First EIE and CCI Eurolam on Direct Imaging, Printers and Partnership
When the right equipment manufacturers find the right distributors, everyone wins—especially customers. I was able to meet with two such companies at productronica 2015 for an in-depth discussion. In this interview, Gregory Stoeckli, CEO of First EIE, shares the realities of direct imaging requirements, while Lawson Lightfoot of CCI Eurolam discusses the success of the new distribution partnership the two companies have formed. Something we all agreed upon: A somewhat slower machine that is both highly flexible and affordable is a great fit for high-mix, low-volume producers.
Barry Matties: Gregory, please start by describing the relationship between First EIE and CCI Eurolam.
Gregory Stoeckli: First EIE is an equipment manufacturing company and we design, develop and produce equipment. CCI Eurolam is our newly appointed distributor for Europe. We changed at the beginning of 2015 and I’m extremely impressed to see the amount of quality business we have had at productronica. The whole CCI team put in a lot of effort to make this happen.
Matties: That’s excellent. Congratulations.
Stoeckli: I’m very happy about this new partnership. It’s not like selling a car—you need to understand what the customers’ needs are. You need to understand the wet process, starting from the copper preparation, lamination and exposure. So someone coming from the consumable field, knowing exactly what the customer needs and what they want, can sell our equipment and processes more effectively. But once you have sold it, you need to provide support. It’s a strong match.
Matties: Lawson, you’re providing the after-sales support as well?
Lawson Lightfoot: We are providing sales support initially and with First EIE’s existing engineering resource, the after-sales technical support. Most of the people within CCI Eurolam are not just salespeople, but have a strong technical background. In fact, we tend to come from a PCB background and are very production-oriented. We have been involved both directly and indirectly in manufacturing boards ourselves for many years. Many of us have also come from other supply houses as well, which helps in providing an overall knowledge of the PCB manufacturing process. There is a wide range of skills within the whole group. CCI Eurolam has a presence in more than 48 countries in Europe and North Africa so we are able to provide both excellent sales penetration and the aftersales support to accompany this.
Matties: Gregory, please describe your product lineup for our readers.
Stoeckli: First EIE has been well-known for our photoplotters for almost 30 years. In fact, we started in the PCB industry with photoplotters, with a variety of products, from the small RP200 up to the very big RP800, whereas the RP700, with 50,000 dpi, is our flagship product. We just recently we got the order for a very big machine—1 meter 60 by 2 meter 40. This is a great achievement. It’s not for PCBs, but for the touch panel industry in Korea.
First EIE is very well-established worldwide, with a strong position in Europe as well as Asia, from Japan to Taiwan, including South Korea, China, and obviously the other ASEAN countries. To serve our customers, we have provided continuous improvement and development in our photoplotter because the demands are evolving.
Of course, we also have the inkjet printer that does the legend ink. It’s interesting to see that we are always among the top three players. We have something designed for production. This is a big difference from when we started 12 years ago, when the engineers designed a great piece of “engineered” equipment, but too complicated for production.
The CP562 is the third generation of equipment which was optimized for production. This means that on Monday you switch it on, and you can print. Everything is made automatically for maintenance; it surveys that the ink is always the right temperature. We have several of these machines in the field working with good success.
Then, of course, the hot topic today is our direct imager, the EDI500. This is where we come from with our imaging knowledge and raster image processing. It’s also an interesting story when you hear people talking about the 80–20 ratio, where many players are happy with the first 80%; we are focusing on the remaining 20%, which is the most important.
For file management we rely on our 30+ years of history in raster image processing and data management. For the whole imaging process we focus on how to bring these very sharp edges or lines onto the solder mask or etch resists.
The technological reason why we kept the UV lamp is simply because when you are a pure engineer and look at the LEDs, it’s very nice, but you have only one wavelength at a time. You see the guy starting with only one or two LEDs, but must now implement at least four LED types, simply because you need to have certain wavelengths. You need to have from 360–365 up to 420 nm. Otherwise, you need to have a specific dry film for LDI. Actually our target of customer is in SMEs. They don’t necessarily want to change their qualified process or validated chemistry.
Matties: This gives them a broad range.
Stoeckli: They have a broad UV range so they can keep their current established dry film or solder mask and there’s no need to change everything. You just put the panel into the machine and it exposes. It’s all about having operator-friendly equipment.
