A Product Development Adventure
“Okay everyone, listen-up.” Brandon leaned forward bringing the Monday morning staff meeting to attention. “The rumors are true.”
“Oh no.” Melissa thought, arms crossed, hands gripping her upper arms. “Was everyone against hiring me?”
Brandon, middle-aged with brown hair, was the engineering manager at International Custom Automation (ICA), reputable creators of special robotic machines. Each Monday, the Automation Group met in a small conference room on the third floor.
“The good news is,” Brandon continued, “the board of directors approved launching their new smart phone to compete with the latest technology.”
Melissa relaxed her hands into her lap.
“The bad news; the new phone must hit the market in ten months; we have eight months to develop, test, and install new automation at LIC (Long Island Circuits) in New York for the new phone printed circuit board (PCB) processing line.”
“Cool.” Melissa sat against the wall thinking. “My first week on the job and there’s a major announcement.” For a moment, her eyes wandered to the window overlooking part of Jersey City. She could see the Statue of Liberty, the Hudson, and the Manhattan skyline.
Mike, another engineer asked. “Is this automation for the inner layers, or rigid PCBs?”
Brandon responded while glancing from Mike over to Melissa. “Our machine will feed inner-layer cores into the DES line.”
“DES line?” Melissa moved her lips without speaking.
Brandon paused. “Before we go any further, let’s welcome our newest engineer to ICA, Melissa Stewart.”
Melissa raised her hand slowly, head tilted down slightly. The seven other engineers in the room nodded in her direction.
“Aaron.” Brandon addressed an thin haired older man, white shirt, no tie, sitting near the head of the conference table. “Melissa came to us top in her class, but there’s a lot of terminology she’ll need to know about printed circuit boards, and the kind of automation we develop.”
Aaron rubbed the back of his neck.
Turning to the corner of the room Brandon continued. “Melissa, go ahead and take notes, but please ask Aaron anything you don’t understand. Don’t wait till later, go ahead and ask him during the meeting if you like, or any time.”
Aaron looked over his glasses and nodded to Melissa.
“Okay, let’s get started. Here’s what we know so far about the automation we need to design. The final circuit board inside each phone will be two inches wide by three and a half inches tall; about two millimeters thick. Each board will be cut from panels about two feet square, twelve layers thick.”
Melissa made notes in her crisp new company notebook pretending to understand what Brandon was talking about.
Aaron looked pre-occupied, then interrupted, “Brandon.” Aaron tapped his fingers on his well used, dog-eared notebook.
“Could we take a few minutes right now and get some of these fundamental terms out for Melissa? I may not have time later, and I can see already she’s scratch’n her head.”
“Sure.” Brandon looked at his watch, then at the white board. “Aaron, why don’t you give us all a review. This’ll be good for everyone. We’ll listen while you explain it to Melissa.”
“Okay.” Aaron got up slowly, walked to the whiteboard and carefully drew a matrix, a rectangular array of horizontal and vertical lines with a border around the whole thing.
“It looks like a checkerboard.” Melissa thought.
Looking around the room Aaron said. “Everyone hold up your cell phone. Inside every phone, smart phone, e-book reader, and just about every electronic device you can think of is a printed circuit board. I’ll just call it a PCB. It’s made of laminations of many layers of thin copper, each layer separated by non-conducting layers.” Aaron placed his cell phone on the table and pulled from his notebook a picture of a circuit board with shiny copper traces, like a labyrinth trail separated by faded green material.
“This seems kind’a fundamental.” Melissa thought. “I learned about PCB’s in EE 101.”
“The copper traces provide electrical pathways between components that will be mounted later on the board like memory chips, resisters, touch screens, keyboards, and capacitors. Having multiple layers allows the product to have many combinations of circuit pathways or traces in a small package. Melissa, hold up your cell phone.”
Melissa did so.
“Looks like you could use a new one.” Aaron said.
Brandon leaned forward and inserted. “I’ll have a comment about that in a minute.”
Aaron raised an eyebrow and continued. “The circuit board in your device may be a few square inches in surface area.” Aaron pointed at the picture again. “When manufactured, these circuit boards were fabricated one core, or layer, at a time in large sheets, four to six square feet, laminated to create a muti-layer board or panel of 2 to 30 layers then cut into the final size like cutting brownies from a cookie sheet into small pieces to be populated with components, then packaged in your phone.”
Aaron lifted the edge of a page of his notebook with his thumb and let it flip back down. “Before lamination, each core is very thin, paper thin, and very flexible. While in this state, each core has a pattern of copper traces photographically exposed on it and then the unwanted copper is chemically removed in an etching process. In this way, very large quantities of small electrical pathways can be created. These thin flexible cores must be taken from trays and placed onto the chemical conveyor, then after etching away the unwanted copper, they must be lifted from the conveyor and stacked while waiting for the next process. They must be handled with care causing no damage to the base material, the copper traces, or any other features on the core or it must be scrapped. If damage is not detected until after later steps, like lamination, and de-panalization, then the cost of scrap is high.”
