As ubiquitous as electronics are today, they are finding even more uses as Internet of Things (IoT) applications expand. Tech Briefs posed questions to electronics industry executives to get their views on issues concerning electronics design and manufacturing.
Our executive panel members are: Alan Amici, Vice President and Chief Technology Officer of Transportation Solutions at TE Connectivity; Paul Musto, Director of Marketing, Electronic Board Systems, at Mentor, a Siemens Business; Randall Restle, VP of Applications Engineering at Digi-Key; and Bob Stanton, Director of Technology at Omnetics Connector Corp.
Tech Briefs: Miniaturization of electronics has been a steadily progressing trend. Will it continue to be a design priority in 2019?
Stanton: Electronic designs are leaving the big box and functioning in smaller modules aimed at remote operations. The demand for miniaturization is the top priority, as it allows us to expand the use of a wide range of electronics not available before. These new circuits require very low current and voltage, are small and lightweight, and significantly reduce the demand on batteries or remote power sources. Interconnection systems within today's miniaturized instruments depend on smaller wire diameter and must run at gigabit speeds to support items such as high-end surveillance and language translators.
Amici: Miniaturization becomes increasingly important with the growth in edge computing in which data is processed close to where it is produced versus a centralized repository. Replacing traditional sensors with microcontrollers, sensing elements, and communications interfaces enhances options for packaging smart components essential to edge computing. Compact design will need to fit into applications seamlessly, requiring multiplanar or flexible printed circuit boards (PCBs). Printed conductive circuits can enable contour-fitting electronics to be packaged in smaller, tighter spaces. Increased use of 3D printing enables contours and structures not previously possible with injection molding.
Restle: We have seen increasing acceptance of System in Package (SiP) devices. It's likely that customers do not realize they are buying a SiP because they look essentially like large integrated circuits such as System on Chip (SoC) devices. The big difference in these miniaturization technologies is profound. The SoC, while incredibly capable, is built from the same piece of semiconductor. This means all circuits have the same electrical constraints. A SiP does not have these limitations because it integrates multiple pieces of semiconductor within the same small package. Given the availability of SoCs and SiPs, there's little reason to design “large” so we see continued miniaturization for the foreseeable future.
Musto: Getting more performance/ functionality out of smaller form factors has indeed been a long-term trend faced by every industry to some degree. Certainly, the notable examples exist in consumer electronics and IoT, but similar challenges have also existed in medical, industrial, mil/aero, and computer applications. The electronic and mechanical teams must collaborate seamlessly to optimize form factor, reduce product cost, and reduce cycle time due to unnecessary iterations. The efficient design of these electromechanical systems requires multi-discipline design and validation.
Tech Briefs: OEMS are increasingly outsourcing electronics manufacturing; product design is also being outsourced at an increasing rate. What do manufacturers need to do to stall this trend — or do they want to?
Musto: We've certainly witnessed the trend to first outsource manufacturing and then design. But we've also seen a reversal of this trend where competitive and/or security pressures outweigh cost, since ultimate control of an end-product comes through in-house processes. We're also witnessing the advent of additive manufacturing technology that may upset the current electronics manufacturing ecosystem and enable manufacturing closer to design. In all instances, we are dedicated to enabling optimized design of electronics for manufacturabil-ity, as well as the efficient transfer of designs through the manufacturing process.
Restle: Outsourcing is great when one's production volumes are not large or when a company does not know the size of a market it wishes to serve. This is because only variable costs exist to serve or test a market. If the market cannot afford the cost of outsourcing, perhaps it is not a market worth pursuing.
Outsourcing manufacturing helps those who are used to quick setup and changeover produce what could be wildly different products — this is good. Their experience might make them less expensive, not to mention the difference in labor costs that might exist because they are located in a different region. What makes sense is to “insource” your core and volume products. This builds experience, intellectual property, and competence.
Amici: Outsourcing commoditized PCB assembly is a way to reduce capital investment in SMD placement, soldering, and electrical test equipment. I expect this trend to continue as some companies will want focused investment on product design and final assembly while depending on suppliers to deliver fully populated and tested PCB assemblies to the OEM. A possible exception to this strategy is the advent of 3D packaging of non-traditional materials and form factors that drive competitive advantages to the OEMs. Flex circuits, printed components, and circuit board assemblies fully integrated into the product could become a competitive space as miniaturization depends on synergy among product design, physical packaging, and manufacturing.
