Eurocircuits – healthy results for 2011 – and that’s not just the MD

Eurocircuits annual sales meeting took place in Mechelen 11 – 13 January.

Luc Smets and Dirk Stans, Managing Partners, opened the meeting with a summary of the company”s results for 2011 which showed a healthy growth in turnover, number of orders and number of customers.
They also outlined new developments for 2012 which will significantly enhance the services which we provide for our customers.  More information on these will be available on the website and in our blog as they are released over the next few months.
Gabor Wachter and Olaf Davidsmeyer, Managing Directors of the Eger and Aachen factories respectively, described their investments in new equipment during 2011 and their plans for 2012.
Total investment for 2011 was in excess of €1,300,000  Our investments have increased capacity by 40% as well as improving quality.
By removing bottlenecks in production we have further increased the reliability of our deliveries.
We had an excellent dinner for all participants and the associates based in Mechelen.
Lively conversations in 5 languages continued into the small hours.
The company”s green credentials were emphasised by Luc Smets arriving each day by tricycle. He showed his concern for the health of his colleagues by leading two of them on a 30 km tricycle ride after the meeting ended.”

The strategy of Eurocircuits – 20 years of evolution

20 years of evolution – one graph explains it all

The first 10 years

Started as Europrint, right from the beginning, we were active in the market of prototypes and small series. Our goal was to serve our customers with any wish they had: “You name it, we make it”. This requires a rather costly organization and does not leave room for optimization in the business process or in the production process.

The constant decay of PCB prices and the declining appreciation for service “old style” went hand in hand and were accelerated by the disappearance of the layout and board specialist at the customers’ organization. With the disappearance of specialization, the prices collapsed over the years. Leaving a high cost of service for a lower price to kill the margins and finally leading to a loss and the inevitable end.

The next 10 years


Being conscious of the devastating decay of the traditional market we searched for ways to bring down the cost of service. On production level the solution was order pooling. The goal here is to bring more value on a production panel and reduce the cost. Instead of making 1 production panel containing one job of 5 small boards leaving the panel half or more empty, we fill it with other jobs of equal technology. The value rises but the costs stay the same

To achieve this one needs many orders to combine. And these orders need to fit in a predefined standard technology in order to make pooling possible. Selling this to the market required two things: An online communication tool with calculation and order capabilities and a price so attractive that a customer forgets his special wishes.

It worked. In about 5 years most of our traditional market was converted – or lost – but the new emerging market was already bigger than the old one.

The future

In recent years we invested a lot to extend our services aiming for the widest pooling offer in Europe. It is now imperative to stay ahead of competition and offer extra convenience and added value around our services without increasing the cost too much. That way we glue the market to us and can harvest on the result as costs will stay under control.

Most of these new emerging products and services will lie in the field of software tools and eC-assembly-tools that help the customer to practically materialize his design.

Elsyca Intellitool Matrix plating project

Eurocircuits”role in the project sets a new competitive standard

Making efficient pooling panels belongs to the core business of Eurocircuits. It is a necessity to ensure cost-effective production of prototypes or small batches.
Eurocircuits started as a trader of printed circuit boards in 1991. Soon after, in 1993 we got involved in production. It has been our aim from the start to use pooling techniques for a number of reasons :

  • Save cost by increasing production efficiency
  • Save the environment by reducing waste

The idea of making pooling panels was not new in 1993. On the Benelux market a dutch company was already successfully offering single sided boards in pooling since the eighties of the last century. For double sided boards however it was not that common yet.

When we introduced combination panels for double sided boards in our own production in Hungary there was a lot of resistance from the operators and from the production management. They saw the complexity of their job increase, and technological challenges had to be taken care of.

Now, almost 20 years later, most technology issues have been taken care of, except for one major area, the galvanic copper plating.

For this galvanic process, the design of the PCB plays a vital role in the outcome of the process. In pooling panels there is even an influence of the design of one board on the copper deposition on surrounding designs. That means that we have to be very careful how to build our panel layouts.