Also for the user interface, and this is the interesting point when you have partners such as CCI, some customers bring back a lot of valuable information. They might say, “You know what? This customer‘s operators do not have the highest skills as CAM operators. So they would like something that is much easier for them to avoid mistakes.” And we improve our software accordingly.
We have software where the CAM operator is preparing everything, sends the data to the machine queues, and then the operator simply scans the barcode—or in some cases the equipment does it alone, and it knows automatically the whole setting of the machine. The operator just puts the panel in, and the rest is done automatically. On top of that it is very easy to maintain. For this machine, we have yearly maintenance taking only one day maximum out of production, so no complicated adjustments. With a single head, we are not as fast as the other guys, but we are extremely flexible, simple and cost affordable.
This is the kind of equipment where SMEs can have access to the EIE technology, which is state-of-the-art. We wanted to get the best technology available today at a competitive price. We looked at the latest technology in use, DMD technology, and we looked at what is needed most. Is it specific dry films or a specific solder mask? It’s neither. We take an established UV light source, put it together with our knowledge of raster image processing, and with the software this machine benefits from our 25–30 years of development in the Gerber, DPF, ODB++, etc.
Lightfoot: The EDI 500 is very flexible and operates from a proven software platform. Just to emphasize the fact, with the EDI500 it is the same software platform that’s been so well established for more than 30 years within the range of First EIE photoplotters. This track record is an added assurance for the user. It might be a new machine in the market, but it’s not a new software system.
Matties: It’s not a new company entering the market, as well. There are many years of experience behind it.
Stoeckli: Yes, and the other important point is continuous improvement. For this we have to listen carefully to our customers’ real life expectations and requirements. If something is changing or a customer asks us to do something specific with the file format or user interface, like the language, we are able to do it because it’s our own developed software. We are continuously improving our software based on the current market situation; when you buy software from the outside, what do you do?
Another important point, we use the same software platform along all our equipment such as the photoplotter, and there are currently 800 of those installed worldwide. We have got a good global installation base. When they want to change between a photoplotter to the DI machine, it’s the same environment. They feel like they’re at home, comfortable and it’s not a disruptive change for them. This is really a great advantage.
We have had many customers who bought the plotter come back and say they want either the direct imager or the new printer, based on our long-lasting experience and proven reliability. This is why I’m very happy at the show because first of all, you see the customers in another environment, more relaxed and very enthusiastic about our new equipment offering with the EDI500 and CP562. The customers have come by and they are extremely confident with the equipment. It’s been a very good show.
Matties: You mentioned the price point being lower. How much lower? Is it 2%? Or 20%?
Stoeckli: No, we are talking about 20%. It’s significant. We just launched and we already have three in Japan and are starting to be quite active in Europe as well. Europe is our closest market and it looks very promising. The support and installation is also very effective. We just sent someone to do an installation. The EDI500 arrived on Monday, installation and qualification were made within the same day, and the next day was training. By that afternoon production staff were working.
Lightfoot: No special environmental or clean-room conditions were needed; basically just a dry air supply and a 240-volt domestic power supply. The system also has its own active internal cooling, without water or external chiller.
Matties: When customers start looking at this DI system, what sort of demands do they have for a system like this?
Stoeckli: At first it’s the simplicity of use. They don’t want something complex, and as Lawson mentioned, this has separate aggregates for water chilling system, cooling with water flow and those kinds of features. It’s plug-and-print. You install the machine and you have one line for the power supply, another line for the air pressure, and the small vacuum pump sitting behind. That’s it.
Lightfoot: The versatility is also attractive, from the point of view of being able to process many dry film resists from different manufacturers. Some people change for different reasons, for example, they have more than one resist in production for different applications or processes. The same also applies for a wide range of solder masks from different manufacturers. Due to the wide spectral sensitivity, it encompasses all dry film and soldermasks in common use within the industry.
Matties: It’s very compatible to their current processes. You don’t want to force them to change their supply base.
Stoeckli: No, there is no disruption in their qualified process.
Matties: I think that would be a big benefit for them. You have price point, flexibility, and simplicity.
Lightfoot: And low maintenance is a big part. Some people associate direct imaging systems with expensive maintenance contracts and that is not the case with the EDI500.
Matties: There is no maintenance contract?
