CMC channels resources for industrial production of printed circuit boards

Najeeb Khalid, President CEO of Escher-Grad Technologies, Inc.

Today we take for granted the availability of high-resolution, full-colour printing on everything from daily newspapers to children’s toys. This technology has been steadily refined over time and one of the pioneers and leaders in this area has been Montréal-based Escher-Grad Technologies Inc., which was founded in the 1980s by the company’s President and CEO, Najeeb Khalid.

The firm was based on the innovative use of lasers to create images on photosensitive materials, such as the films used for offset printing. Escher-Grad targeted a market niche for printing large-format, detailed documents, such as naval and aviation charts. The company’s advanced-technology, high-resolution laser imaging systems provided powerful, fully integrated productivity solutions for clients.

Recent changes in the printing industry have led Khalid to seek a new frontier for Escher-Grad’s expertise, namely the production of printed circuit board (PCB) panels. The PCB industry serves a global market worth about $75 billion annually, which makes it an attractive industry to enter. “Our view was that we must have a new technology that breaks through the barriers of cost and performance,” he explains. “Our aim is to bring the PCB industry to the next level of quality, yield, and refinement.”

The innovative technology development required an application-specific integrated circuit (ASIC) to control the light-emitting diodes (LEDs) that determine the printing of details at a very fine scale. The technology can be used to print anything that is sensitive to light, including photoresist materials for PCB development. The concept is so novel that it was not even considered practical until a few years ago.

In order to turn this idea into a working methodology, the company approached CMC Microsystems. A dedicated team of four engineers assisted Escher-Grad to select the technology that is best suited for creating the ASIC. Using an ASIC not only allows the creation of a small prototype, it opens up the possibility of directly integrating LEDs (monolithically) with the ASIC in the future, which would create an even smaller device at lower cost without the need to fabricate a substrate for connecting the ASIC to the LEDs.

Using the multi-project wafer service through CMC that is available for industrial projects, Escher-Grad was able to cost-effectively develop an ASIC in a CMOS technology to control the LEDs. The team selected a commercial foundry for implementing the ASIC design in a small batch run that delivered testable prototype chips. The team also selected the University of Alberta’s nanoFAB facility for fabrication of a unique silicon carrier to seat the ASIC for system assembly.

Khalid, who has served on a number of Industry Canada advisory boards, was familiar with CMC’s capabilities. He also knew that the process of collaboration would be somewhat different compared to seeking help from university-based researchers. “In my experience, having spent millions of dollars funding industry research, it can be a very difficult task for university-related paradigms to merge with industrial paradigms,” he says, noting that academic priorities tend to centre on the publication of technical and scientific papers, as opposed to the immediate solution of problems.

Although CMC is rooted in the academic environment, he adds, it has cultivated the necessary skills to serve as a valuable, cost-effective business partner. “CMC has made the transition to working with industry and delivering. And most important of all: contributing and delivering on time. And when something couldn’t be done, they were honest about it and negotiated the technical specifications to ensure the process would deliver.”

In this way, he observes, Escher-Grad was able to take a major step toward an entirely new line of business, moving in a timely fashion and technically demanding direction. “CMC brought a design team that had the tools and the experience to work our design into reality,” concludes Khalid. “They were really part of our team.”

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