Screaming Circuits: September 2006

ESC show recap

I had hoped to have a nice overall show recap. I had also hoped to do a little more writing from the show floor about new and exciting things on display. Well, our booth was too busy so I didn't really get to see much. Still, though, it was very valuable to speak with a large number of potential and even a few current customers.

In my prior post, I said there were two common themes. Really, it's three. It was surprising, the number of booth visitors that both have a current solid contract manufacturing relationship and also need help getting prototypes built up. The problem is that five to ten years ago, outsourcing became all the rage. The huge offshore contract manufacturers set them selves up to get as much of the NPI pie as possible - from design to assembly to final manufacturing - and so many US companies jumped in with both feet. They outsourced a whole lot and eliminated or cut back on internal capabilities.

Now with the economy heating up, they need more help but no longer have enough or any capacity to build up prototypes in house. To really stomp on the "greatness" of outsourcing / off shoring, many of those giant CMs decided that the small stuff is not profitable, so they have stopped accepting or have made it much more difficult to get the small volume work done.

The small companies can't get their low-volume work done because the big CMs won't even talk to them and the big companies can't because even though the big CMs or their internal manufacturing will talk to them, they have to wait and wait to squeeze the work in.

Second theme is that a few years ago, the parts involved were easy enough to hand solder so the boards could be handed to a technician to be built up quickly. Well, now, in many cases those technicians are either gone or already fully utilized, and many of the new packages are so small or so difficult to use that hand soldering is not even possible.

Doubly whammy. More complex parts and less available help.

The third comment I heard repeatedly has to do with lead-free and BGAs. There is still a lot of confusion about mixing leaded and unleaded parts. With a lot of parts, it doesn't matter so much, but with BGAs, you have to follow the BGA. Because it has those little solder balls underneath, if it's a lead-free BGA, you have to used lead-free solder and lead-free temperatures. If you don't you kill your reliability. If it's a leaded BGA, you have to use leaded solder and lead temperatures, or, again, you kill your reliability.

Duane Benson
Screaming Circuits

Enablers and a fan

Being the busy booth staffer that I am, I didn't get much time to walk the floor yesterday. Just a few quick trips. I did get a lot of time to speak with potential customers as well as a few current customers. That's what I like. As a marketing guy, I don't get nearly enough time to do that.

What I heard were two common themes. First, a lot of people don't have a good source for prototype quantity builds. You would think that it wouldn't be such an issue, but it's pervasive - big companies as well as small companies. Fortunately, we're here to change that.

The other (closely related) theme was the need for an enabler. A lot of the folks I spoke with could get their proto's done last year, but now they need to move up to a new generation of parts: 3mm x 3mm QFN filters, tiny little chip RAMs, massive BGAs, etc. They can't use these new parts with their old methods. Typically, they were hand soldering or using a toaster oven or spare time in a low-tech assembly house. Again, that's why we're here.


We're in booth 1133, right next to Circuit Cellar magazine. When I walked in Steve Ciarcia was sitting in his booth reading. I've been a fan of his writing since the Byte magazine days back in the late '70s. Big thrill for me to meet him. Of course, he hit me up for an advertisement in his magazine. That's cool. I don't have the budget for that yet - next year - but I thought about it, just to say I bought an ad from Steve Ciarcia.

Duane Benson
Geek at times

JAVA racing

I haven't had a lot of time to walk the show floor, but I did run across a booth display interesting both for the product and for their innovative marketing method.

Sun is showing off their real time Java, which is pretty cool. But the way they are doing it is even cooler. They've set up a slot car track equipped with various sensors and a remote software Esc_boston_06_rt_java_race1_1 environment. You can jump on a PC in their booth or go to their web site and put together a quick little real-time Java program to control the slot car based on sensors in the track.

After submitting the program, they turn it on and you get to see how fast your Esc_boston_06_java_race2program got the car around. The real-time bit is, of course, if there are response time delays, the car misses and flys off the track.

