Occam Process: Assembly without Solder

Zachariah Peterson
|  Created: June 15, 2022
Occam Process: Assembly without Solder

Have you heard of assembly without solder? In this episode, Joseph (Joe) Fjelstad, founder and president of Verdant Electronics, talks about the Occam process. 

Let’s hear about Joe’s 50 years of experience in the electronics industry and how he got started with solderless assembly for electronics.

Listen to the Podcast:

Download this episode (right click and save)

Watch the video:

Show Highlights:

  • Joe talks about his background and previous roles in the industry, including his position as the educational director in the IPC and Kurchatov Institute of Atomic Research in the Soviet Union
  • “Assembly without solder” Joe recollects how he arrived at the idea of a better way to build electronics – build a component board and put circuits on it.
  • Joe shares how he came up with the Occam process and its benefits “It absolutely doesn't need to be for everything, but it can be for a lot of things, and it can make products that will be at once cheaper, better performing, lighter, more environmentally friendly.”
  • Download Joe’s book for free: Solderless Assembly for Electronics: The SAFE Approach
  • More about the Occam Process
  • Did Joe coin “Design with Manufacturing”? He shares his efforts in promoting solid work relationships between PCB designers and manufacturer
  • Occam Process vs. 3D printing, could 3D printing bypass solderless assembly? Read Joe’s article Putting 3D interconnection technologies into perspective from chip to system
  • Joe commended the microvia technology, “they know how to build these things”

Links and Resources:

Connect with Joseph Fjelstad on LinkedIn
Visit Verdant Electronics website
Read Joe Fjelstad Interview: Breaks Down His Occam Process
Download Joe’s book for free: Solderless Assembly for Electronics: The SAFE Approach
Connect with Zach on LinkedIn

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Transcript:

Joe Fjelstad:
You know, there's a logic to what we do. And I called it the Occam process because I was influenced, first ran across to William of Occam when I was in high school. A quote who said, "It's vanity to do with more, that which can be done with less." And I went, "Yeah, that makes sense."

Zach Peterson:
Hi, everybody. Welcome to the Altium OnTrack podcast. I am your host, Zach Peterson. And today I will be talking with Joe Fjelstad of Verdant Electronics. He is probably best known for a solderless process known as the Occam process.

This is definitely a change in thought for me and I think it will require a little bit of a change in thought for some designers, but it's a very interesting thing to consider going mainstream instead of traditional soldering for assembly. Joe, thank you so much for being here today with us.

Joe Fjelstad:
Well, thank you for having me Zach. Appreciate it.

Zach Peterson:
Absolutely. One thing I like to do with folks on the podcast is to get a sense of their background. So maybe you can tell us how you got started in the industry and how you got into maybe developing the Occam process and where you see it going.

Joe Fjelstad:
Okay, well, it's a kind of a drink from a fire hose here today. I'll try to abbreviate it somewhat, but I've been in the industry for over half a century. Started out as basically running a lab. I had been a lab tech at a company in Silicon Valley and we were doing analysis on plating solutions for printed circuit board shops.

And then one company hired me a way to set up a lab for them and run it. So I got to the point where I was doing analysis on everything every day and doing cross sectioning, doing virtually everything associated with how to analyze the plating solutions and the circuit board manufacturing technology. So I got all that done and then I had decided I better go out and learn how they're actually doing this stuff.

So I went out on the floor and started understanding the manufacturing itself and lamination, electrolysis processes, drilling. Everything that was associated with it. And after that, I went into chemical manufacturing for a couple of years, started manufacturing the chemistry that was associated with printed circuit technology, a company called Chemline.

And from there, I wound up at Boeing doing process engineering at Boeing Aerospace up in the Seattle area, which is where I am still grounded. Family came here with me and they stayed. I've bounced around since. I spent a couple of years with the IPC as educational director, spent a couple of years at a company called Printed Circuit Builders down in Santa Clara, California, where I ran research and development, ran the lab again. And did quality control. I basically had my hands in every little pie trying to make it all work together.

From there I did a couple of startups. One was called Technologies, where we did extended length, building flexible circuits in a reel to reel fashion using technologies that are still being played out today. Then I got the call from a friend said, "How'd you like to go live and work in the Soviet Union?" And I said, "Sure."

So I left for the Soviet Union, went to work at Kurchatov Institute of Atomic Research, of all places. They had a small electronics lab. My goal was to basically kind of get them up and running better than what they were. The communist system sucked and really, kind of unfortunately, stole initiative from really bright people. But while I was there, it went from the Soviet Union to Russia. I take no credit for that, but it was interesting time. It was an interesting time. That was 30 years ago.

And I still have a lot of dear friends in Russia and who are greatly distressed by current circumstances. Came back, went to work for another startup called Tessera, which we did development for IC packaging technology. Was involved in the development of the micro BGA. The first of the chip scale packages. Then went off to do my own thing. Actually, I took a slight hiatus. Friend of mine's consulting company, where we worked on the Land Warrior Project, building a soldier of the future.

From there, I went off to start my next startup. It was called Silicon Pipe and that was in 2002. And so that's 30 years ago, 20 years ago. And there we developed a lot of very interesting technologies and concepts that are just now starting to find their way into electronic products. And we called the OTT. The Over The Top technology for. Basically, we're talking about 3D partitioning of the interconnection process.