The restrictions in panel configuration create limitations that affect the efficiency in our production. As a producer you can look at this problem in two ways:

  • Focus on efficiency and accept uneven copper distribution. Also accept that the quality of the PCB”s produced for one customer can be influenced by the design of another pcb on the same pooling panel.
  • Focus on quality – stick to an even distribution and minimum copper plating thickness all over the panel. Accept that part of the panel surface gets lost because of extra copper areas and spacing introduced to balance out the galvanic layer. Also accept that not all jobs can be pooled with acceptable plating results.

Eurocircuits decided not to take any plating quality risks. We accepted the restrictions dictated by the plating process for a long time.The Elsyca Intellitool matrix copper plating is going to remove these restrictions.


Project partners :

Elsyca NV, Wijgmaal – Belgium
MacDermid Germany

Elsyca Intellitool plating – the concept

Elsyca Intellitool is a software controlled electroplating tooling concept developed by Elsyca. It reduces the pattern dependence of the deposited layer of copper on the boards. The main change from a standard plating cell is the introduction of a controllable grid ( matrix) of anode segments, at a small distance of the board to be plated.

The concept consists of 3 parts :

  • 1.A simulation and optimisation tool which is a further development of Elsyca Smartplate, a software we use at Eurocircuits to simulate the plating process and to decide if a pooling panel is fit for production or not. The simulation tool optimizes the current on each anode segment in time to yield the desired plating thickness and uniformity on the board. The simulations counts with parameters like properties of the plating tank, design of the pcb, resisitivity of the substrate. The result of the optimization is sent to the control unit to feed the matrix.
  • 2.The matrix feeder contains a microprocessor that reads the calculated pattern of the current, and controls a matrix of digital to anode converters (DACs). This imposes the correct current on each anode segment ( pin). An amplification of the current can be implemented.
  • 3.The anode matrix, mounted on a printed circuit board. Each anode pin is connected to the matrix feeder.

Intellitool concept picture

Elsyca Intellitool is organising the anodes as a matrix with the same size as the panel to be plated, and every point in the matrix can plate with a different current. All individual currents can be controlled in time and intensity.This way the current density is not spread evenly over the panel, but is adjusted to the differences in copper distribution in the pcb design. This can be useful to balance differences in copper distribution within a single board, but gets even more interesting when there are different designs combined on one panel ( pooling-panel).

Elsyca Intellitool – in practice.

Eurocircuits is using the software from Elsyca to simulate plating (Smartplate) and judge the plating feasabilty of its pooling panels. Intellitool is going to take us a step further. We are not going to use the software just for making a judgment. The results of the simulations will be used to control the plating process by instructing each of the anodes in the matrix on the current to be used and the time to be plated.

The Elsyca Smartplate CAM output is sent directly from our UCAM Cam system to the plating line to control the process. Operator influence on the process will be eliminated.

Our plating process will be integrated in our production processes in a similar way as is now the case for CNC machines, test equipment, etc.

Elsyca Intellitool – labo test

To test the concept Elsyca made a labo plating setup.

Elsyca Intellitool – testing in a production environment

Eurocircuits and Elsyca are testing the Elsyca Intellitool concept in a purpose built galvanic cell in our production site Eurocircuits Aachen Gmbh in Baesweiler, Germany.

The galvanic cell is built to treat one standard size Eurocircuits pooling panel ( 530 x 460 mm ) The PCB pattern on the pooling panel will vary from one production run to another.

Intellitool test cell

The cell contains two anode arrays ( one for the front side, one for the backside of the pcb panel)

Intellitool matrix

The tank is filled with MacDermid specialised chemicals for electroplating printed circuit boards, and the Eurocircuits pooling panel is precisely positioned between the two anode arrays.

Intellitool with panel positioned

Testing the Elsyca Intellitool production cell – November 17-2011

On November 17 tests with production panels taken out of regular production batches in Eurocircuits Aachen were plated in both our conventional plating line and in the Intellitool testcell.

