For Pioneer MuTracx, the Future Looks Bright
In this interview conducted at productronica recently, I-Connect007 Tech Editor Pete Starkey and Publisher Barry Matties speak with Arnoud de Geus, Executive Board member at technology company Sioux, about the success of MuTracx’ (owned by Sioux) first installation of the Lunaris machine in the Whelen factory in New Hampshire, and what this has meant towards proving it can operate in a full-time production process. Arnoud forecasts what’s next for MuTracx and what they must do in order to capitalize on the positive exposure.
Barry Matties: Arnoud, let’s start by talking about the Whelen factory. It's been up and running for more than six months now. What have you learned from that installation so far?
Arnoud de Geus: We started with Whelen about two years ago. Obviously, the whole technology within MuTracx has matured over the years, but you do this from your own development side and it's very difficult because you really have to be involved in the end customer process to be able to meet those real customer requirements. Whelen, as a leading customer, absolutely has been a wonderful partnership and also a way for us to mature our technology. From Whelen we’ve gained knowledge of the whole process both around and within our primary imaging step. Learning what goes in front of the system and behind the system—the pre-clean, etch and strip, and the whole combination of everything together. In order to be able to have a solution for an end customer, we have to have a working solution first. It is not just the machine that has to work, but the whole process.
This has been a tremendous learning step for us and it got us to the level now where we have matured the technology and we can now go from a real technology oriented phase, as a company, into more of a commercial phase. It means for us that we have to change the company to become more externally oriented. We have to get the focus from only technology and more towards end customers, as only end customers can keep the technology supported. That’s the process within MuTracx right now and how we are moving forward. There are negotiations around a second placement currently, maybe in Europe. It is my idea that going to a new situation where we can scale up the business is best done through three more customers having the machine in their processes. Then we’ll be fully up to the point where we can scale up to a more sustainable process. For us, having a second and third leading customer in Europe or the U.S. is absolutely vital to growing the business.
Pete Starkey: For the future, do you see MuTracx as a supplier of inkjet printing hardware, like an integrated inkjet process, or do you see yourself as the supplier of an integrated process line, where instead of just supplying the fundamental imaging equipment and material, customers could put in their laminates and take out their etched, inspected and pre-treated inner layer all ready to go into their layup room.
de Geus: Increasingly, our focus will be more on the whole process. So where Lunaris is a part of the process, we will go into very tight cooperation with the equipment suppliers of pre-clean, and etch and strip, in combination with Dow for those important chemicals, and we will really see this more as a turnkey solution. I think combining this with multiple suppliers is the solution for the end customer being able to produce inner layer and outer layer panels. That's the real value for the end customer.
Starkey: Your relationship and your partnership with Dow I think is fundamental. Dow specifically to Lunaris is a supplier of very specialized inks, but Dow on the broader horizon is a supplier of virtually the whole range of processing chemistry. By building upon that initial relationship where you've done the joint development for inks for the imaging process, you can take advantage of the established relationship to innovate further.
de Geus: I think the Dow and MuTracx relationship is a very fruitful relationship. We’ll handle application knowledge, in our case combined with the equipment suppliers who are in front and behind our process—that combination is a real end solution for the end customer. Of course, Dow being a large company and having established relations in the market has the ability to meet those end customers and have access to the market. For us as a smaller company that's also very beneficial. Now we are at Dow booth at productronica and we have arranged for a number of joint customer visits where we both can share our information about the market and put our needs on the table and jointly meet those customers.
Starkey: From the outside we can see the enormous benefits in that relationship going forward. Just going back to the situation at Whelen, what production throughput are you currently achieving in that line?
de Geus: In the Whelen facility we are now up to 50 double-sided panels—that's the target we wanted to achieve at Whelen and that's right at our capabilities.
Starkey: Previously, inkjet has been to an extent dismissed as a technique only for producing a few quick prototypes. With Lunaris, you've got a complete new dimension with an imaging system that is revolutionary, which is also a true production throughput machine.
de Geus: Production is all about uptime. You must have a robust production process and our technology enables this, due to redundancy.
Starkey: I have observed for a long time the developments and the evolution of the Lunaris system and I think that it exemplifies the highest level of engineering. The machine is so delightfully and so completely engineered, the quality of the engineering design and the build quality have been demonstrated in several months of serious production operation, which again will be a big weapon invasion for the equipment elsewhere in the market. I have seen many new developments that work fine if you do a demonstration, and they might work fine for a couple of weeks if there is an engineer in close attendance, but the thing starts wearing out.
de Geus: The mother company of MuTracx now is the Sioux Group and we are a company in high-tech product engineering and product development. Comparing the MuTracx Lunaris system to other kinds of production equipment, even semiconductor equipment or pick and place equipment, the Lunaris equipment is a really high-tech system. So it was a difficult task to come up with a robust platform up to specification, but now we're there. The team has done a wonderful job in getting to the point where we are now and we've proven ourselves in a real production process. We have matured the technology, and the company is now ready for the commercial phase.
Matties: What has the public response been to the Whelen story and in particular your part in that story?
de Geus: About Sioux’s acquiring of the MuTracx company we’ve seen only positive reactions. We’ve had a lot of discussion with a lot of partners and that's seen as a positive development because with MuTracx being part of a larger, more mature and stable company, the whole aspect of going into business with MuTracx as a smaller startup company has disappeared. I think the whole Whelen story has caught the attention of a lot of people, especially around being able to go from CAM to etch in a few minutes. For productronica, we usually get an email burst and normally you would get a few percentages of reaction; we've got 40–50% more reaction due to the article that came out recently and all that it said about Whelen. This has really caught on; we’ve seen more traction and that's where we are now.
Matties: As you get the second and third installations it's only going to go up. When you and I first met there was some transition going on in leadership. How has that process worked out?
de Geus: It's fully executed so we are now fully in business and the whole process is done. We're up and running. We are engineering and making new leaps. It's all been laid down.
Starkey: Is there anything that we should have discussed today that we may have missed?
de Geus: No, I am very thrilled to be here. This is my first visit to productronica and I see a lot of opportunities. I think we can be of tremendous help to this industry. Also, by being cleaner, we can really add something to this industry. Our Lunaris machine inside the process line can be optimized for the environmental aspect of things. Having a clean PCB production adds value to not pollute our world so our children have nothing to live in. I think we can really turn something around in this industry.
Starkey: That's true, I think all of the fundamental benefits, environmental benefits, space benefits and production benefits are really understood by the market. The market was waiting to see someone who would be the first. Where I come from a pioneer is a guy lying face down in the desert with an arrow in his back, but once someone has taken the first step and proven it, then everyone else who has been sitting on the fence up until now will move off the fence to do further work.
Matties: That's good to be first to market, proven and ready to go. What about market conditions? How do you think that's going to affect sales for you?
de Geus: My perception is that there are possibilities from the U.S. market, possibly Asia somewhat, but I think in the end we'll also go there.
Matties: The biggest issue for you in Asia is speed.
de Geus: Absolutely.
Matties: How are you addressing that?
de Geus: We were thinking about improving throughput over time by going for dual engine systems, so doubling capacity as a way to move forward.
Matties: That would be up to 100 panels? I imagine you have to be at around 100 panels to satisfy the Asian market.
de Geus: You have to be around that figure.
Matties: Is that achievable?
de Geus: Yeah, we can do it. It's not complete this moment, but we’re doing the architecture and are prepared for this kind of scenario.
Matties: Thanks for catching up with us, Arnoud, it’s been nice seeing you again.
De Geus: Thank you both.