So based on work that we did at Tessera, started seeing things in some new ways and how they can all go together. Those ideas, as I say, are just starting to show up. So being a little bit ahead of the game is frustrating, but it's nice to see the things that you drew showing up elsewhere. And then that kind of sort of petered out.

We didn't get the funding that we were looking for. So the company wound up getting sold for the patent portfolios to Samsung, which kind of gave me... How should I say? Something close to minimum wage for the time that I spent there if you count all the hours of the day, it was... I got to payback on it. And then I started this most recent company Verdant Electronics based on the idea of eliminating lead from the manufacturing process.

And that was something that... I had at first been in favor of lead free when I heard about it, because I'm an old hippie from the San Francisco Bay Area. And then I started doing the scientific analysis of it and I found that it was bogus. That all the claims were actually not particularly true. In other words, the amount of lead that was being consumed in electronic products represented less than a half percent of all the lead that was being consumed annually.

And when you had all the legacy lead all over the world, including on roofs of buildings all over Europe and you look at the lead morbidity rate, just wasn't there. Lead in gasoline, that was a problem. As that people were actually breathing lead and most of us were probably lead toxic in the sixties and seventies, just if we lived near a city.

So I fought against the lead free cabal, if you will. And then one day after the EU had finally promulgated the ban on electronics and solder, I wrote down three words and I wrote columns pretty regularly for the company at the magazine called Circuitry at the time. Has since morphed into PCB007. But I wrote three words as I was starting to think about what I might write about.

And I wrote this, "Assembly without solder." And I went, "Bingo, that's it." That solves the problem. And so I have been jousting that windmill, if you will, for the last 15 years continuing to say, "Hey, look. There's a better way to build things." As I've said on numerous occasions, if I were to have been tele teleported from Printex, where I worked in the early seventies into a printed circuit shop of today and left to wander around, I would be able to go, "Oh, okay I get, I understand this process."

I would be very impressed with the improvements in terms of technology and manufacturing equipment, but fundamentally we're doing the same thing. And so I said we could build these things better if we built them backwards. And in other words, rather than building a circuit board and putting components on it, build a component board and put circuits on it.

And with the work that we had done at chip-scale packaging, it all suddenly made sense. There are a billion different packages out there and probably almost as many formats, if you will, the way it's exploded. So anyway, that's maybe too long of a journey, but that's where I'm at. I'm still on this effort and I refuse to give up.

Zach Peterson:
I mean, it's a very impressive and illustrious career. And I think it's interesting because you're probably the only person I've ever met or talked to who has said anything publicly about being against ROHS or one of these directives that is meant to ban lead from electronics. I understand what you're saying, though I think what you're saying is that this is such a small part of the lead problem.

If you are one of those people who consider it a problem that the big problem, as you mentioned, was gasoline, was leaded gasoline, which I think makes perfect sense. So that's one of the big problems, let's solve that. Probably something like lead paint makes sense to solve too.

Joe Fjelstad:
Absolutely.

Zach Peterson:
But... Sure, sure. But if it's such a small piece of the electronics puzzle, then why are you going around banning it? And I mean, with Mill Arrow Electronics, led free solders are not even qualified for, in terms of reliability.

Joe Fjelstad:
And that's a big struggle for them right now. I mean, it has been because your thing is that consumer electronics ruled the roost and they make the calls in terms of what. I had a dear friend of mine, an advisor was Werner Engelmeyer, known as Mr. Reliability in industry. And I've sent up what I called a green paper at the time to Werner and here's what I was suggesting and Werner said, "You know, you're going to put me out of business."

It's Mr. Reliability. No Werner, I'll put you into a new business. Unfortunately Werner passed away. But he understood it immediately. And I had known Werner since the late seventies. He was at Bell Labs at the time, but there's a logic to what we do.

And I called it the Occam process because I was influenced, first ran across to William of Occam when I was in high school. A quote who said, "It's vanity to do with more of that, which can be done with less." And I went, "Yeah, that makes sense." And so it's something you apply to your life. I also, as an old hippie, read Thoreau and Thoreau's tagline with simplify.

Simplify. And it just keeps on coming. Throughout history, the concept of simplicity keeps on rising up. of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. Most people remember for the parents perhaps reading The Little Prince to them, which is a fairytale for children written for adults.

In other words, the stories are best understood by probably adults. Anyway, in his book Wind, Sand and Stars, which was sort of an autobiography of his time as a pilot flying mail back and forth between North Africa and Spain and then on into the Andes. Anyway, there was one particular quote that popped off the page there where he said, "The designer knows that perfection and design is achieved, not when there's nothing more that can be added, but nothing more that can be taken away."

And this just so resonated with me and still today, just to go, "God, that's such... I wish I'd have said that." It just absolutely makes sense. And most people don't... I don't get much argument from people when I start talking about these things. I mean, yeah. I get some protests from the people in the solder industry. Of course. Why wouldn't I? I mean, I'm basically talking about eliminating a substantial part of their business, but the reality is that it doesn't necessarily need to be in the mix. It isn't going to go away.

I've said publicly many times, they're going to be soldering things to boards long after I've returned to my elemental form. So that's the way it goes. I can make a truce for it. In fact, I actually have some places where I see that solder works quite well and I expect it to be used on into the future for the manufacturer products.