Stoeckli: It’s also one of my policies, I would say. I come from the production industry, and I never liked vendors who would basically force you to sign a contract. Having felt this, I said, “No. We need to provide something to our customer that can help them to keep the machine as it was in the early stage.” It’s their choice: either we provide full support with a maintenance contract, or they use our maintenance kit so they can do it in-house by their people to whom we’ve provided the necessary service training. The kit is meant for worn components that have to be replaced.
In certain situations for the printer or the DI we will train. If they have a maintenance team, we want to take care of them because it is important that the machine is well-maintained and that it works over the years. The worst thing that can happen is that someone buys it and does nothing and hopes that after two years it’s in the same condition as when they bought it. That’s not the case. You have to take care of the machine, especially the printers.
It’s like a coffee machine; if you don’t clean it from time to time you’ll have it all over. Basically, we give them the full training, roughly three to four days, and they complete the different steps to do filter replacement, tube replacement, lamp replacement, and so on. Then afterwards, they can do it on their own through the whole process.
Matties: For the inkjet, there is a lot of competition for these pieces of equipment out there, a lot of choices. How does someone come in and ultimately decide on yours?
Stoeckli: I think today nobody decides automatically on one single brand. People are trained and they look around. This it is so important that we come to shows like productronica, to present the latest developments we’ve made. The customers come with some specific demands and it’s always the best tradeoff. They can buy the $600,000 machine with multiple heads that is very fast, but perhaps for their budget, instead of investing $600,000 in one single piece of equipment, they can invest $300,000 in a DI and put the rest into the wet process.
People might look at their needs in terms of capacity and productivity, and perhaps save some money on one hand and put it towards something else. People here are not just looking at the fastest machines and the highest productivity like they do in China; they tend to invest smartly in the whole process.
Matties: If it’s for the U.S. or Europe, it’s low volume, high mix.
Stoeckli: That’s it, and high versatility.
Matties: That’s because in America, a lot of companies are smaller manufacturers with smaller budgets, so this scales in nicely. It’s a small footprint with ease of use, and they don’t need a lot of extra resources. I see a lot of good reasons for people to take you seriously with this. One unit I saw in China was printing in 12 seconds or something like that. That’s just crazy fast. But in China you need that kind of speed.
Matties: How fast is your printer?
Stoeckli: With the CP562 we are about 60 seconds a side. It depends on the expected print quality and the size of the panel. The customers say, “Okay, it’s not as fast as the other one, but you can do whatever you want.”
I had a customer here who came by to say hello because he was using our EDI. He’d been using it for one year, and his exposure machine broke, so he put everything on our EDI500 machine, from innerlayers to soldermask, and it saved his production, simply because our EDI is versatile enough to do it.
Matties: It looks like you guys are doing a really good job.
Stoeckli: We have to continue. As you know, in production or in manufacturing, you have to move forward and be working on the next generation. We have a very strong positioning in Asia and when you talk with them, especially in Korea or Japan. When we started the EDI project, we had a 50-micron line and space and we thought it was a good achievement; after discussing it with them, they said, “30 microns would be better.”
Then we made it and it’s what we have now. Our machine is doing 30 microns very nicely and actually we have exceeded it. The roadmap is now about speed, and we always have to look ahead.
Lightfoot: It’s a very good fit for CCI Eurolam because we already sell a wide range of base laminates and bonding and drilling consumables, as well as conventional imaging products for PTH and multilayer boards. We also sell dry film resists and soldermask in certain countries, so it’s a perfect fit. We’re already familiar with customers and have a strong customer base.
Matties: How is the customer’s reception when you first introduce this? Are they calling you looking for a DI?
Lightfoot: I think it’s fair to say that most PCB fabricators see some form of direct imaging as the way to go. For many years, the costs have been prohibitive. What we have now is a lower-priced machine with lower running cost, which is always important. Coupled with that is the fact that the performance is more than acceptable. With the EDI500 we are talking about a DI system that is capable of producing 30-micron lines and spaces. It’s good to know that this is achievable, but many customers are still regularly processing 75–100 microns. This additional capability is protecting their investment for their future needs.
Matties: What sort of warranty do you provide with your machine?
Stoeckli: Currently, it’s 12 months, but from the experience we have with our photoplotters, which are working over decades, I’m thinking about extending it to two years.
Matties: That’s fantastic. Well thank you very much for your time gentlemen.
Stoeckli: Thank you.
Lightfoot: Thank you.