Reading time ( words)
It’s always a pleasure to visit Viking Test’s headquarters in Hampshire, UK, and the warmth of the welcome more than compensated for a three-hour trek through the traffic and southern England’s miserable weather.
There was a buzz of excitement about the place and the development workshop was a hive of activity, with a crowd gathered around the CircaPrint digital ink-jet printer, the print-head scanning smoothly in a glow of purple light. Among the faces I recognised were Jake Kelly, managing director of Viking Test; Lino Sousa, president of MotTech Inc, over from Sacramento, California; and Ashley Steers, technical support specialist for Electra Polymers. Each time a printing operation was complete, the PCB workpiece was eagerly pounced upon and scrutinised with magnifying glasses and microscopes.
I detached Kelly from the huddle and asked what everyone was so excited about. He said, “We’ve made some real progress with the CircaPrint since you were down here last. With our improved camera-alignment system and the work our software guys have done, we are now consistently seeing a positional accuracy of plus-minus 10 microns. And Electra are formulating custom inks for us. We’re running one now. Look at the resolution and edge definition we can achieve. And the opacity of the print is excellent. Having said that, we’re getting very efficient through-curing with our on-the-fly UV LED light source and it’s giving us superb adhesion, even on untreated polyimide flex material.”
The CircaPrint 6080 was developed by Viking in response to industry demand for an affordable digital ink jet printer and has been designed to be versatile and easily maintained, with low-cost print-heads that can be fitted and calibrated by the user. Ink supply is by a quick-change cartridge system, and the machine can be configured to print multiple colours.
Sousa joined the conversation and I asked what was his interest in CircaPrint. Referring to our last conversation, in Munich at productronica (when he described his new mission: "To bring more technology to make North American manufacturing more competitive."), he explained that a substantial market existed in the California area, many PCB shops engaged in short-run, special-purpose and high-reliability work, for which the CircaPrint was ideally suited technically, and at the right price commercially.
Sousa continued, “And I have a 20-year history of working with Viking, with Jake and his father Justin before him, right back to the good old days of Lavenir supplying data-prep software to support Viking’s bare-board testing service. There’s enormous interest in the CircaPrint machine, and MorTech are proud to continue the working partnership with Viking. We also represent Electra, so there’s another natural synergy. We’re exhibiting at the IPC event in Las Vegas. See you there!”
I asked Kelly where he saw other ink-jet opportunities and he led me to a neat little machine branded ElektroJet. “Printed electronics is a major emerging market, lots of creative thinking and clever applications engineering. This machine is an enabler; the same principles of operation as the CircaPrint, but designed to print with functional inks on flexible substrates: Conductive silver, conductive copper, resistive carbon, MICR ink for magnetic ink character recognition, and organic semiconductor materials, all supplied in the form of no-waste, quick-change cartridges.”
And in what other directions was Viking moving into the future? Kelly responded, “Our conveyorised wet process equipment is selling very well, and not just in the PCB market--it is becoming very popular with the chemical milling people.” And the traditional testing business, I asked? “I have just thrown out the last of our bed-of-nails electrical test fixtures. Sad, but the end of an era!”
Ironically, shortly before leaving I was aware of the presence of a small, rough-haired dog around my feet and looked up to see the familiar face of Justin Kelly, a contemporary of mine, who started the Viking operation more than 25 years ago. It was good to take a few minutes to reminisce about the good old days of our generation, and to admire the energy and tenacity of the current generation of innovators and entrepreneurs in the industry, addressing challenges that we never dreamed of.