But it's little bit like Peter Drucker, the American management guru. Well, actually he was from Austria, but he said... I capsulized him in one line. He said that the secret to good management is to put people in positions where they're... I'm capsulizing this, but where their strengths can be fully utilized and tapped and whatever weaknesses they have don't matter. So the same thing is true in the realm of manufacturing and designing products.

I said at a conference I gave, and I'm sure somebody else had said these things. There's a lot of things that you stick around and you say something and you think it's really clever and then you find it eventually. But I was giving a talk at an aerospace conference in Big Sky, Montana for the IEEE and towards the end of my talk, this was about Occam, as I said.

The trick is to first do the right things and then do those things right. You get no points for doing the wrong things right. And solder is, to me, if you read any journals about electronics manufacturing, it is our number one enemy. We constantly fight it. There are 78 some odd lead free solders now.

Does that make things simpler? No. It makes it more complex. And the odd thing that I've also observed over time is that increasing complexity is much easier than making things simpler. Just keep on adding things. And we're doing that in the realm of electronics today. And I just don't think it's wise. But then on the other hand, I'm not in marketing.

Zach Peterson:
I'm wondering because you've brought up your opposition to lead free solder. Did you get any pushback when you first came out against lead free solder? Were people saying, "Hey, this guy's crazy." Did you get a lot of pushback about, Joe Fjelstad hates the environment or anything crazy like that?

Because I mean, today, if I think someone were to come out and say we should pollute more, which is how that translates into, they'd get crucified. But I'm wondering at the time, if coming out against lead free was received well or was it still something at the time where there was enough contention around whether you should even go lead free, that people were just kind of accepting of this viewpoint?

Joe Fjelstad:
Yeah. Let's put it this way. I think it's one of those things. Once you decide, the ball starts to roll downhill. It's real hard to turn it around. And the Tin Research Institute was very, very influential to the European parliament in terms of them getting to promulgate this ban and the Tin Research Institute, not unsurprisingly, was representing the tin industry.

And if you suddenly go from 60% tin to 95% tin, what do you think that's going to do to the tin market? It's going to explode. And the price of tin did explode because of scarcity. So it was a great, a brilliant, marketing move for the tin industry to jump on the bandwagon and then to tell the European parliamentarians who largely didn't understand anything, but everybody knew that lead was bad, because it had a bad rep.

So it was an easy thing to pile onto and say, "Yeah, let's do this and then we'll get some brownie points." But without thinking it through and even their own scientific community said, "Wait, let's do a full analysis on this." Dr. Laura Trebini, who was at University of Toronto, I knew Laura when she was AT&T.

Again, another brilliant scientist. She did an analysis. "No, there's nothing there. There's no there, there." And were things, legacy deposits of lead near mostly lead producing sites where you could see some seepage of lead. But lead ions, most common ions, soluble ions of everything is in chloride or sulfate. All right? Lead chloride is supposed to be... I mean, everything that's a chloride is normally soluble except lead chloride it's insoluble and lead sulfate is insoluble. Lead acetate.

Zach Peterson:
In water.

Joe Fjelstad:
In water. Right. So in other words. So in water... But led in acetate, acidic acid, vinegar, dissolves quite nicely. And so if you get a little bit of acetate content... In fact the common name for lead acetate is led sugar and lead acetate was one of the things that was used in pigments in paint.

And I can attest as a kid. I know, because I used to have the occasion where I was eating lead chips because they were sweet. You;re just a little pike every now and then to chew on a lead chip and and maybe that explains-

Zach Peterson:
I don't think I've ever met anybody that admitted to that.

Joe Fjelstad:
Well, maybe it explains my craziness, but the reality is that the Romans kept their wine in lead vessels. And again, that which turned vinegar sweetened the wine. So they didn't know that they were damaging themselves, but that's what you get when you get knowledge and you use it, you put it to work.

We're hopefully not in stasis in our gaining of knowledge over time, is that we're a learning beast and that we're continuing to grow on a upward path or a forward path rather than a backwards one. And for the most part, we are. We're doing a quite good job of it. And I'm just saying, I'm a champion of progress. I just want to make sure that the progress is thought through.

Zach Peterson:
Sure, sure. I understand. I think most people would say that's a reasonable position, but it seems the next stage of this is for you to go from saying, "Hey, maybe lead free doesn't make sense." To, "Why are we even bothering with solder at all?" So how do you, I guess in your thought process, how do you make that transition? Was this just one of those eureka moments while you're sitting down writing?

Joe Fjelstad:
That was it. I mean, again, with the emphasis. The other thing I should say in all of this is that when I was at Tessera, I started to make a pitch. We were looking at these chip-scale packages and everything was basically a ball grid array. So we were very early in the ball grid array and the area array.

In fact, one of my early patents presaged what was required for being able to make a QFN. And it has now citations and well over 550 patents, I think now. So it was fundamental in terms of what made it work. And so I've always been an advocate. And I remember when I met with, I showed it to John Smith, who was one of the founders of Dallas Semiconductor and then the president of Tessera and Doc Tom DeStefano, who was the founder of Tessera.