Aaron’s phone rang. He retrieved it from the table and looked at the phone’s screen. He turned to Brandon and said, “It’s our customer. Should I…”
“Take the call,” Brandon insisted. “They are as anxious as we are to get started.”
“Yes, this is Aaron.” Everyone listened while Aaron spoke to his phone. “Yes I have that information at my desk.” Aaron looked out the window. “Oh, really?” “Let me get to my office… hold on.” Aaron looked at Brandon.
“Go. Go.” Brandon said to Aaron. “I’ll take over from here.”
Aaron grabbed his notebook and left.
Brandon continued the lecture. “Each inner layer core starts with a full thin layer of copper on the surface, then it’s coated with a material that’s resists or blocks light called photo resist. The photoresist coating is exposed with a circuit image using a special optical projector, then the unwanted copper is etched away in a chemical bath; that’s what they call DES, develop, etch, strip. The photoresist is developed, the copper is etched, and the photoresist is stripped off. That’s where we come in; we need to create a machine, a robot that with take each exposed layer from a tray and place them one at a time onto the chemical process conveyor, and then at the other end of the chemical process, we need a similar machine to lift each developed core off the conveyor and place them into another tray for further processing and inspection.”
Melissa rubbed her nose. “I think I understand”
“Okay.” Brandon said. “So, each core is about two foot square. One of our machines will pick it from a tray before copper etching, the other machine will pick it from the conveyor with much of the copper removed and place it in a tray. Typically we use vacuum cups to grip panels and lift them, but these new technology cores are so thin, there is some concern that the vacuum cups will wrinkle, peel, or damage the copper traces.”
“You were going to say something about Melissa’s cell phone.” Mike asked.
“Oh yah. ICA plans to give each member of the team a new smart phone on the first day they hit the market…”
Each person in the room sat up in their chairs.
“If we make the deadline.” Brandon clarified. “And ICA is going to pay for each data plan for two years, maybe longer.”
“Double cool, finally, a smart phone.” Melissa thought having been a poor college student.
Brandon handed a small stack of papers to Mike and asked him to pass them around.
“Okay.” Brandon said looking in the direction of Mike and Melissa. “I’m assigning Mike, Aaron, and Melissa to develop the overall PCB handling and gripping machine architecture.”
Melissa’s opened her eyes wide.
Brandon continued. “This project is similar to past panel handlers we’ve done so I would like the core team, the rest of you to develop the main structure, electrical, and safety features. The software team will do what they do best. In one week, we will have a high level system review to go over the main functions and see some initial ideas from the gripping team. Okay everyone, study what I just gave you and get to work on your sub-systems.”
The meeting adjourned.
Mike introduced himself to Melissa. “Welcome. Here, I’ll show you where Aaron’s office is. I think he’ll be waiting for us.”
Mike and Melissa made their way from one corner of the third floor to another passing rows of cubicles, the lunch room, and the water cooler.
“Why did Brandon choose me?” Melissa held one palm up while holding her notebook in the other hand. “Isn’t the gripping part of the machine the most technically challenging? I mean, I’m excited at the opportunity, but I thought it would take some time before I…”
“Oh Brandon is like that.” Mike replied. “He’s pretty smart, actually, putting the newest person together with the most experienced engineer like Aaron. It’s a good way to pass on knowledge. The others don’t mind too much because everyone gets opportunities to work on different parts of the machine. Besides, some of the other team members are skilled doing the electrical, or the structure, or software. Maybe you have some particular skill Brandon thinks will be needed on this project.”
Melissa thought about her resume and job interview with Brandon four weeks ago. “I don’t have any experience with printed circuit board handling. I wonder what Brandon is thinking…”
“Hey, get in here you two.” Aaron was waiting at the door of his office and rushed them inside. “That was our big client on the phone. How soon can you guys be ready for a trip to Israel?”
Melissa’s jaw dropped.
Mike got his words out first. “Are you serious? How soon do they need us?”
“Well, Brandon was serious; this is a huge deal for LIC and they are ready to lay out their factory process and determine what kind of machines and floor space are needed for the chemical process lines. They would like us there tomorrow, but a day later is probably the best we can do.”
“I thought the client was in New York?” Melissa asked.
“They are.” Aaron said. “But as it turns out, the printed circuit board layers that we need to handle are similar to some prototype boards being made by their branch in Israel. LCI wants us there to learn some specifics about the process and develop a concept for our machines.”
“I can’t believe it.” Melissa said under her breath.
“Melissa, is this going to be a problem for you?”
“No, not at all. Actually it’s exciting. I just didn’t think things would happen so fast.”
“Actually,” Mike said. “I know for a fact that Brandon wanted you here sooner, but it took a while for Human Resources to get your job offer ready…”
“Well,” Aaron said. “I’ve got our travel department ready to make reservations as soon as we tell them the time. I was planning on having a brainstorm session in my office today but that will have to wait ‘till we are on the plane. In the mean time, get your… Oh wait, Melissa, do you have a Passport?”
“Yes, I got one a couple years ago when I…”
“Oh good. So, get your personal information to me in the next hour and I’ll work with travel to get us all sitting next to each other on the plane so we can go over these requirements.” Aaron held up the sheet of paper distributed in the conference room.