Trials were conducted to evaluate the Intellitool concept as follows :

1. Test to improve the copper distribution on the panel against the conventional line :

  • Intellitool panel : Plating thickness (in holes ) between 33 and 53 micron
  • Conventional panel : Plating thickness (in holes) between 29 and 62 micron
  • The use of Elsyca Intellitool reduces the plating spread with 50%
  • Intellitool test 1

2. Test to speed up the plating process with similar copper distribution as in the conventional line

  • Intellitool panel : plating time 40 minutes
  • Conventional panel : plating time 70 minutes
  • The use of Elsyca Intellitool reduces the plating time with more than 40% while maintaining the same plating spread.
  • Intellitool test 2
More tests are planned to further optimize the Elsyca Intellitool product. As a lead customer this will be performed in close collaboration between Elsyca and Eurocircuits. By the end of February 2012 we will build a new galvanic line in our production unit in Eger, Hungary to test the Elsyca Intellitool in an automated production line.

 

 

Lean production project in Eurocircuits Kft – Eger – Hungary

Why lean production?

Our main target is reducing waste (time is a major waste) in the production and better (faster) serve our customers.

The first step – “clear the clouds”

We first needed to learn to see the real nature of our production processes. We learn to look through “lean glasses” to recognise the biggest waste items in our process. Waste can be waiting times between different processes, or stability problems in the process that create flow breakdowns.

Second step – list and analyse problems, set priorities

We formed a brainstorming team with colleagues from all areas in the company. The purpose of the sessions is to identify these areas in our process where we find important waste that can be cleared rather fast. We use Ishikawa root cause analysis for this.

During the brainstorming sessions we identified four areas where we think we can improve rapidly:


  1. Mechanical department
  2. Galvanic lines
  3. define KPI”s ( Key performance indicators)
  4. Priority settings
Four project teams are established. Every team got members from different areas to be able to look at the problem from different angles. Following the results of the root cause analysis we have set priorities. The priorities are decided based on resources needed to make a change and what effect the change can cause.

Creating a smooth production flow

When we have waves in our production this creates “traffic jams”. These jams are the main reason for delay. The best way to guarantee on-time delivery is by creating a smooth production flow. For that we need stable processes, a well balanced capacity distribution throughout the process, and skilled operators.

PCB production is a complicated process with a lot of different steps. Each order can be following a slightly different flow as different options are chosen. That makes is challenging to create a smooth flow. Most energy is spend in organizing the “human factor” – monitoring and motivating operators to think and act lean. Training is organised continually, and we try to involve people from all levels and all departments in the project.

New KPI”s (key performance indicators)

Existing KPI”s in the organisation are evaluated for their usefulness and following new KPI”s are introduced because we think they can inform us about our progress in this lean project.

  • KPI for measuring the average throughput time (in hours)
  • KPI”s measuring the efficiency in the galvanic process
  • KPI for measuring the efficiency in the drilling department.

FIFO

Beginning of October 2011 we started experimenting with a FIFO based system for setting priorities in each step of the production from the Blackhole PTH till the Soldermask curing step. As the first results are good we are now organizing to extend the reach of this FIFO method to the whole process of double sided production.

Controlled and decreased WIP (Work in Process)

We decreased and started to control the inventory of panels in production. Inventory is allowed only in clearly defined locations and up to a defined maximum number of panels. We produce in smaller lots based on the capacity of our bottleneck, the galvanic line. Jobs are started only for production when there is capacity available.

Panels waiting before the galvanic process before introduction of the WIP inventory control

Panels before the galvanic process with controlled inventory

As we are gaining more experience in the lean project, our confidence is growing that we can further increase efficiency and reliability. The knowledge built in the factory in Eger, Hungary will be useful when we start a new production unit in Gandhinagar India in 2012 to serve the Asian market with prototype pcb”s.