Interview – Craig Brown
Craig Brown ASM DEK
You’ve been with ASM DEK for 28 years, which is quite a bit for the industry. Can you tell us about some of your earliest memories, what were those early days like?
Before DEK, I did work for a competitive company, but it was a different product line, screen printing, mostly thick film. I had worked there for about eight years when I was contacted by John Knolls who asked if I would be interested in joining DEK.
I actually was working with a fellow named Rich Heicht and I talked to Rich and I said that I did not think one person could do what they were asking to do. It was basically to start a North American presence for DEK. Rich and I interviewed with John Knolls and a gentleman named John Pavaroit, who used to be the President of DTI. They made us an offer and we accepted. We started at DEK on April 4, 1988. Prior to that the product had been distributed by Universal Instruments, but DEK wanted to expand its presence in the Americas to all placement companies.
You started in thick film. This was really the original roots of DEK. I remember the early days with John Knolls, that was very much his background. DEK started in thick film but migrated away towards SMT and left thick film behind.
When we started, service map was in its infancy, and DEK had a machine that had been a pass-through SMT machine, but it did not have vision. It was not well-suited for the intricacies required for SMT. In the beginning we did sell alot of equipment in the thick film industry. Ford Motor in Landsville, Pennsylvania was one of the biggest customers.
We continued to delve into what would be required to compete in the SMT arena. It was actually going to involve a new machine. Going back to the early days, that was when DEK decided it was going to develop a new platform. The DEK 265 was the first offering by DEK that was a fully-automated system for surface mount. That was 1989-1990.
Tell us about the most significant changes you saw during that time.
Basically setting up a presence where we could address the customer’s needs for the long-term. It meant not just distributing the product, but setting-up a customer service group to assist with not only installations but also the support of the products.
We also started a group called solutions engineering. We used to call it applications engineering, but they were process engineers who would work with sales in addressing the overall requirements for the printing application, making sure we addressed all aspects of it, not only for the printing portion of it, but the tooling, the paste and the stencils.
I actually have book that my dad was the editor. There was a gentlemen named Van Hughes that started a company called AMI. They had a fishbone chart that goes back to the 60s with 55 different issues they could address overall with the printing process. The funny thing is, if you take a look at that chart today, almost all of them still exist, just to a much more finite resolution.
Do not think of DEK as SMT company only, it is mass imaging of electronic materials. It could be thick film, it could be solar cell, it is certainly surface mount. It could SMT, ball placement. There are so many different things that can be imaged and place onto a substrate carrier, whether that be an aluminum substrate, PCB or a wafer – they are all printing, but just different applications with different areas of resolution and accuracy that is needed. That is why we like to be thought of as more than just a surface mount company.
Back in the early days of SMT, it was quite common to buy complete line solutions. You must have been involved in helping to install line solutions before it broke out into best-of-class.
In the early days, DEK worked closely with Universal on line solutions, but we also worked with Fuji and Panasonic, it was a turn-key solution. In many cases, even though it was a line, the customers would buy the printers from one source, whether it be DEK or MPM in the early days, then maybe the reflow from another company. With these companies, it was not a direct affiliation. We worked with their customers to supply machines. Later, we worked with Siemens – now ASM, so they could get the best printing solution.
Still to this day, I think most people state that end-of-line defects can be trace and attributed to the overall printing process in the 60-65% range. That is a kind of open-ended response to all things that go into what could go wrong. If you cannot do it right at that step, then why consider the next one. That is why we wanted to address all the intricacies of the printing process.
Along the way you must have faced some unusual installations. What were some of the most unusual ones that you worked on?
In the early days, alot of the equipment that was put into pre-SMT went into Landsville Ford. They wanted turnkey lines, but for thick film. We developed and built automatic handlers – printers into co-locators, then dryers, reloaders, putting those cassettes into the furnace and then back into cassettes, maintaining the same orientation of the substrates.
As it started to transcend and go into other applications, some of the surface mount applications were unique. I cannot talk to much about it, but in the early days we did work with Intel for many years. We won the supplier award for all the different applications we did with them. This was certainly one of the tougher ones.
Alot of the ball placement systems that we have done, it is not surface mount, but it is screen printing of a flux or solder paste then placing solder spheres onto carriers whether it be wafers or whatever. We did some work with Analog Devices and TI and other companies.
We did some very unique applications with a company called Volcano, where they used the DEK machines for medical electronics. There were numerous ones that were difficult.
The best way to answer the overall question is that it was not just about printing, It was about understanding the overall process and coming up with a solution through the tooling, the material they were using – not getting them to change them – but to understand them. Understand he carriers, the machines themselves, the stencils, because they all have an impact and if you do not do it right at every stage, you are going to have an issue. It was bringing a different dimension to looking at the overall printing process.
To this day, the only thing that ASM DEK does not do, we do not have a materials division, but we certainly work with any and all suppliers in the industry so that we understand the characteristics, the reality of their materials and how they have to be deposited onto a carrier.
Who do you think at ASM DEK has made the most significant contribution to the company over the years, other then of course, its founder, John Knolls?
JB Kay. Still to this day, a lovely guy. Some people that were instrumental in establishing a presence in the Americas were Karen Moore-Watts from the marketing area. From the customer support group, Mike Joegin and Mike Rusnauk, guys that joined us in the early days. Unfortunately, there was a gentleman who passed away in 2001 who was our western regional Sales Manager, Paul Simmons. Paul was very instrumental in working with Intel, Hewlett-Packard and a lot of the other companies when we just started to break into the industry. In our applications and solutions engineering group, Ed Rabbit on the west coast. Rob Lela, now the Product Manager for ASM DEK out of Chicago. A fellow named Mike O’Hanlon who is applications engineer on the east coast. I have made this statement many times: “Anyone can build equipment, anyone can bend metal. But it is only good as the people who stand behind it.”
