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Emerald Group Publishing Limited
Copyright © 2004, Emerald Group Publishing Limited
NEPCON 2004, Brighton, Sussex, England, May 26th-27th 2004
NEPCON 2004, Brighton, Sussex, England, May 26th-27th 2004
Keywords: Conferences, Electronics industry
Enthusiasts clad in wet suits and mounted on boards para-surfed across the choppy surface of the English Channel in the warm May sunshine. Inside the calmer atmosphere of the Metropole Hotel enthusiasts in a different form of surface mounting, dressed for the most part in very smart (and dry) suits, gathered for the 2004 Nepcon Exhibition and Conference.
Being back in Brighton again was evocative of those far-off days when there was an Internepcon show, usually held in October with a good gale blowing off the sea, when people talked excitedly about “electro-plating through holes which had been drilled with CNC machines to give two-sided interconnect”. One recalls people standing on the furniture to get a glimpse of some green solder resist which could be “photo-imaged”, and which would allow “surface mounted components” to be used. On the next stand you could buy all you needed to furnish an air-traffic control tower, and in what was then the ballroom, there were lots of glass cabinets full of components and connectors, emulating the visual appeal of a sweetie shop window.
But they do not stand on the furniture anymore. The industry is mature now, and much changed, as is the Metropole. No shortage of exhibitors, though, more than last year and as eclectic a mix as one would imagine. The Brighton “spirit” lingers on; Brighton still beats Birmingham hands-down when it comes to choices of interesting, if not rather risqué,venues for the evening, and Reed Exhibitions sensibly made the right choice in electing to stay beside the seaside. Nice to detect as well restored confidence in the industry after the recent dire days.
It may have been coincidental, but on the first day nearly all the companies that attracted attention were British, and they all had something original and innovative, to show (Plate 1).
Plate 1 The exhibition area at NEPCON 2004
Only this month DAGE Precision Industries won the 2004 Queen’s Award for Innovation, and the sense of pride in this achievement was palpable on the stand. Their XiDAT XD6600 was on display on the stand, as well as in the briskly busy SMART Group Lead-Free Hands-On Workshops being run on both days. The new X-ray equipment, with incredibly sharp image resolution thanks to their own software design, compliments their bond testing equipment, for which a new software package, Version 5, makes the Series 4000 and 5000UFP testers perfect for lead-free analysis and data collection.
Another British company with something to crow about is Pillarhouse who specialise in low cost in-line, or single point, selective soldering systems. The new Jade S Series is entry-level single-point equipment, priced below £25,000, and perfect for prototypes, low and medium volumes. It has a camera-controlled and highly accurate Drop Jet fluxing system that can operate as either a complete separate fluxing programme, or as part of a simultaneous flux/soldering operation, and the solder bath and pump mechanism operates below the PCB in X, Y and Z axis. It incorporates fiducial and warp correction systems, and is designed and manufactured in Essex.
Also in Essex is Nutek UK (but not a company which can claim British provenance) whose Steve Jones explained all about their board handling equipment which provides traceability. It does this by 1D and 2D bar code labelling, or by a laser marking system. Each panel will have a history file against its serial number, which can be read by any high-density scanner. Proven, tried and tested equipment that would have found an enthusiastic reception had someone thought of it 10 years ago.
Neil Blundell of Blundell was running a large and busy stand, so we did get a brief glimpse of their new EBSO SPA250 selective soldering machine that operates in a nitrogen environment and is perfect for prototypes. Otherwise much of their equipment is of the well-known variety.
With lead-free being the topic of both conversation and conference paper during the two days, it was not surprising that ones eye was caught by the product on the BLT Circuit Services called Lead-Check. This comprises a glass vial containing two separated chemicals with a swab at one end. Press the glass vial in two places, and the mixture wets the swab. Place the swab on a solder joint, and hey presto if it goes red, it contains lead. If it goes yellow, it is lead-free. Pack of 16 “pencils” price £2.20 each. Worth every penny. BLT is also into lead-free solder alloys, theirs is a Sn (99 per cent) Ag (0.3 per cent) and Cu (0.7 per cent) mix that meets all the technical demands, combined with lower cost.
When you talk to Andrew Dymond of Juki Automation Systems you find out that the game of SMT placement is one played out against a background of knowledge, or lack of it. Juki has 11,500 machine placed worldwide, supported by 200 field service engineers. They are in the top three, with others having similar placement but supported by five times the number of service engineers. The answer? Low cost of ownership. In fact the lowest, he claims. Having a name is fine, but having reliability is better.
Bondline may well claim to have had the most colourful stand at the show, so they caught the eye, too. Bondline is yet another British company who stared out some 15 years ago in response to a rising demand for ESD protection. Chris Bisset the MD knows the assembly industry well, and now has an entirely comprehensive product portfolio that covers all that anyone could require. Anyone, that is, who is aware of the damage that static discharge can do. Lots of companies have climbed, some of them unsteadily, onto the ESD wagon, none have the totality of Bondline.
Down in Dorset another British company Europlacer has partnered a French company called Novatec to produce a world first. This is a ball placement device for their Flexys-8 machines that can, with a suitable head attachment, place up to 144 balls (for BGAs) at a time. This will rise to several hundred at a time. Balls for BGAs get down to 0.3 mm, and so far trials down to 0.6-0.7 mm have been hugely successful, so it would seem that they have a unique system in this.