And I showed them what I was thinking of. They said, "It's kind of an interesting idea. We'll go ahead and file." I said to him at the time, "I don't think this is good for everything, but I do think it's good for about 90, 95% of things." And that still holds true today is that QFNs are the most fundamental push package there is out there in terms of the numbers. The call outs.

It's a default. But back to the area array, is that we were talking about the ball grid ray for the, for the chip-scale package. And then I went with a colleague at the time, Vern Solberg, who a lot of people know as the design for assembly activity and I brought Vern into Tessera.

And so he made some tremendous contributions to the industry in there, although he had made some pretty decent before that at SCI. But I asked Vern, I said, "You're a designer, would you do me a favor? I'm going to go down to the store and pick up a bunch of Legos and I want a base and would you create a Legos module for me?"

And I can provide you with a picture of that. And it just basically, it's something to look at as to what a Legos module. That everything's on grid. Then the layout becomes extremely simple. And that is what I approached. And most designers, Mike Buto delighted me with invitation to give a talk at PCB East about this Occam thing when it first came out.

So I was talking to a room full of designers. And when I talked about these things, I mean, I saw a room full of nodding heads. Yeah. This makes sense. I get it, I get it. But the problem that they had was, "I can design it, but who's going to build it?" And then manufacturers looked at it and they go, "Well, maybe I can build it, but who's going to design it?"

And so there's this chicken and egg thing that I still wrestle with. Most designers get it, and most... Happy Holden continues to think that it has a place. It doesn't need to be for everything. It absolutely doesn't need to be for everything, but it can be for a lot of things and it can make products that will be at once cheaper, better performing, lighter, more environmentally friendly.

And ecologically better. I mean, I was just say... Maybe I'm just repeating myself, but the thing is it's litany of benefits that I've written and provided in my simple little book called Chip-Scale Packaging for Modern Electronics. And so it's there for people to... No, that's not the right path. It is Solderless Assembly for Electronics: The Safe Approach.

So that book is out there. I'm sorry, I had another book that I've written. So I've... I've written a bunch of them. In fact, I'm rewriting right now my flexible circuit technology, I'm going to the fifth edition. So...

Zach Peterson:
Wow.

Joe Fjelstad:
It's a lot of writing with the help of a lot of good people from across the world. But it's just sharing the knowledge is what it's all about at the end of the day and getting others to think about it. I brought a little tchotchke here is that when I say that things can be simple, this is a little daisy chain, and this is aluminum.

And you can see the packages, little daisy chain parts there, and those are all just connected. And the beauty of this is that all the things that the industry fights against like concerns about peel strength and the material things, the things that we have to do in order to accommodate solder. They all disappear. It's like I argue, is that I've never seen anybody shake the components off a circuit board.

You don't need to worry about that when they're all embedded. I've never seen anybody shake the circuits off a circuit board, forgive me. And so if you put everything embedded, then the concerns about high peel strength and the like, they disappear. It's all just basically, it's just a board and you go from drop test to throw test.

You could even embed batteries into the structure. Which is something that you cannot do if you're going to run it through a heavy duty thermal process. Is it the batteries. Because the batteries will explode. So let's say it just opens doors to a lot of really interesting things that we do not presently consider.

We know that you can't do it. I've had a couple of people who really, really got this. That are really eager. And one was a guy from aerospace who was... After I did a little presentation, he said, "This is a great idea. I want to do it with you." He says, "You're not trying to defy gravity." And he said, "Look, I've got to go in for some..." This was early on. He says, "I'm going to work with you. I want you to come in, we'll work this, we'll build some of these things." And then unfortunately he went in for some surgery and never came out. And more-

Zach Peterson:
That's unfortunate.

Joe Fjelstad:
Yeah. More recently, another advocate for the idea who was someone who got it was a really excellent designer named Darren Smith. Absolutely brilliant designer who, unfortunately... He loved it and he was going to write a design guide for it and unfortunately, Darren had a life with a lot of...

From early injuries, from his infancy in the rest of it and had some problems. I mean, he was an eclectic, brilliant, delightful person to character. One of the characters to talk to. One of the more diverse in terms of his interests. An autodidact. He learned it all, he knew it all and he knew it better than anybody. And unfortunately the pain that... Physical and mental pain that was delivered on his doorstep over his life finally took him out.

And so I lost him last month and irreplaceable because you cannot purchase enthusiasm. You cannot.

Zach Peterson:
Yeah.

Joe Fjelstad:
You can't go and say, "I want to go buy somebody's enthusiasm." Either they got it or they don't. Some people had it, but then again, the reality of their own business sets in real quickly. Joe O'Neil, who was the president of Hunter Tech early on said... Right when there was a news announcement about this project, he called me on the phone.

He says, "You know, I've been sitting on both of these technologies. Assembly and printed circuit technology in one building. I never put the two together." And although he was advocate, he had a business to run and he had money to make. And not everybody, not in this industry, has time for R&D. So my conundrum. My conundrum.

Zach Peterson:
So you brought up something that I think some designers might be familiar with, which is this concept where in an Occam process PCBA, all of the components are essentially embedded, is what it sounds like. What types of devices do you see the Occam process being really best for?

Because I mean, listen. Maybe if it's the circuit board that goes in your toaster, which is something I've joked with another industry person about, does it make sense to do this more advanced process versus the next generation smartphone? Where does the Occam process sit?

