Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Investing for the Times: Modules Featured at APEX

By Meredith Courtemanche, managing editor

Suppliers to the EMS/OEM market understand better than most industries how to innovate in ways that best serve their customers. As Mike Martel commented for SMT in his 2008 forecast, lights-out/high-volume flow lines, purchased in a full line start-to-finish, are a thing of the past. Electronics assemblers are purchasing equipment based on two driving factors: what their needs are today, and what their needs will be in the foreseeable future. Exhibitors at APEX, taking place this week in Las Vegas, responded to this investment strategy, bringing to market more modular solutions and upgrade options for 2008, spanning the breadth of flying probe testers to pick-and-place systems to printing machines. Bjorn Dahl, CEO, KIC, summed up this customer-intensive R&D effort for SMT, saying, "This industry has been through bad and good times, and it survives and grows by being creative. We are an innovative industry." Judging by the range of upgradable and modular solutions customers can find on the show floor at APEX, I have to agree.

Modular systems with easy paths to upgrade are key to electronics assemblers' return on investment (ROI) in capital equipment. The materials and consumables markets do not hit such volatile ups and downs as equipment, due to the incremental costs of items such as solder paste. By switching from a suite of distinct, isolated systems to offering a range of sophistication on a common platform, equipment providers are headed for less volatility.

Alan Lewis, director of marketing and applications, Asymtek, summed up the modular, upgrade-ready concept well. "With a common module approach for several models, customers can buy now and upgrade in the field, later." He notes that EMS providers and other customers of Asymtek may upgrade to more conveyors or higher-end technological capabilities at the request of their customers. Keeping upgrades in the field, rather than transferring a piece of equipment off the floor and to Asymtek for retrofitting, eliminates downtime and keeps the electronics assembler flexible. At the same time, modular concepts reduce footprint on the floor, contributing to a lean, nimble manufacturing environment.
Another such company is Samsung/Dynatech, which offers a complete SMT line. For those assemblers blurring the line from EMS provider to packaging house for certain applications, Samsung introduced a flux-dipping module onto its SM Series placement machines. The module allows EMS providers to assemble stacked packages, or package-on-package (PoP) without investing in additional equipment or floor space.

Vitronics-Soltec, recently acquired by ITW, brought a new Delta line-up of wave soldering systems to the show. The range includes the entry-level 3, the mid-range 5, and the high-end 7. More importantly, all three include as standard the company's upgraded software, at least 18" width, a new spray fluxing module, and closed-loop cooling. Everything is built in titanium. The company's reflow ovens have a new software interface as well.

Koh Young brought its aSPIre and PRIME systems to the show, and their team noted that these are the high-end systems Koh Young has to offer, and that other, lower-cost systems will be sent to Nepcon China in Shanghai next week, for example. The Koh Young booth reflected SMT and advanced packaging lines blurring, as their PRIME solder paste measurement system for wafer-level bumping could find applications in the solder bump market for array devices. The SPI system aSPIre measures solder paste on the board, mapping it like a geographical representation, taking inspection into higher territory than visual evaluation. Koh Young sees the U.S. market as a place for highest-quality/highest-reliability manufacturing, and decided these systems best fit the domestic customer base.

Texmac launched the APT-9600 double-sided flying prober not as a new unit, but as a range of options. Users of the company's APT-9411 prober can add the 9600 module; customers can buy the 9411 then add on the 9600 when their need and investment budget necessitate it; users can purchase the 9600 as the complete double-sided probing package at one time. Different needs, different options.

CyberOptics reflected this theme in the company's SPC and user interface software. The Flex Ultra AOI inspection series is upgraded consistently to provide the best coverage with low false calls and fast throughput. However, the process monitoring and user software remain all backward compatible, cutting out training times, easing transitions to better coverage, and allowing all Flex Ultra systems at the EMS provider to communicate and output SPC data for the entire production.

In printing, Speedline's MPM range covers the basic through the Elite system, targeting budgets and equipment needs of their customers, rather than pushing one-size-fits-all equipment. This strategy was all over the show floor at APEX.

The buzz around the exhibit hall and meeting rooms has been that this year is a vibrant, positive APEX show, including the change of scenery from Los Angeles to Las Vegas. IPC recognizes the excitement and energy, and announced we'll be returning to Las Vegas for next year's show, March 29 through April 2, 2009. Visit for the details.