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I interviewed Seica's GM Barbara Duval at the recent NEPCON China show to discuss Seica’s approach to the flying probe markets. Duval also shared some of the latest customer demands on test companies and the test market outlook in Europe and North America, in addition to China, which looks like it will see growth in 2016.
Barry Matties: Barbara, thank you for joining me here at NEPCON China. Is Seica based out of Europe?
Barbara Duvall: Our headquarters are in Italy, near Torino. We also have an office in Suzhou, China, and we’ve been in China since 1994.
Matties: You must have a pretty good footprint in the marketplace, right?
Duvall: We think we do, at least for one product. The flying probe is a leader in China. We've been promoting the very first version since 1995, so it has been here for awhile. We have over 150 installations here in China.
Matties: What market are you serving?
Duvall: We serve a pretty broad spectrum actually. We have EMS customers, OEM customers and OEM customers working with EMS providers.
We like to say in our business that testing is really a transversal business because everybody tests, whether it's an alarm system, a car controller, or a smartphone.
Matties: Test is an inspection process, and for many years it has been a non-value-added process—a necessary expense that people would like to eliminate. Being top-of-the-line is not inexpensive either. What sort of value do you bring to your customers beyond the need to buy a tester?
Duvall: When testing on the production line, for example, testers are also used for process control, which is a big value if you have high volumes; you can catch process errors before you've made 10,000 boards. It's an important tool in that respect. Also, access to the electronics is an issue today, as the boards get smaller and smaller. It is difficult to access them for test. We have a solution that can actually go really small, to access things otherwise not tested.
Matties: So your customers obviously collect all that data and use it to at least determine where a process is out of control. Processes are always going to be less than completely stable; there are always variations. You can't just say it's perfect and let it run, correct?
Duvall: Yes, processes are always prone to human error. I mean, somebody is loading these pick-and-place machines and can make a mistake.
Matties: Speed is an obvious concern in the testing cycle.
Duvall: Speed is an issue, of course, for high-volume with a flying probe test system. We also have our line of in-circuit and functional testers that are for high-volume markets, especially in the automotive sector. We are deploying a lot of the systems in that market. And since all of our products are based on the same platform, if someone has a flying probe and wants to move to high-volume with an in-circuit tester, it's the same program and the same software. It's really quite a seamless buildup of the entire line, starting from the prototype and going all the way to high-volume.
Matties: Are your machines tied to the Internet, where you get feedback or access to update firmware?
Duvall: Yes, they can be tied to the Internet, but some are and some are not. It depends on their security concerns. It is very useful as a maintenance tool, which can then be done remotely. You can troubleshoot if there's a problem on a program or an application. We can connect to troubleshoot to those customers that make the system available. With today's app-prone environment, our systems can also send messages. If someone is working the night shift, for example, the system can actually send messages to the user to alert them that something isn’t right, if necessary.
Matties: What sort of demands are your customers putting on you these days?
Duvall: Customers are very demanding. Productivity is an issue. We have to give good value for the money since test is viewed as an added cost in many cases, but it's a necessary part of the process. They need productivity. They need access, which is what we're doing with our Pilot 4D products, because the features on boards are so small now that it's difficult to access and get coverage for test.
Automation is becoming bigger. I think it took longer than we thought because we actually had an automated system back in 1996 or 1997.
Matties: Back when labor was still cheap.
Duvall: It was a board and circuit system, but automation wasn't a big request at that time. Now it's become a big thing. We have fully automated our Pilot line now, because we have the horizontal tester as well as the vertical, and the vertical is fully automated. So completely automating that line is new for this year.
Matties: What about Europe and North America? How are those markets for you?
Duvall: In Europe we've seen an uptick in activity. We're hopeful this year that we'll be doing better in Europe. North America is going strong. Everyone sees that market going much faster than in Europe. It's been pretty good.
Matties: What do you think is going to change in Europe for the coming year? Is there going to be a shift in thinking that is going to spur the market on?
Duvall: They have taken steps to try to stimulate the economy, which should stimulate investment and healthy consumption. And the Euro exchange rate is much more competitive. It's affordable to travel there and people selling in Euros such as ourselves don't have that 30% disadvantage right out of the box. It's been brutal over the past five or six years, but we're very happy that the exchange rate is going to help us out.
Matties: Is the largest probe market for you still here in China?
Duvall: At the moment, we are spread over Eastern Europe and also Spain, in certain sectors. North America is still a growth market for us. In China, we're looking at the economy this year and a lot of the signs are not that great for it, but they're talking about a good 2016. So hopefully we will be back on the growth track in 2016.
Matties: Anything else that you would like to share with the marketplace about test that they should know?
Duvall: We have done a lot in the automotive sector, specifically for certain types of test, like LED test or lighting.
Matties: Automotive is a sector that is really driving most economies right now.
Duvall: The LED is a technology that is coming on faster and faster, so we are preparing. It is integrated into all of our systems now. That is one area where we will see growth.
Matties: Great, Barbara. Thanks so much.
Duvall: Thank you, Barry.