Joe Fjelstad:
And that's the beauty of it. Again, I talk about simplicity. Things should not be multiplied unnecessarily. And when you go to the Occam process and again, there's a description in the book where there's a comparison side by side with the Occam process potential and traditional manufacturing.

Number of manufacturing steps dropped by a factor of, I think, a third. In other words, most of them related to the soldering process. The material count. Darren did a redesign of a product. I said, "Darren, take a design that you've done that nobody's going to get their knickers in a twist if they see it on the board." And they probably wouldn't be able to recognize it anyway, but, "And then redesign it, but don't go to DigiKey and look for components. I want you to pretend like every one of the components you need..."

The centerpiece was a 441 IO FPGA. And I said so... And it was 0.8 millimeter pitch. I said, "Well, pretend that it's at 0.5 and then make all the other components 0.5 and make sure that all of their terminations land on that 0.5 grid and then do a layout and see what you get." Well, the board went from, I think it was 170 by 140 millimeters down to, I think something like 70, 30 and then Darren thought, "Well, I'm going to make it into a rigid flex so that the thing could be folded up even smaller." And the layer count went from 12 to six. Now that's cheaper and in many cases, when you get on grid, I think that design counts will, layer counts could be immensely simpler.

There are ways. You don't need to necessarily abandon through holes. There are ways to factor them into the structure. And in fact, there may be ways to incorporate some of the traditional manufacturing or printed circuits back into the Occam assembly. But for most of the components, most of the structures that are out there, it is easy. The problem is that I'm trying to give wings to designers.

I've often said in my talks to designers, when I know the audience is mostly designers, I said, "You people lead the parade. You are the ones. The drum majors. Wherever you take us, we go. I hope that you would understand the importance of your understanding manufacturing so that you could take us to the places where we ought to go."

Zach Peterson:
Well, that's interesting you say that because I think that the narrative so much, especially ever since I started working in the industry, was DFM, DFM, DFM. Designers are beholden in some ways to the manufacturer because CAD tools are great. They let you pretty much do whatever you want until you take it over to a manufacturing house and the fabricator says, "Well, no, we can't build that. No bid."

Joe Fjelstad:
Yeah. Well, to that end, I guess, a year and a half ago or thereabouts, I saw that problem too. And I wrote, one of my columns was titled, Designing With Manufacturing, not Designing for Manufacturing.

Zach Peterson:
Are you taking credit for coining the term design with manufacturing?

Joe Fjelstad:
I don't know if... I never saw it beforehand, but I just said CWN, I wrote it down. Designing with manufacturing and defining for. It's something that we advocated for 40 years when I was at Printed Circuit Builders, we used to train our customers. We used to give an understanding of manufacturing. We did it every month. We had people come in who were designers, who were material suppliers.

Even other manufacturers came in to listen to our little lectures on how to build the printed circuit and including a tour of the shop. And we told them where the pain was. So in other words, conceptually, it's very old, but we had all these DFs and I said, "No. It's DW." DWM.

I'm not going to stake it as my thing. I just hadn't seen it before, but I saw that it was something that needed to be said and needed to be brought to the fore and hopefully that's being got. But as I say, the designers drive this ship, whether or not they realize it. And the decisions that they make have really, really profound implications on everything else that happens downstream. And I love that.

Zach Peterson:
Yeah, well when I was talking with Ahmet Ball, earlier episode of the podcast, he had mentioned that designers should not be afraid to maybe push their manufacturer a little bit out of their comfort zone and push the limits of their traditional capabilities.

Joe Fjelstad:
Yeah.

Zach Peterson:
And it sounds like you are advocating for that and it's maybe even a designer's responsibility to do that, because if designers aren't doing that, what's going to drive the manufacturers to innovate?

Joe Fjelstad:
Yeah, absolutely. And I mean, I had, again at Printed Circuit Builders, when I went there, it was a small, mostly multilayer... Double sided, multilayer. Couple, four layer board. So it was very, very simple in terms of its manufacturing technology. But with the consent of Lee Mueller, who was the owner, I said, "Let me, let me have some fun here. Let's do some different stuff."

I mean, I did it at Boeing. I saved Boeing, in one year, I think I got credit for saving $7 million. Which is when $7 million was a lot of money and it was all about changing things. I built odd things, EMP grids for windows, for the AWACS and E-4B. I took a process, it was at like 5% to like 98% in terms of its yield.

And I did it off the books. In other words, I didn't even get funded for it. I just said, "Here, let's try this." And we did it. And the Air Force was extremely happy. So I carried some of that over with Lee and said, "Let me see what it is." So we became a place for orphaned work. In other words, whenever there was something that somebody couldn't do or didn't think they could do, we'd say, "Hand it over to us, let's see what we can do."

So I worked with people, would work out a process. And then I got them into flexible circuits and rigid flex. And then we did all kinds of odd things, had all the national labs would come in with an Escher drawing and say, "I'd like this in 3D, please." And then you go, "Well, that's interesting. Let's see what we can do."

And then figure out how to solve their problem. In other words, can we move this? Can we do that? And do some really, really surprising things. Was a lot of fun.