Stanton: Outsourcing had become a trend to help companies increase the return on investment to their stockholders. This trend gave away much tribal knowledge of how we assembled products. The key for success ahead appears to be in retaining and expanding the development of technical acumen and extending the use of peripheral tools to assemble and test the products we offer. We seemed to catch the fever of outsourcing by sending items out for higher labor-based assembly steps. By extending research and development of new products beyond the invention of the newest “shiny object,” we can invest in higherspeed assembly and manufacturing processes that build that object.
Tech Briefs: The Internet of Things has enabled electronic and non-electronic devices and components to be connected. How much are new technologies in PCB manufacturing and design driving innovation in the IoT?
Restle: SiP technology, as mentioned previously, is a PCB technology. We should see more complete systems for IoT in SiPs, modules, and small plug-in boards. These products depend on varying levels of sophistication of PCB layout tools. Whereas those products have complexity in them, one's own PCB is generally simpler to implement when using them. The signals on the bought parts of a design are shorter lengths, making them less susceptible to noise and less speed-constrained. Someone's IoT PCB might only have to route power and interface signals. One doesn't have to know how to design a radio today — one simply buys what's needed in the form of a plug-in board. Look at the hundreds of PCB-based plug-in boards available before taking on your own design.
Amici: IoT devices need to be packaged seamlessly in the specific application. For large devices, such as appliances or industrial equipment, miniaturization may not be critical. For small devices, packaging is a competitive advantage. Smart sensors and microcontroller-based IoT devices are best integrated if they have a small footprint and can fit within the contour of the host application. Such packaging constraints can be enabled with flexible circuits, multi-planar PCB assemblies, and printed circuits that can be quickly changed to meet new customer applications. Key enablers to IoT and edge computing are physical packaging and seamless integration.
Stanton: New technologies in PCBs have evolved to a level of higher density and added functional capability that we can benefit significantly from. Higher-end, high-density circuitry used to depend on hybrid microelectronic modules produced on alumina-oxide substrates. Newer PC board designs greatly support densely packed modules that can process multiple signals. Combining multiple data management methods onto one small board has expanded the ability to connect the various technologies on IoT systems.
Musto: The drive to put electronics in everything definitely impacts PCB design processes, but really requires multi-discipline collaboration (across hardware, software, mechanical, and manufacturing). “Simple” mechanical devices like door locks and doorbells now have to contend with electronics elements that have to fit within existing form factors, communicate wirelessly with other devices, and receive power from an outside source. From the PCB perspective, traditional miniaturization technologies are being coupled with emerging technologies like molded interconnect, 3D-printed electronics and flexi-ble/stretchable substrates to embed electronics in newer and smaller spaces.
Tech Briefs: Is pressure mounting for more eco-friendly electronics manufacturing? Are new regulations and standards having a quantitative impact on how electronics are designed and manufactured?
Amici: The green movement gathered momentum with the EU's adoption of Restriction of Hazardous Substances (RoHS). This directive drove the massive shift toward use of lead-free solder. The directive also specified limits for nine other hazardous substances. The recycling movement grew as companies reclaimed precious metals such as silver and gold. Miniaturization has reduced the amount of reclaimable metals and has thus limited the growth of value-based recycling; therefore, we are becoming more dependent on regulations and market-aware programs like Energy Star, EPEAT, and municipal recycling programs like New York City's ecycleNYC, which has collected and recycled more than 20 million pounds of electronic waste from city residents. I expect supply-chain programs to become an integral part of the electronics product lifecycle, further driving green initiatives into the decision-making process for electronics designers, manufacturers, and OEMs.
Stanton: Regulations can be met and we can sustain an eco-friendly process in our industries. The first step is to specify upgraded materials being used in the product and the processing. Lists of clean and safe materials are available as well as guides on how to best use them best for a product and the environment. Some process selection can also help, such as connector-to-cable crimping instead of soldering. I think this topic is more one of older companies needing to upgrade with new methods and materials than a regulations issue.
Restle: Digi-Key, as an electronics distributor, has more logistics than it has manufacturing challenges. Nonethe-less, a trend of our customers is to investigate energy-harvesting devices. Energy harvesting consists of devices capable of generating their own power from the environment such as through one's body movement, RF, heat, etc. In addition to “green” for energy production, a focus on clean technologies persists.
Musto: Restrictions like RoHS and WEEE (Waste Electrical & Electronic Equip-ment) are now commonplace in the design-through-manufacturing process, and more restrictive regulations are in process. A key part of the green approach starts at the design phase — leveraging a “digital twin” model of the product; verification (for manufactura-bility and performance) can be performed during the design process instead of waiting until manufacturing of physical prototypes. This approach significantly reduces material waste due to re-spins during the design cycle, while enabling product optimization for reliability and yield. In addition, this approach can be used to produce green products that consume less power and more efficiently utilize materials.
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