An Inside Look: Ventec Europe Revisited
Technical Editor Pete Starkey recently had a chance to visit Mark Goodwin, chief operating officer, Europe and USA, for an update on developments at Ventec Europe’s UK Distribution Centre.
Pete Starkey: Hello again, Mark. Time flies! I just checked back and it’s been over six years since I first visited you in Leamington, when you were based at the Sydenham premises. It must be close to three years since you moved Ventec’s distribution operation to the Trojan Business Centre, and I find it really interesting to call-in periodically to keep in touch with your continuing evolution. Last time I was here you were at the final stages of your AS9100C accreditation.
Mark Goodwin: Yes, we have to maintain a balance of priorities--as well as responding to ever-increasing technical demands on laminates and prepregs, we have to make sure the right systems and qualifications are in place to be able to offer quality assurance all the way along the supply chain from our manufacture and distribution to our customers’ PCB shops. Our European operation is now fully accredited to AS9100C, complementing the existing accreditation of Ventec Electronics in Suzhou, and we are in the process of extending the approval to include our North American facilities.
Starkey: Do the aerospace OEMs appreciate what you have achieved?
Goodwin: Not necessarily. They are keen to push AS9100C into the PCB shops, but don’t seem to be putting the same emphasis on material suppliers adopting similar quality philosophies. We are in a unique position among laminators in providing a fully accredited supply chain for high reliability materials, and we are working toward increasing the OEMs’ awareness of what we are able to offer. A big problem is that OEMs tend to write particular brand names and product designations into their drawings and, as time goes on, either be unaware that better materials exist or be unwilling to make any revision, or both--and suffer avoidable problems as a result. This is particularly relevant to the issue of cleanliness.
Starkey: Yes, I sat in on the ECWC World Conference presentation given by Stan Heltzel from the European Space Agency on latent short circuit failure. He showed some quite scary examples! It is clear that ESA see contamination of laminates by foreign material in the dielectric as a major problem, and they are collaborating with key suppliers to mitigate the risk and to define a new procurement specification in the form of Appendix A to IPC-4101-D.
Goodwin: The avoidance of foreign object contamination has been the subject of a major campaign within Ventec for some time now. All the leading manufacturers can formulate good high-reliability materials, but not everyone can make them clean--especially when material thicknesses go below 50 microns. I can show you what investments Ventec Electronics have made in the manufacturing process to eliminate particulate contamination in prepregs and laminates: Superfine filters and magnetic devices, advanced treater technology and clean room management, and the advanced inspection equipment to go with it. I can’t disclose all the details because there are unique proprietary features, but we have demonstrated to the European Space Agency that we can meet their critical requirements, not just at the manufacturing stage, but in cutting, slitting, and packaging for distribution as well. Come and see what investments we are making here in Ventec Europe.
Goodwin led me into an immaculately presented warehouse area, buzzing with activity, but clearly under meticulous control. Behind glass windows I could see a gleaming processing area with airlock entry and operators in clean-room overalls.
Goodwin: This is our new polyimide prepreg room. VT901 polyimide represents a substantial part of our business, and it has become adopted as an industry leader. We have always kept polyimide fabrication strictly separate from FR4 processing: We are well aware of the reliability problems that can be created if traces of epoxy dust come into contact with polyimide prepreg. Now we have a dedicated clean room with real-time temperature and humidity monitoring and brand new machinery for slitting, panelling, tooling, packaging, and handling. The equipment has all been designed to aerospace standards to avoid or eliminate dust and debris. The Pasquato slitter-sheeters are fitted with roll-end detectors to prevent adhesive transfer and all work surfaces are stainless steel. We are using photocell safety interlocks instead of mechanical cages, again to eliminate dust traps, and the machines have the latest Simco-ion anti-static bars.
Once a prepreg roll is transferred from cold store to slitting machine, the whole roll is slit so that there is no backwards-and-forwards traffic of part-rolls. And the prepreg that comes out of the clean room is in the form of sealed aluminised packs that can go straight into the customer’s lay-up room. We are introducing a labelling system that is fully barcode- and human-readable, with full product-identity, lot-number, quantity and customer-reference details. As part of our ongoing continuous-improvement process, the environmental controls are being extended to include the FR4 prepreg area and the saw room.
Starkey: What laboratory facilities do you have here to support the distribution operation?
Goodwin: We are well-equipped for prepreg reference testing. As well as differential scanning calorimetry, we have a thermo-mechanical analyser for polyimide, a rotary viscometer for minimum melt viscosity measurement as well as gel-time measurement equipment, and a lab-scale press for flow testing on low-flow and no-flow prepregs and for characterizing materials for customer-specific press cycles.
Starkey: It’s an impressive set-up, Mark. And it’s clear that your people have a very positive quality-orientated approach to their work.
Goodwin: Yes, I am proud of the team we have built in Ventec Europe. There’s a natural lean culture in the way we work, supplemented by ongoing 5-S training and a continuous-improvement philosophy. We need to be fast and efficient in our business and the results speak for themselves--we supply all the top-name European PCB fabricators in the aerospace and defence sector. And, in 2015, we aim to participate in the SC21 21st Century Supply Chains programme, which is designed to accelerate the competitiveness of the aerospace and defence industry by raising the performance of its supply chains.
Starkey: The supply chain theme again--it’s clear it’s a subject you feel strongly about.
Goodwin: Yes, as I said earlier, we are committed to managing delivered quality to the highest standards and can offer our PCB customers a fully-accredited AS9100C supply chain, but we have a difficult job to get their customers, the OEMs, to look seriously at the issues they have in their existing supply chains. The OEMs are pushing AS9100C and SC21. Their board suppliers are responding positively, but that’s not the case with all of their laminate suppliers. Some are frankly not good enough to meet current standards, but they are written-in to the specification. The OEMs need better suppliers, they need a better supply chain, they need cleaner laminate, but until they update their drawings they are risking being supplied with less-than-perfect materials for safety-critical applications.
Starkey: Mark, I understand your frustration. All you can do is be patient and persistent and eventually the message will get through. It’s clear that the safety-critical, high-reliability market sector represents a major target area in your business plan, and your investments in equipment, environment and systems reflect this. Does that mean that the whole of your customer base gets the benefit?
Goodwin: It certainly does! Our investments differentiate us from our competitors and support the direction in which our UK and European customers are heading. We intend to be the best in technology, quality, and service, whilst maintaining competitive prices. All of the investments we have made in the UK are being replicated in our North American operations and we are already well on the way at our mil/aero service centre in California. How do we maintain our leading position? We are under no illusions--we are well-aware that we are pitching at an ever-moving target. But we will never be satisfied; we are always looking for improvement.
Starkey: Well, Mark, carry on driving forward. With your determination, you can’t fail. It will be interesting to see what the next six years brings.