Zach Peterson:
So in this process where you're essentially building up around components, you had mentioned that someone you had worked with, you had suggested that they take an existing design and redesign it to be essentially Occam PCBA.

Joe Fjelstad:
Yeah.

Zach Peterson:
But you said, don't go to DigiKey and start looking at components. Are we to interpret that as to mean that the Occam process can't be used with traditional off the shelf components? Or is it only with landless QFNs?

Joe Fjelstad:
The ideal product. This is by the way, this is another cost saving. Because I worked in IC packaging and I know that all those packages, most of the packages still today are lead frame. And QFNs are a significant portion of that. The problem is there was... When Japan got into the industry or surface mount back to the eighties.

Let's go back and see where the wheels went off the rails. With peripheral leaded devices, the QF ends and the like, the problem was is that they needed to shrink it. They knew that they wanted to make the next version smaller and so they developed what they called the 80% rule. And the 80% rule says that every new pitch must be 80% of the previous pitch.

And, of course, from a logic standpoint, if there's no bounds and there's no order, then it doesn't matter. It could be anything. But then you start having to burn off a lot of layers to take care of the redistribution wiring. And this is what you see. I mean, when you start mixing pitches of multiple types of parts, you can see how...

You probably know that you go, "I wish this was... Or maybe if I would've gotten this one on this pitch instead of this pitch or with this pad out instead of that pad out. How much better a design might I have been able to have?" But a lot of times you get whatever purchasing throws at you and remember purchasing, to paraphrase Oscar Wilde, he said, "A cynic is someone who's knows the price of everything and the value of nothing."

And unfortunately that's true for purchasing agents too. Many of them. They know how much something costs, but they don't really understand the value of it. They don't know what the impact is throughout the manufacturing cycle. And so at the end of the day, you get less than you could have had or you paid more for it.

So the key in all of this is to be able to have a standard grid pitch, make conscious decisions. And this is the other thing I said, is that have come to the realization is that it is... When I said earlier, it's much more difficult to make things simple than it is to make them complex.

In other words, you have to put much more thought into what you do. The payoff's at the end. Right?

Zach Peterson:
Sure.

Joe Fjelstad:
But it's not exciting. It's expedient. And-

Joe Fjelstad:
Go ahead.

Zach Peterson:
I was going to say, complexity has diminishing returns as well.

Joe Fjelstad:
But it's sexy. When you look at the way the... I mean, look at it. Look at how complex this thing is. Nobody can do this. We did it. IBM made their mainframes, as I understand it, they made their mainframes really as complex as they could in a lot of ways, in terms of their manufacturing processes. And they did that because they had to go out on bid and that anybody who was going to bid to try and build one of those mainframes was going to have to reproduce IBM.

And then everything got no bid. It's a great way to lock yourself into it. It's like space shuttles and like all these other things and SpaceX. However, they threw a curve ball at this and decided that with a smaller team and a little more control under one roof, that you can do things more thoughtfully.

And they've done a great job with that. I'm not a great fan of Elon Musk for a lot of reasons, but I do like what he did... I mean, with Tesla, he did a great job too. I mean, he was just a force of will. And the same thing with SpaceX. SpaceX has done some amazing things. So he's doing good things with his lots of money.

Zach Peterson:
Yeah. Yeah. Well, as I think about how this all works, because it sounds like you're basically building the board around the chip and the circuitry around the chip, whatever that chip may be. I'm starting to wonder if maybe you're going to get bypassed by 3D printing.

Because 3D printing and even newer systems that might integrate an assembly step might be able to actually do the same thing without solder, because they're literally printing all of those circuits around a component. And it seems like, I guess, you might worry that the Occam process might become obsolete because of that.

Joe Fjelstad:
No, in fact, I wrote that up, I described that in my writing. It's described in my book as to how to build that. In fact, there are ways to be able to do that cheaper than printing. All right? But printing is the advantage. In fact, I said that it's possible to build a machine that would sit in the corner that would allow you...

In fact, I was talking to Ray Persaud. This is 15 years ago. Ray, I've known, Ray and I worked together at Boeing. So I've known him for a long time, but he was sponsoring, repping BeamWorks, which was an Israeli company that had a small footprint assembly operation with pick and place and soldering. Using lasers to solder. And you just put in a board and it comes and pick. If you had the full bomb, you'd put all the.

I said, "This would be really great for being able to build an Occam type assembly, just flip it out. You're going to have to build everything upside down and then do the printing." And again, remember I was talking about doing printing at ELF technologies. We were using catalytic toners and laser printers to print circuits directly onto a rolling substrate.

And then at that time we went to SRI. Unfortunately, the company didn't survive. They always credited me. I was a consultant for them. They always credited me with getting them funded, because I gave them the idea that they could do things, roll to roll and they thought they wanted to do it in sheet form. And so that made all the difference. So we were doing the first of this is of 1990 or '91. '90.

And so inkjet printing became an inspiration. We talked to SRI and so a lot of the things that I've been involved in at the early stages, you see finally making their way in. That doesn't take anything away from the creativity of the people who actually brought it to... Wrestled it to ground. But the concepts have been there.

I was talking about an inline manufacturing operation in 1974 and said, "Here's how you can do it." And at that time, by the way, everything was on grid two. But the grid was a hundred mill centers. Which is the way everything was before you got the industry. Everything was all dips, all hundred mill centers. And it just made sense. Just made sense.

