, 5G, high power, line and space requirements, and more.
Matties: With these patents, is this technology that you then license to others?
Weis: At the moment, we use them to protect our technologies, but we are thinking about licensing these to others as well. The process is to make sure we keep track of our inventions and ensure that if we have an advantage, we keep it.
Matties: Let’s talk about where you’re headed in the future. Embedded seems to be one of the areas that you are looking to carry out to the marketplace.
Weis: I’d call it embedding in combination with every PCB technology possible, such as embedding with insulated metal substrates (IMS) or flex circuits. Also, with packaging technologies, if you implement one die, you can call it a package. If you embed more components, you can call it a heterogeneous package. If you see the bigger picture, you can also call it a substrate or PCB. In boards, you may also include more components, so the technology is easily scalable.
Matties: All the things you described are incredible challenges for the design community.
Weis: It’s not only for the design department but also for suppliers of design software. Implementing new technologies become a challenge for them, as well. They need to have a detailed understanding of the production. That’s why we also work together with them. It is a challenge for our sales department as well because we need to be cost-effective. Designers develop fancy designs, and sales need to arrange with the customer to optimize the cost.
Matties: Do you offer design services if a company wants to hire you for that?
Weis: We offer these services from the beginning; we do it from scratch. The process typically starts with component management and schematics and ends with the PCB layout, simulation, and data check.
Matties: How many customers let you handle their design?
Weis: We are working with a wide range of customers, from startups to global players. It is always a matter of discussing how the design process is applied to a certain product. Our approach is flexible and can be adapted accordingly.
Matties: Thank you for everything. Best of luck to you.
Weis: Thanks for visiting, Barry.