British yes, but an importer certainly, is CONTAX, whose Steve Buchanan was nothing short of enthusiasm as he showed off their new MPM Accuflex™ flexible screen printing platform for prototypes and low/medium volume production (Plate 2). This rather clever piece of equipment has automatic tool support placement, with a camera for post-print inspection, 100 per cent or at random. He also showed off a new product from MPM, the sexy Gel-Flex™ stress-free supports, which can replace tooling by placement as required.
Plate 2 The new MPM AccuflexTM from CONTAX was on display
As British as they come, and no small COG in the wheel of progress is the Component Obsolescence Group. So what do you do when you have a piece of electronic equipment, some years old, still functional and with some years of life ahead, but which needs a component which is now either not available or non-compliant? You meet up with the150 plus COG members who will either find you the missing part, or propose an alternative. They run a series of UK workshops at which obsolescence management aspects, such as costs, design, development are covered. As they say, obsolescence is too often seen as simply a procurement problem for the system design houses, a naïve and potentially dangerous assumption.
Tim Stevens is the Technical Director of Temperature Applied Sciences Ltd (TAS), who were just around the corner and had British written all over them. They were showing off their new shiny Series 3 Environmental Test Chamber, which is the precursor for an even newer model under test to enable users to test for tin-whisker growth. The programme will entail a hike in temperature from −55°C to +85°C at 7°C per minute, then a humidity test at 60°C @ 90 per cent RH, then storage at ambient. TAS sell into the aerospace, automotive, pharmaceutical and electronic industries, and, like so much British equipment, it is beautifully engineered.
One of the best stands at the show was the one belonging to Remploy and if you did not know that they were into electronics that may have been due to the fact that they only started last June (Plate 3). Julie Gash said that they now have six “centres of electronic excellence” at Barking, Bolton, Brixton, Holloway, Medway and Southampton. The range of capabilities is awesome, covering everything from complex surface-mount ad conventional through-hole PCB manufacture, assemble and test. Further expansion plans are awaited, which will be announced quite soon.
Plate 3 Remploy had one of the best stands at the show
DKL Metals are in Linlithgow, and claim to be the foremost producer of solder products in the UK. They were promoting their SN100C lead-free alloy (Cu 0.7 per cent, Nickel 0.05 per cent, Sn 99.25 per cent), which, so Ron Gow was emphasising, had all the right properties at the right price, and was ideal for HASL, wave soldering, reflow, and hand soldering. This is made in the UK and now in Germany as well.
Electrolube are as British as a banger, and to prevent bangs they have now produced non-flammable cleaners that can be used on live equipment. Flux remover, degreaser, contact cleaner and switch cleaner lubricants are all now in 200 g aerosols. Also new is a modified silicone conformal coating formulated for the defence and aerospace industries. It is particularly effective at covering lead ends and sharp corners, reducing the need for double coating.
One of the companies that always manages to be ahead of the game is LPKF Laser & Electronics AG who occupied a large stand upon which all manner of interesting machinery was displayed. They were launching their new ProtoMat H100 fully automatic plotter that can define 3 mil tracks with 4 mil spacing on 6-8 layer boards, at about 100 mm per second. For the in-house production of prototypes, this is a smart machine. Some years ago there was much discussion about creating the circuitry of electronic equipment such that it was embodied as part of the housing, obviating the need for a separate circuit board, with the associated space it takes up. Well, LPKF are now demonstrating how they can laser structure circuitry onto various materials, including polyamides, PET and PBT blends, LCP and PC/ABS resulting in a MID – moulded interconnect device. The laser transfers the artwork directly onto the injection moulded component by ablation, with an additive build-up of the interconnect structure through electroless copper plating. Solder paste can be applied by dispense, or screen printing, and component placing by machines with a variable Z-axis.
Upstairs the SMART Group were running what was a dynamic Lead-Free Hands-On Experience, a conference with papers on how to lead-free wave solder, how to lead-free reflow, and how reliable is lead-free. This was followed by the delegates rolling up their shirtsleeves and getting involved in soldering boards with four different finishes – gold, silver, OSP and tin – with different lead-free materials. Boards could be soldered with convection, or vapour phase reflow, rework and hand soldering though hole and BGA.
One big and busy room was equipped by such worthies as Speedprint, Adtec, Europlacer, Dage, AIM solders, Phoenix Contact and vapour phase IBL, plus a host of bondtesting and inspection equipment. The inimitable Dennis Price of Kestrel was on hand to advise on PCB finishes; he commented that on evidence the electroless nickel/immersion gold process led the field comfortably. AIM provided their LF218 lead-free solder, also known as IPC 305, rapidly becoming an industry standard, mainly due to their anti-voiding technology developed with their 251/254 solder pastes.
Needless to say Bob Willis was running the whole show with his usual energy and flair, suitably dressed in an athletic-looking shirt. Much talk about lead-free has been going on for ages, it seems, so it was good to see some action taking place, it may stir some executive movement higher up sooner rather than later. Time is running out.
Our time ran out, too, which was a shame, as every stand we stopped at had something really interesting to talk about and we could go on for several pages more. The show was an exercise in excellence in the exhibitor/visitor ratio, such that the latter were outnumbered by about 2:1 and thus, suitably indulged. There are some quite flaky people wandering about in Brighton, but inside the Metropole all was very sound indeed.