Zach Peterson:
Yeah. Going from dips to basically everything being surface mount and a lot of those components being landless has, I think, enabled the complexity that might be needed in some devices, but then it creates this challenge with manufacturing and that of course drives higher costs.

And you have to wonder if that has also contributed to some of the pressure to offshore, to keep those costs down so that everybody can be competitive.

Joe Fjelstad:
Yeah. One of the first things I said at the time, I saw the departure of manufacturing from the US and I went... I think we're down to 200 shops when I was at, at Printed Circuit Builders in Mountain View... Not Printed Circuit Builders, but Printex in Mountain View, 50 years ago, there were more circuit shops than there were gas stations on corners.

Zach Peterson:
Wow.

Joe Fjelstad:
And it was because it was an easy business to get into. It was a real easy business to get into and very labor intensive, but it didn't cost much. A few plastic trash cans and a drill press and you were off. You were in business. It was really, really simple. The features were course enough to be able to do that. But, I say it's evolved quite a bit from that time.

Now it's probably $10 million at least to get into manufacturing. Relatively simple, well, revenue center of gravity boards. But everything needs to be, how should I say, reassessed. So I don't know how I got off on that track, but you made a comment. But the reality is that it can be much simpler than what we do. It's a matter of will.

It's a matter of desire. I have interests from the Navy, at their facility at Crane. I did some work with the folks at Bucharest Polytechnic. They gave a talk and Timosoara, Romania 12 years ago. Something like that. And one of the researchers or a professor from Bucharest Polytech was in the audience. He came up to me afterwards. He says, "This really makes sense. We want to do this."

I said, "Great." So we've been in contact. So after all these things, it fits and starts. The problem is getting the... But they got some funding from the EO. And with that funding, they had a project. I think... I'm trying to remember the name of it. It was a relatively simple name. But anyway, they just finally completed it. It was an Occam type assembly, solderless assembly.

They put their own spin on it. That's great. But they were limited in terms of the equipment that they had. So it was printing a technology and had some good help from Tetsuda in Japan in terms of providing the inks and the rest of it. And it worked and the idea was build a little, a parking spot sensor so that you bury it in the ground.

And then it would be able to tell if you've got a big magnetic beast sitting above it and sense and be able to send a signal to something that says, "Hey, there's somebody sitting in this place." So a very simple concept, but it's a demonstrator. And there's some folks from Spain and some folks from Hungary were involved in it, so that's been done.

And so there are bits and pieces of it starting today. I'm still just seeing the germination of this in a few spots. It's been incredibly frustrating. As I said, if I'd have been working at Printed Circuit Builders and come up with this idea in 1982 or '83, I would've been done in a matter of just a few weeks. I have had some help from some people along the way. at Eagle Circuits helped very early on with his people who did some stuff around Christmas.

In fact, I credit and his people with helping to build this. Taking things that were essentially process consumables and turned it into substrates. Aluminum is really cheap. It's really dimensionally stable. It's a good thermal spreader. It's all the things that we want in our manufactured product. Just build it all in. So it's doable.

Zach Peterson:
And now that I, after listening to you and after thinking about how the process works, where you're basically plating up the back of the components or the bottom side of the components and then kind of building it up layer by layer, I can actually see how this type of at least thought process of constructing a PCBA this way could be compatible with something more advanced, like 3D printing.

And maybe they aren't necessarily going to be having these guys bypass you or anything like this.

Joe Fjelstad:
No, they are not exclusive.

Zach Peterson:
Sure.

Joe Fjelstad:
In terms of the way they did it. Because if you start as an aluminum substrate and you do your build up on the aluminum substrate... And I'm not being paid by the aluminum industry, by the way. It just, it just happens to be a beautiful element. And it's I think 8.3% of the Earth's crust.

So we're never going to run out of it and it's recyclable and on nobody's environmental hit list. So its CTE is pretty close to that of copper, which is one of the things we were looking at when you're developing packages. The IC packages, they tried to get something that would be close to... It's differentiate. This is the thing is heat is the enemy of electronics.

It is at the end of the game. It's when you start packing things really close together, you generate a lot of heat. And if you look at how much heat that these things are putting together, now you go, "That's crazy. How can they possibly build something that has a heat flux that's equivalent to that on the surface of the sun?" In terms of watts per square centimeter or something. It's nuts. And I don't-

Zach Peterson:
That's funny you bring that up, because I'm now reminded of Pat Gelsingers's comment back when he was, I think, CTO of Intel in the early two thousands where he said, "If you scale up the current architecture, the amount of heat generated by these components would be comparable to a nuclear reactor." He said something to that effect.

Joe Fjelstad:
Yeah. And it is and that there's a brilliance to this. One of my advisors is Bernie Siegel who is thermal solutions. Bernie's been around forever. Always a chairman of. And when I showed the idea to Bernie, Bernie said, "This is amazing. This is an opportunity to solve the thermal problems on the front end, rather than the back end."

Because thermal issues have always been a stepchild. Don't worry about it, let the thermal guys figure it out. And to their credit, they do. And the people that are developing heat pipes and all the other really, really exotic technologies. You look inside of one of those gaming computers, which by the way, is another irony is that the highest performing computers in the world today are all in the hands of gamers.