Duane Benson
Robots rule

What will we see?

It's an hour and a half before the show starts. What do you think will be the big news at ESC this year? I would expect the excitement to be heavily weighted toward robotics and automotive, but I haven't seen much out of the ordinary in those areas yet. A little - just not as much as I would have expected.

Maybe I'll see more once the show has opened.Booth_up_esc_boston_06_1

And, by the way, the booth did finally arrive and is now all set up

Duane Benson
Tradeshow monkey

Still waiting

The booth (at the Embedded Systems Conference in Boston, booth 1133) looks a little forlorn without all our stuff. Fortunately, our booth only takes a few minutes to Empty_booth_esc_boston_06set up because none of the boxes are here yet. No problem. We have plenty of time.

So far, at least the service has been good. I've got a few horror stories from trade shows a few years  back, but the Embedded Systems Conference, both here and ealier in the year out in San Jose, CA, seem to be pretty good with the service. Here in Boston, we even have free - that's right free - wireless Interent.

In San Jose, wired Interent service cost something like $895.00 for a three day show. You expect that, though. You always expect that sort of absurd pricing at trade shows. What you don't expect is free Internet.

If you're in Boston on the 26th or 27th, stop by and see us. Mention the blog or run through the website with us and we'll give you a Latte - actually, a $4.00 Starbucks card, but close enough.

Just waiting for the boxes

Duane Benson
More to come

Packing Signal Integrity

Today is packing day. I don't actually leave for the Embedded Systems Conference, in Boston, until very late tomorrow, but I need to pack today. I'm taking a red-eye Sunday night and will be going straight to do booth setup when I get off the airplane. What was I thinking when I set that up?!

Not that the above is of particular interest to anyone, but I did run across something that may be. This site, Signal Consulting, has a list of technical articles relating to a variety of signal-related issues. The site owner also sells consulting services and promotes his seminars. I don't have any experience with either, so I'm not endorsing him or his services in any way, but take a look at the Q&A listings on the page I've linked.

Interestingly, though he does not have any experience with Screaming Circuits and is not endorsing us in any way, much of the content here speaks to the value of rapid electronic prototyping - what we do. Many signal quality related issues are directly impacted by layout. If your analysis determines that you need a new layout and you're in a hurry (what designer isn't these days), you can get boards in 24 or 48 hours from our friends at Sunstone Circuits. Have those boards and your parts delivered to us at Screaming Circuits and we can assembly a new set of proto boards for you in as little as 24 hours.

If you've got really small or really big parts or just a lot of them, soldering the things up by hand really isn't practical. You need a service like ours. (Was that too blatant a sales pitch?)

Duane Benson
Crosstalk bugs me

REP (not "RIP")

REP - Rapid Electronic Prototyping. What is it and why should you care? Well, we care, certainly, because that's pretty much what we do. Or, at least that may be one way to describe what we do.

Wikipedia has an article on Rapid Prototyping and an article on Prototyping. The Rapid Prototyping article mostly covers mechanical devices and the other article is pretty brief. It does have a short paragraph on Rapid Electronics Prototyping - because I added it. If you search for the same on Google, you get a number of commercial sites, the Wikipedia Prototyping article and a lot about mechanical rapid prototyping. I tend to think that the term may fit and it seems that a few others agree, but is not at all a broadly used phrase at this point.

My first use of rapid prototyping in the mechanical world came back in my days at In Focus Systems, in the early 1990's. We were designing a new portable projector - the first ever to be both VGA (computer capable native resolution) and full motion video capable.

Back then, portable had a different definition. We surveyed all the airlines and found the maximum size that could fit under the majority of airline seats and subtracted 1/2" for the soft carry case. We then put different weights in bags and had a variety of people carry them around to determine - with a bit of by guess and by golly - that 20 pounds or under could be carried around on the shoulder.

