Retrospective and Perspective on Printed Circuits – Happy Holden

It is on the cusp. There are estimates that the market for optical waveguide backplanes is currently about a $1 billion a year. But over the next 5 years it is going to grow to be a $15 billion to $25 billion market. I have been keeping track of 5 different programs around the world developing printed circuit waveguides in Japan, China, and Korea as well as some of the technology financed by NIST here in North America. It appears that with these polymer plastics we could lay down a flat surface and form them into individual waveguides to provide all the optical conduits for optical parts. We are probably only few years away from seeing it going into relatively high volume production of the core optical systems that drive all the big telecoms systems. Unfortunately I wish North America was doing more of this. But as I said we kind of lost our R&D engine. I am watching as the Japanese, mainland Chinese, Koreans do the research in this area.

Is this technology likely to appear in big boxes or in cell phones?
It will probably appear in big central switches, what we call terabyte routers. To make a simple phone call or email a message you have to send a packet of information. Although we like to talk about cell phones once it gets to the tower it has got to drop back down to the main trunk line. A computer somewhere has to sort out where the message goes and what it is in it. That is the role of the big telecom companies like Nortel, Siemens, Lucent and Alcatel. You will probably see the optical waveguides there first.

Currently a terabyte router has about 30 large printed circuit boards. 15 of these boards are just for the optical to electronic conversion. Individual optical fibers come from overseas or from landlines between cities and are converted back to electrical signals. Once they are electrical, a computer can read the packet of information and who it goes to, so that they can switch it. Then it drops back to about 10 optical output boards. It is converted from an electrical signal back to an optical signal and goes back out over another fiber to where ever its destination happens to be. If its destination is local then it goes out all electrical to whatever the cell phone tower or whatever. But there are over 30 huge multilayers. The average layer count is 18 to 26 layers in each of these multilayers. They are going to fit into a 19” rack with redundant power supplies and redundant computers. It is essentially the heart all the telecommunications around the world. All the big phones companies are involved in making these things. This is probably where optical waveguides will show up first. Theoretically we need only 2 or 3 optical printed circuit boards to do the job of all 30 boards that we have today if we do not have to convert back to electrical signals, if we left it in the optical domain. You can obviously afford sophisticated technology for core units like that. We are not talking about a few hundred dollar cell phone here.

The other application is maybe at the opposite end of the spectrum, i.e. how do you get a signal across a large integrated circuit. People like Intel are playing with actually moving signals across the chip optically instead of electrically because of the speed and lack of interference from magnetic fields. So maybe the two ends of the spectrum will be the first to be developed; the chip level and the big system level. At the system level it is primarily Mentor customers like the big telecom firms. Again that is what Mentor is extremely interested in what future technologies will bring in terms of what they need in the way of design tools to support these developments.

The press announcement said that you were most recently with Westward Associates.
That is the North American and European arm of NanYa Plastics, he PCB Division in Taiwan. When I was living in Taiwan and we were running the printed circuit division it was pretty clear that the Taiwanese knew how to manufacture a good multilayer but did not have a clue as to how to sell them or what to do with them. So for HP to get a good price for multilayers NanYa needed more than HP as a customer. Westwood Associates was owned by Frank Downey, an old friend of HP. He owned Townsend Industries. He had been supplying multilayers to HP ever since I first joined HP and was a prized vendor for HP’s multilayer printed circuit growth. In fact he was the one that taught me how to make multilayers. HP’s computer business was growing so fast, e were buying more and more from him. He got alarmed that we were too much of his production out of Connecticut. He said “I don’t want any more orders from you.” But HP needed more printed circuits. He said “You have your own printed circuit shop. I’ll be glad to teach you how I make your printed circuits boards so that you can do that yourself.” In 1970 my boss came to me and sad that we’ve got a new assignment for you. I want you to go back east and learn how to make these multilayers and bring that technology back to out facility. That’s when I first met Frank Downey. I learned to make multilayers and brought the knowledge back to expand the production just in time in 1971 for the HP35 to come out. In that calculator was a multilayer that had all the logic. As the orders for the HP calculator went out of sight we must have had 30 different companies building multilayers. We also set up manufacturing operations in Singapore. The growth of the printed circuit was tied to the development of semiconductors and of course innovations like the handheld calculator and later the cell phone and now I guess the iPod.

In 1990 I did a presentation to the IPC. There was a recession and everyone was down in the dumps. The presentation was on the future of printed circuits for the next 10 years. I hoped to bring everyone’s spirit up by saying that while there is a recession now this will happen in the next 10 years. We tried to put our best foot forward and to make outrageous claims. Everyone really enjoyed the presentation. I kept a copy and checked to see how close we were to predicting the year 2000. As outrageous as we thought we were, we underestimated everything in terms of the growth parameters. And yet people came up to us at the time and said you have got to stay away from whatever you are smoking. This may be humorous but it never going to happen.

Some of the things we predicted by the year 2000 was that the majority of printed circuits would be bought by people who had never purchased a printed circuit by 1990. We were talking about all the new markets. One that we predicted was the fashion industry. We said that they would weave optical fibers into cloth. You would have little Nintendo like cartridges that would change the color and fashion of their garments. In 1990 the fashion industry did not have a single printed circuit board. This did not happen by the year 2000 but by the year 2005 you started to see examples from the military of adaptable camouflage in which the garment changes color to match whatever the soldier is next to. He becomes almost invisible. We were off by 5 years on a prediction like that. We were just trying to tell people that electronics will continue to grow and will invade nontraditional areas and will obsolete old ones. It is difficult to predict where it will be. But if we could predict that, we would be rich because we know what to invest in.

How many times do you see a motor driven alarm clock? They used to be synchronized motor driven alarm clocks made up of all these gears. Now one little 5 cent chip runs a clock radio. The same thing is inside your dishwasher and washing machine.

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