Go figure. But that's where it is and what they've done is amazing, but it's not making the world a better place, at least in my opinion or maybe I'm just too high minded.

Zach Peterson:
Yeah. I can now imagine building up a printed circuit board on the back of like an aluminum heat sink. So just like you say, you've taken care of the thermal problem on the front end by literally putting the electronics on there and just building around it.

Joe Fjelstad:
Well, and the other thing that... It's proximity. The other thing that I was saying. Being able to... The accommodations we make to the manufacturing process in terms of the placement of components. You know that you're not allowed to get them closer than a certain distance to each other. Often because you have to be able to clean or you have to with an anticipation that you're have to remove them.

I'm saying, why are you planning? I don't even want... I mean, I'm not more heresy. I want to get away from test. In other words, except for burning in the components and knowing on the front end and then do the rest of the process right. Solder is a weak process. We constantly have to concern ourselves with a latent solder joint failure, but the micro via technology has gotten very good. Is that they know how to build these things.

They've been tested up the gazoo and they're continued... And when you look at how much real estate you get back if you don't have to circumvent a pad. Think about it. If you just build up little tiny connections on the surface of it, it looks like a filigree. It would look like... A modern circuit board could look like the top of an IC chip under a microscope.

But the components are beneath it all. Much the way the transistors are beneath all that redistribution monitoring on a chip today. It's just a scale. It's just a scale. And the trick that I had when I showed this to another friend of mine, who was a founder of... Kevin Grundy. He ran manufacturing for Next. For Steve Jobs.

And yeah. Really, really clever. He also started Telosity, which I think became part of the roll up for DIRECTV. Anyway, he was actually my CTO at... Or CEO at Silicon Pipe. Brought him in for that. And he got really enthused about the ideas and he had some money and so he made a small investment with the rest of us and we had some fun.

But when I showed him the Occam idea and the rest of it, he says, "This is really great." Because it's the ability to build... A potential ability to build a product with not the most transistors as possible, but the least transistors possible. In other words, give the designer an opportunity to build the most efficient design that they can possibly imagine to get the job done. That would use the least amount of energy and then let them have at it.

It's like chiplets. I wrote an article 10 years ago, I think of... I think somewhere around 10 ago, where I talked about disintegrating the IC and then breaking it into IP blocks and putting those IP blocks in packages that are tested and burned in and then let the designer have at it.

Let them figure out what it is that needs... You pick an IC up from DigiKey or somebody else and it has a particular IP block that you want to use in your design. And so you use it. But guess what? You have to wire up everything else as well. And then if something isn't connected, then you got grief and it's just crazy.

So why not let them design with IP blocks, Lego blocks, that are all on a standard grid and let them figure out what it is that they need and they become the IC designer, because really the printed circuit was the first integrator of circuits. Little transistors on a printed circuit. And so we come full circle.

I say, it's time to rethink our roots and say, why not? Some George Bernard Shaw. "Some people look at things as they are and ask why and I look at things as they never were and asked why not?" Kennedy stole that, by the way, for his inaugural speech and didn't credit Shaw, but...

Zach Peterson:
Well, I think that's a great note to end on. Because this is really a new way to imagine assembly and I think it opens up so many different possibilities and I'm hopeful that the convergence between maybe some more advanced assembly technologies and this thought process that goes into the Occam process can kind of come together and give designers more ways to create advanced technology.

And Joe, I want to thank you so much for joining us. This has been a really enlightening discussion and just thinking about how this all works, it's opened up my mind and I hope everyone who's watching will check out some of the show notes and they can look at some of your articles, maybe one of your books and they'll be able learn a lot more. Yeah, absolutely. Do you mind if we put your LinkedIn profile on there as well and can connect with you?

Joe Fjelstad:
Sure. No, that's fine. I post a lot of things there. I've been helping other people. I've been recently helping a local friend with a technology for making hydrogen a real solution. So I've had some fun. Unfortunately the inventor I met at a local bar, we used to sit down, he was another refugee from Silicon Valley. Unfortunately he passed away. So I'm on the road, looking to shuffle off that mortal coil myself at some point in time. Hopefully sometime further down the future.

Zach Peterson:
Sure, sure. Well, thank you again so much for being here. This has been really enlightening and to everybody who's watching out there, make sure to hit the subscribe button on YouTube, to catch all of the future episodes that we have coming out.

And I want to thank everybody for sticking around and listening to this very enlightening talk and last but not least, don't stop learning, stay on track and we'll see you for the next episode.

About Author

About Author

Zachariah Peterson has an extensive technical background in academia and industry. He currently provides research, design, and marketing services to companies in the electronics industry. Prior to working in the PCB industry, he taught at Portland State University and conducted research on random laser theory, materials, and stability. His background in scientific research spans topics in nanoparticle lasers, electronic and optoelectronic semiconductor devices, environmental sensors, and stochastics. His work has been published in over a dozen peer-reviewed journals and conference proceedings, and he has written 1000+ technical blogs on PCB design for a number of companies. He is a member of IEEE Photonics Society, IEEE Electronics Packaging Society, American Physical Society, and the Printed Circuit Engineering Association (PCEA), and he previously served on the INCITS Quantum Computing Technical Advisory Committee.

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