R&D shifts to universities

The printed circuit board industry must keep pace with the enormous and well-funded semiconductor world, providing substrate technologies that let system designers optimize the high speeds and tight spacings that come with IC integration. But while chipmakers like Intel, STMicroelectronics and Taiwan Semiconductor have deep pockets, printed board manufacturers and EMS companies often operate on tighter margins that limit investments in future technologies.

R&D in these fields is increasingly being performed at the university level, where funds from industry, the military and government agencies can often be pooled. Collegiate research is an area where spending grew even during the downturn.  

Some market researchers predict that overall academic R&D spending in the U.S. will increase 6.4 percent in 2010, following more than 5 percent growth in 2009. By comparison, industrial research market in the United States contracted about 15.3 percent from the levels of 2008, according to Frost & Sullivan. Even the pharmaceutical field anticipates R&D growth of only 2.2 percent from 2008 to 2011.

Money flowing into universities is enhanced by the comparatively low expense that comes when students work in facilities that are paid for by taxpayers or endowments. Many companies routinely donate state of the art equipment and software to schools that are the basis of their recruiting programs.

A growing number of trade association and companies are providing funds and even manpower to help students learn how to solve problems and build things. One example is the IPC APEX EXPOTM Academic Poster Competition.

Students say that the projects are effective. “These projects are really rewarding, it’s a lot different than the way you learn in a lecture class,” said Jonathon Tucker, a graduate research assistant at Purdue University. Tucker recently helped present his team’s study on the effect of lead additions on creep and tensile behavior of Sn3.0Ag0.5Cu solder, which he described during IPC APEX EXPO.

That effort used funding from the Crane Naval Base, which was tapped to be the Executive Agent for PCB Technology last year. The students quantified the impact that increasing lead content had during rework with lead-free solders. “As you increase the lead content, the behavior is similar to eutectic tin lead solder,” Tucker said.

Both students and the groups that provide funding benefit from these programs. “For Crane, this study is important so they can explain to their people why they need to do things a certain way,” Tucker said.

Working on real-world projects also helps students meet people who may become partners in other projects throughout their careers. For example, students at the University of California at Irvine needed to build modules so they could study bonding barrier composites on bismuth telluride for high temperature applications. “People at Sandia Labs made our modules. It was really exciting to work with them,” said Hsiao-Wen Lin.

Student projects increasingly examine technologies that are still evolving. A project at the University of Maryland focused on lifetime modeling of embedded capacitors, looking at the impact of aging on laminates and materials like barium titanate. Mohammed Alam said the students found a gradual degradation in capacitors as they underwent different stress levels.

R&D spending underscores the national competition to cash in during the early stages of products and industries when margins are often higher than when commoditization begins.

Brazil, Russia, India, and China will dominate future R&D growth, surpassing Europe and Japan and eventually matching U.S. spending. China alone will outspend Japan in R&D in mid-2010, match Europe’s conglomerate spending 2018, and match U.S. R&D spending in 2022, a Battelle study predicts.

Call for Participation at IPC APEX EXPO 2011: submit a paper abstract or course proposal by July 16, 2010. Details on the 2011 Academic Poster competition will be available in the Fall of 2010.

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