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Lynnette Colby, global product manager at Kester, discusses the biggest challenge their customers are facing—high reliability—and how using materials other than halogen can help address this issue. She also talks about how a complete solder solution—including the paste, flux and wire—help ensure the reliability of the electronics assembly.
Stephen Las Marias: Lynnette, can you please tell us first a little bit about Kester and what your company does?
Lynnette Colby: Kester is an electronic materials supplier that services the surface mount technology and semi-conductor industries. Our main products lines are are solder paste, liquid soldering flux, wire, preform products, etc. We're the consumables that electronics companies use when they're building SMT boards and things like that. We've been around for more than 100 years and we're part of ITW's electronics assembly group.
Las Marias: What are the biggest challenges your customers are facing?
Colby: Some of the things that we've been addressing lately have to do with high reliability. What we've been hearing from the customers is that once they use our materials, especially our no-clean products, the residues and the parts of the products stay on the board. They're concerned about what happens to them in high humidity or challenging environments with high SIR, which is surface installation resistance. We have taken the challenge upon ourselves to create a series of products that we will put in a high-reliability portfolio. We've done augmented testing on these which is above and beyond the IPC standards.
Las Marias: How do those product development strategies help your customers?
Colby: I think that it really does start with what we call, “ITW customer back innovations.” We are testing some of the things that we heard were challenges for our customers, which they are testing as well. We might run a special test even if it's not IPC. Then we'll also use that to promote our products to other customers as well. That's also directed our R&D in the field of looking for materials and looking for root cause analysis or problems that our customers have seen or we think they might see. We might stay away from certain materials during our formulation that have been known to cause trouble. Obviously there's legislation out there about halogens and moving toward halogen-free or even zero-halogen products. I think that these help our customers feel more confident that the products are not going to fail in some kind of long-term situation such as, again, something in your automobile that's exposed to high humidities based on where you drive or the conditions that it sees. We run some of those tests so we know what's going to happen or not happen.
Las Marias: Speaking of R&D, what are some of the latest product innovations happening in your company?
Colby: Our newest products have to do with high-reliability so I would say the innovative part is we're using different materials other than halogens, so we get the same performance from the soldering material but they're inherently safer. We also find that customers need products that go together. That's why we'll have a paste, a flux, a wire that can all be packaged together. If one of those components isn't working your high-reliability assembly could be compromised.
Las Marias: One of the trends that I'm seeing in the solder sector is they’re slowly removing the silver content in solder products. What can you say about that?
Colby: I think that overall the industry is slow to change from tin-lead to lead-free products. Everyone requires a lot of data to feel confident about what's going to happen in the industry. What’s been happening in solar as well as in the SMT world is people are asking for lower silver, but it’s mostly for cost-related reasons. SAC305, which is an important alloy, has 3% silver, which is high-cost material. Because we still want to have high-reliability, we've been experimenting with lower silver alloys as well. We offer K100LD alloy in bar and wire products which is a zero silver alloy.
Las Marias: Do they offer the same amount of performance as those with silver?
Colby: They're getting better. I think that silver is usually put in for some of the wetting properties and the solderability. When you take all of that away, sometimes they put back in dopants or trace materials or other things that may be less expensive that will help. They're getting there. It's not an apples-to-apples comparison yet, but customers also ask us for this data. Maybe some of them can take a slight performance tradeoff for the cost. There are a lot of consumables that they know people will only use for a few years, and that's a different discussion than perhaps automotive or medical, where something has to be reliable. Those companies might not even take a chance at using low silver because they know there is a tradeoff.
Las Marias: What are the biggest end applications segments that you are in right now?
Colby: I would say we cast ourselves into many segments in the SMT world, but automotive, medical and some solar products. Those are mostly our fluxes. Then it gets kind of industrial which can cover a lot. I think any time you need a printed circuit board, that's where our products are used. We focus on some of those areas that I mentioned, but there’s a lot more out there.
Las Marias: You mentioned medical. Is there a different requirement in medical applications versus the other segments you cater to?
Colby: The customers that we've been working with have a lot of the same kind of high-reliability requirements that you might see in auto. The conditions might be a little different—like applications which might end up in your body—but it’s more the long life of it or that it won't corrode with exposure to the environment. I think that they've also been slow to adapt to lead-free and sometimes they get exemptions because we just don't have the data to make everyone feel comfortable that this isn't going to fail. Again, tin-lead products have been in the industry a long time, with a lot of data, because they worked. There's more and more data every year that goes by on lead-free.
Las Marias: There are a lot of companies in the solder industry and a lot of competition, how to do position Kester and to stay ahead of your competition?
Colby: Sometimes when you're making a capital equipment purchase in order to make your boards and things like that, you might consider the solder paste or flux last, and I know that ends up putting us in the commodity discussion, which of course we don't like to call our products. Kester strives to bring value to the customer by knowing their processes and understanding how our products are going to be used and bringing value that way, especially with the help of our sister companies like Speedline and Vitronics. Our response to high-reliability is working on products that are going to work in their systems for a long time. We know that some of our competitors are doing the same thing. They're also responding to that need in the industry. But just by working really closely with the customers you're going to find the value-added solution, and it's more than just buying the paste or flux; you're buying the technical service that Kester can bring.
Las Marias: Apart from working with your customers you also work with equipment suppliers?
Colby: Correct. We work with equipment suppliers so when we launch a new product we can give process variables that our product will work with. We also understand that we work with all the big suppliers because we don't necessarily know who our customers will be working with. At this time, we don't have anything that is co-developed because I think customers are also reluctant to buy a machine that will only work with a certain consumable. We need to make sure that we can work in any of the environments.
Las Marias: What's your outlook for your industry?
Colby: I think it's fairly favorable. There are different pockets of the industry growing a little bit faster. Overall the electronics industry is growing at a market rate of 2–3% year over year. Many companies try to diversify and move into different things so that's why we also have some of the solar fluxes and things like that.
Las Marias: Is there anything that we haven't talked about that you think we should be talking about?
Colby: There are different trends in the industry, but at some point you also have to be selective and really focus on one to be good at it instead of trying to hit every trend. I think that's why we saw high-reliability as something that we wanted to address and focus our R&D teams on. We have papers on this subject that we presented at conferences that we encourage our customers to read and ask us questions about because we believe it solves their problems, which brings value back to us.
Las Marias: Thank you very much, Lynette.
Colby: Thank you.