Which of the major product introductions do you think made the biggest impact?
I think it was the 265. DEK had a different foundation where it aligned the stencil to the board while other people aligned the board to the stencil. Having a platform that could address center or front-jusified or rear-justified images, understanding the process and working with not just the printer but the tooling, the stencil, the paste supplier. This is one of the things that set DEK on course to become the number one supplier with in the SMT marketplace – globally.
DEK had a unique vision systems as well.
The system we came out with was a telecentric system that would simultaneously look up and down. We also came out with a system call ‘weighting’ to be able to take a look at the most critical components on the board, then putting the total offset into that one area for better alignment. That is something they did many years ago and is still a standard feature to this day.
DEK tended to let their thick film knowledge base go to the wayside when they went into the SMT business. Later they moved into the solar photovoltaic industry which had very similar requirements to thick film. They basically had to rediscover that knowledge from their thick film days. Can you talk us through that transition?
John Knolls headed that up while Darren Brown ran the sales team globally. Most of it was done in Asia, some in Europe and even some in the States. It was basically taking the solar cells out of a carrier then presenting them for a print, dry, print, dry process. It was very similar to thick film, but the parts were very fragile, micro-cracks were a concern. They did have to reinvent the handling aspect of how this was to be done.
One thing that DEK did not supply were the dryers for the systems. In the early days they worked with BTU and still now, Heller, to provide turnkeys systems for solar cell manufacturing. It is still a integral part of the overall DEK process. It is now handled in the Americas by a gentleman named Brian Loh and by Darren Brown in the UK.
One of things that struck me about that process was that DEK took a very different approach to the handling of these photovoltaic systems than any of the competitors in that field. All of the competitors tended to have a turntable which indexed whereas the DEK machine tended to have a longer footprint, but a much more efficient way for volume throughput.
They had three printers at each station. This was for speed, but you had to have accuracy as well. As the industry evolved they started printing thicker deposits so that can be more power generated by the solar panels, therefore putting less panels up on people’s roofs and so on. It has become similar to surface mount where we are still doing the same thing, we just have to do it faster, more accurately with greater repeatability.
The solar photovoltaic industry gears up in huge anticipation of the demands of government policy which can suddenly change at a moments notice and leave the industry with excess inventories and other problems on many occasions. How has that instability played into DEK? Did SMT basically bail them out of that?
That is part of it. ASM DEK has been versatile enough to have platforms that can address different mediums for screen printing. In Europe some of the countries would offer some type of tax credit. When that was cutout, the quantity of product dropped drastically. Also, when the price of oil drops, it may make it less attractive to look at solar as oppose to alternative energies and other types of heating fuels. It seems to be politics within the oil cartels controlling prices and flow to keep competitors out of the industry. Again, solar cells – they work! There is a lot of them out there with lots of people using them. It is a matter of cost efficiency depending on how they are going to be used. This is something ASM DEK is able to react to quickly and ramp it up or turn it down.
I saw the new SPI measurement system at productronica which automatically corrects the printer This is a large step forward in printer technology. We have had SPI for a long time, but nobody has been brave enough to actually make it automatically correct someone else’s printer. Now that you have your own SPI, you are confident enough to make it work with printers.
It is not being introduced to replace SPI, there are numerous good companies out there, but if someone wants a line-control, where they can take measurements, not just for offsets and X and Y but even possibly for how often to clean, collect massive amounts of data, control the overall printing process, put that data into the printer and automatically correcting it – we offer that. Nobody is truly at 4.0. There are people at 3.0 and striving toward, it but it is the intelligent line.
How do you printing evolving in the next five years?
The number one thing would be miniaturization. It challenges a lot of the areas where we get into the machine, the aspect ratios on the stencils, the paste, it is really the optimization of the overall printing process. This must be done properly.
The next would be the evolution of machines. Industry 4.0 – controlling the machine, making it smart, line to line, factory to factory. I think it was IBM, they never called them printers, they called them machine tools that are programmable. The goal being able to do something the exact same way, anytime, anywhere.
Do you think that one day we will see the lights-out factory?
Truthfully? Yes. My first initiative into printing was in 1966 while I was in high school. It was at a company called Pressco. There were certain operators who could make a machine “sing.” It was a matter of making sure each machine was programmable, repeatable and accurate enough going down the line where you could have a smart factory to control all of aspects of the manufacturing process. It is just going to be a continual refinement.
It is certainly coming. It has been certainly a fascinating chat. I wish you nothing but the best with your retirement. Before you go, can I ask you if you have any regrets or are you really looking forward to eventually retiring?
Not a regret. I have done this for so long, I love what I do. I have a passion for it. I guess the one unanswered question is, leaving the industry and going into the next phase of my life, what is that going to bring? I do have a friend that I am going to definitely volunteer for at Habitat for Humanity. I am a Vietnam veteran and I will volunteer of the Vietnam Veterans of America. I have four grandchildren that I want to spend time with. I also plan to visit friends and travel.
I am going to miss the industry. It has been challenging. The one thing I have always said is the one thing we know about this industry is that everyone’s application is going to be different. That is one of the challenges I have always enjoyed. Being able to take a look at and address what is going on, how it can be achieved, how we bring it to fruition.
Whether this for guidance systems on a missile or automotive electronics and medical improvements. Getting smart electronics – there are just so many different things that are coming. There are many future opportunities. I think the industry, especially ASM DEK have to be able to look at them, challenge them, and provide faster, more efficient, cost-effective solutions commercially available to the general public.
That is really going to be the challenge going forward. ASM DEK will not be alone in having to face that. Craig, thank you for joining us today.