Trend: Embedded components center stage at printed circuits show

The largest electronics show for the printed circuit board industry wrapped up a three day event recently at Tokyo Big Sight in Japan. Japan Electronics Packaging and Circuit Association (JCPA) organized the event. Below are some findings based on my attendance.

The most popular booths were those that featured embedded components and 3D packaging for semiconductors. Large-sized circuit board manufacturers and a few second-tier manufacturers delivered sales presentations about embedded components in printed circuits. This is the second ‘launch’ for embedded technologies in multi-layer circuits over the last decade.

First launch
The first launch targeted embedded passive components with rigid multi-layer boards.  The main players behind the technology were larger-sized material suppliers and a few circuit board manufacturers in North America.

Management teams from these companies had the resources and leadership dimensions to develop and commercialize two different technology types: screen printing using special inks and etching / lamination from special copper laminates.

Unfortunately, these trials were not very successful and were not practical in high-volume consumer applications, except for a few dealing with cellular phones.

A handful of companies have continued using this technology, but the contribution to the overall bottom line is negligible.

Second launch
The second launch for embedded technology was initiated by Japanese and Korean manufacturers (material suppliers kept a low profile during this launch).

Manufacturing companies for rigid circuit boards, flex circuits and modules are the front runners to bring this technology to market. Support for the technology is also coming in from semiconductor device manufacturers, passive component suppliers and IC packaging companies.

The most significant detail for this new technology is mounting the chip components inside multi-layer boards or rigid / flex circuits.

Chip sizes for passive components continue to get smaller and smaller, and the thickness of the smallest chip device is now less than 0.2 mm.

These chip components are mounted onto copper traces of the inner layer circuits using the traditional surface mounting process with reflow soldering.

Once soldering is completed, the outer layers are laminated with relatively thick prepreg sheets. The epoxy resin flows and encapsulates the mounted components. The advantages from this technology are broader ranges and higher accuracies from passive devices compared to the first generation embedded passives. Also, chip components are tested and guaranteed by component suppliers.

New technology
One other feature this technology brings with it is a new way of dealing with embedded active components. Bare IC chips or WLCSP (wafer level chip scale packaging) devices are mounted on copper traces of the inner layers by flip-chip bonding.

These semiconductor devices are relatively thicker compared to the chip type passive components, therefore appropriate cavity spaces inside of the multilayer boards are required.

One technical hurdle that manufacturers overcame was filling the cavity after the flip-chip process to ensure high reliabilities. During the exhibition, circuit board manufacturers emphasized the reliabilities from the embedded active process and explained in detail their cavity generation process and encapsulation process.

Most of the major circuit board manufacturers developed multiple embedded component technologies and proposed applying different combinations of embedded components to optimize performances.

A couple of larger flex circuit companies also delivered presentations about embedded components, but in my opinion, they seem to be focused on embedded actives for multi-layer rigid / flex.

Cost and volume
Quality assurance and total cost for embedded components both remain big issues when used in applications with significant volumes. Unfortunately, no company provided me with a clear answer for these hot topics.

Currently, very few circuit board manufacturers are involved with large volume production.

A representative from a major multi-layer board company discussed his company’s current sales trends, and stated they ship one million small-sized embedded components boards for cellular phone companies each month.

One of my business associates shared information from another company that also ships product for use in a telecommunication application. Unfortunately, this venture is not profitable, and this company is loosing money because of a low process yield and low productivity. The company may soon discontinue this line.

Source: EPT Newsletter,, June 2009

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