The problem we faced is that same problem that many of our customers face today. We had a tradeshow deadline and we needed to study the thermal characteristics in the actual box - we needed to make sure that it wouldn't catch fire or burn anyone. We found a place that could do stereo lithography for us. Off went the CAD files and two days later we received a top and bottom - the projector would have a two piece clamshell construction - that was two inches long. They mis-programmed the machine and shrunk the parts by a factor of ten. Oops.

Next run and we had a good solid base piece. The base was intended to have a wall thickness twice that of the top and worked fine. The top just wouldn't go so we had to hack something together with sheet plastic and glue. The end result was that we had a projector to work with in two weeks, rather than the three months it would have taken for tooling. Before I took it on the road, we also learned enough about the thermal characteristics to make some significant changes. Had we not done so, our first tooled injection molded parts would not have worked and the schedule would have slipped a couple of months.

So what is Rapid Electronics Prototyping? It is getting your design built up and back into your hands fast. Doing so allows you to dramatically cut the time needed to:

  • Study thermal, noise and other electrical properties that are layout dependant
  • Get to a show or press tour faster
  • Get half a dozen or so parts to the software guys so they can get going faster
  • Start your test and debug weeks or months earlier.

Basically, just as the mechanical rapid prototyping did for In Focus Systems, Rapid Electronics Prototyping can cut time out of your schedule and get your product to market faster.

Duane Benson
No tombstoning allowed

Things hidden in our website

We've created a number of press releases and white papers and added a few download files to our website. We don't really have a good spot for these on the site, so we've repurposed some not-too-obvious locations.

For any downloads like white papers, sample files, Eagle ULPs, check lists and things like that, go to SERVICES / FAQ and look in the right-side column. We're using this as our "downloads" link. Many of these can be found in other locations through out the site, but the idea is that anything that can be downloaded, except press materials, can be found here.

For press materials, look in the right-side column on ABOUT US / NEWSLETTER. This is where we keep all press materials.

The main content area in ABOUT US / NEWSLETTERS has details for current programs and promotions. This section was originally intended to be about our newsletters, but think of it now as more of a general "News and information" section.

Duane Benson

Via in pad?

In general, we would recommend against placing vias in any pads that will receive solder during the assembly process. A couple of undesirable events can happen depending on the method used during board fab.

If your vias are left open, solder will tend to wick down into the via hole. The larger the diameter, the worse the wicking problem can be. You might end up without enough solder left to secure the component. You might even see a solder bump on the bottom side of the board, which could interfere with other components or lead to shorts.

If your vias are capped or partially filled, the caps might pop off due to thermal expansion or out-gassing. Internal air bubble can migrate up, leading to voids in your solder joint.

In a perfect world, we'd like to never see a via in pad. However, the real-world is saying otherwise. Manufacturers of QFN parts are starting to recommend vias in the heat-slug pad for improved thermal conductivity. High frequency designs benefit from the shortest possible routing, which may indicate via in pad. Super fine pitch BGAs may not leave any other options.

This not very helpful, but somewhat humorous thread from 2004 on the SMTnet message forum illustrates common opinion on the process. If you need to place vias in the solder area, we would recommend that you use as small a diameter as the design will allow and follow the component manufacturer's guidelines for placement and via capping or filling.


We'll be watching this issue closely and pass on more hints and tips as we find them.

Duane Benson
Via le pcb assembly

How's your RoHS?

Icnkitgrn_2That deadline came and went fast - here it is two plus months later already.

We have a lot of RoHS information on our web site, but sometimes it gets lost in all the mass of content we have. Here is a sampling of what you'll find on our site:

RoHS still seems to be generating a lot of controversy, but it's a fact of life at this point. With China, California and other governments legislating in that direction, it will only become more important. We've been doing it for more than a year now, so you can send us lead-free assembly work with complete confidence.

Drop in and get a quote and place an order.

Duane Benson
I ate my lead. Did you?

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