Joe Fjelstad Breaks Down His Occam Process

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Barry Matties: How does this fit into miniaturization? Is this something that would fit for all fine-pitch boards, or is there a physical limit to where you can go with this?

Fjelstad: I believe there is a significant opportunity to build very component-dense assemblies, but super fine pitch circuits may not be required. Unfortunately, the industry is accustomed to using solder. They also have a lot of understanding and sunk costs in manufacturing materials and processes. Many IC packaging houses have taken the pursuit of the flip-chip method, which they’ve become pretty skilled at. If you’re very good and have developed your skills for that, you don’t want to give it up, nor do you want to strategically, if you think about it. It keeps your competitors in line. Moreover, once you’ve developed a particular skill, you loathe to give it up, especially if it gives you a proprietary advantage.

I am advocating a simple man’s solution. I am seeking to create a solution that makes it so everybody can build these things. For several years, I’ve talked about disintegrating ICs and allowing designers to design with IP blocks that are fully packaged and tested and burned in, and maybe even built on earlier nodes. I was suggesting this before the current idea of chiplets caught on, with the difference that I see these functional blocks as packages with common grid pitch terminations. In this manner, we could build devices that will have incredible long-term reliability. Potentially, the reliability could run into decades—even centuries, for some of the earlier nodes of IC fabrication—and rather than getting down to the nanometer nodes, where you’re looking at prospectively months before devices start to wear out due to the diffusion of the metals through the insulator.

Johnson: Your idea would have the benefits of what a lot of people see in 3D printed circuits, and the benefits for standard components and they would be vibration-proof and very much coated and protected from environmental extremes.

Spot-on observation, Nolan! At a design show some years ago, I saw a laser scanner, and the company could take that laser scan and immediately convert it, for my purposes, to a component carrier substrate. I’ve written that up in a number of my disclosures. “You can do this as a direct print of the substrate.” The other thing that’s fun about printing substrates like this is that if you look at the ways those substrates are designed, the reality is to save the material, as much as they can, these things will virtually “print air” because of the filigree nature of printing to save time and material, and then only the outer surfaces will be solid.

From a high-performance material perspective, you could have a very low dielectric constant to the substrate because, again, the carrier substrate is mostly air. It’s like building something on Styrofoam, which is exceptional from Dk and Df perspectives; however, the printed substrate would be stronger. Every time I turn around, I keep on seeing additional advantages to this technology, and 3D printing fits into this scheme, including the 3D printing of the substrate and laying down both the insulator and circuit layers sequentially.

Johnson: Early on, you mentioned fewer manufacturing steps. I can see that being the case.

Fjelstad: Absolutely. A lot less equipment and energy and much denser. The perspective benefits are cost, performance, reliability, and design simplicity. Those are the big broad brush strokes, and then there are all kinds of subsets from the standpoint of thermal management, resistance to shock and vibration, and even hermeticity. The more you unpack the concept, the better it gets. But this remains, for the moment, an idealized approach, but it is ready to become an ideal approach as to how these things might be done when the industry is ready to embrace the change. Then, those modules can, and will, be built. Normally, I only demonstrate or show single-sided assemblies, for the most part, but double-sided assemblies are quite doable. I do not, however, suggest that the Occam process is a panacea. I can still see a role for solder in the future—hopefully, tin-lead solder. I think that represents an interesting opportunity for us going forward.

Johnson: You said it’s not a panacea. What are some of the challenges?

Fjelstad: Mostly, it relates to legacy component types. On a number of occasions, people have said to me, “What about an electrolytic capacitor?” I suggest one use the technique that they need to use for whatever it is they have to put together for their particular assembly. But these things can be modularized to a point where you have essentially put them in play. I had a couple of opportunities to visit Peter Drucker, the guru of American management, at Claremont College some years ago. He sat at a table and talked; there was no agenda, syllabus, or anything of that nature, as I can recall—just a stream of consciousness. Perhaps his most important suggestion for good management is that one needs to put people into positions where their strengths can be fully utilized, and whatever weaknesses they have don’t matter. I have mentally applied that same thing to manufacturing processes. Use processes where you can fully tap into their benefits and then make sure that they have weaknesses that they don’t come to the fore.

Johnson: How large have you gone with your designs at this point?

Fjelstad: Again, I’m still working largely in the laboratory of my mind. That said, I have taken a part-time role with the folks at SAIC. I had interest from the folks at the Navy’s Crane PCB facility back in 2008; I visited and discussed the idea with them, and they had an intern build a simple circuit using the Occam concept, but the wheels fell off the economy in 2008, you will recall, and although we continued to talk, there was never the ability to do much about that due to a lack of budget. Now, they have kind of a state-of-the-art facility, so we’re eager to go through an exercise and do something along this line in the coming months.

At around the same time, I gave a seminar in Timisoara, Romania, in 2008. A professor from Bucharest Polytechnic University was in the audience; we exchanged contact information and have corresponded and remained friends over the years. They have continued to look for ways to collaborate with Occam, and I have been there several times. Now, I’m heading there in the next month to visit with them and give another seminar. One of the major manufacturers of automotive electronics is keen on taking a look at the Occam concept to make better and cheaper electronics. It looks like they’re seeking some funding from the EU to be able to go out and do some proof of concept for their own purposes.

Happy Holden: HP took it up in that a lot of our boards were chip on boards, which there was no solder. Then, we came up with our second generation of calculators that had no solder in them. And then we came up with tab, which also didn’t use solder. HP has been a pioneer with solderless connections.



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