Do it in 3D
Executive Interview with Dr. Ingo Bretthauer of LPFK
Born 1955, Ingo Bretthauer – a member of the LPKF Management Board since 2009 – studied engineering and economics in Germany and business administration in the USA. After gaining a doctorate at the University of Giessen, he worked for a number of different German and international companies.
MWJ –LPKF covers the complete operational sequence of in-house prototyping. Briefly outline the product sectors that are particularly relevant to the RF and microwave field?
IB–Within our Rapid Prototyping Business Unit, LPKF offers a wide range of products. This comprises prototyping equipment for PCBs, but also prototyping equipment for our other business units e.g. LDS or Welding Equipment. There are two product groups that are relevant to the RF and microwave field. One of them is the Rapid PCB Prototyping product line, the other is the LDS-Equipment, which is used to create three-dimensional PCBs. For both product groups LPKF is introducing two new machines, the ProtoMat D104 and the ProtoLaser 3D, in November that match the typical requirements of RF and microwave engineers.
MWJ –The company began as a one-man operation in Garbsen, Germany in 1976 utilising CAD controlled milling technology that was an efficient and pollution free alternative to etching. How revolutionary was this at the time and does the company continue to follow ‘green’ ethics?
IB– To replace etching by milling was indeed a small revolution at the time whereas the ‘green’ aspect has become gradually more and more important over the years. Today, we follow this direction in all our product segments. Most of our products provide a new way of producing electronics and they do it with less pollution and improved economics.
MWJ –In 1984 LPKF established its first international branch in the United States. What prompted the company to take the decision at that time?
IB–The US has always been one of the most important regions for R&D in electronics – and will continue to do so in our view. Therefore, it was almost natural that we started our internationalization there. And today, US-based companies are our best customers worldwide.
MWJ –How has LPKF developed its US business and how significant a market is it to the company today?
IB–The development in our Prototyping business is very good. We have become the number one supplier of PCB-RP systems in the US. Also, in the Electronics Production Equipment segment, US based customers have become our best customers worldwide. Of course, most of the production equipment is installed outside of the US, but for a very big part within the international production sites of US based companies.
MWJ –LPKF Laser & Electronics AGopened a new production facility in Slovenia in 1994. Explain this strategy and how it has developed?
IB–Slovenia was opened at this time to take advantage of the lower production cost there. This has allowed us to stay competitive even after more competition showed up in the PCB-RP business worldwide. Slovenia has developed over the years into one of our best internal production and development sites.
MWJ –Continuing the global theme, in 2000 the company established LPKF Tianjin CO. Ltd as a new subsidiary in China. What is this subsidiary’s specific role and how do you see LPKF developing its business in China?
IB–China has become the most important region for the LPKF Group. The reason is simple: Most electronics products are produced there today for the world market. However, it is interesting to see, that our largest customers are still US-based companies, which have a big part of their production capacity in China. Today, we have seven offices in China; all of them focus on sales and service activities.
MWJ –Where geographically is LPKF Laser & Electronics AG strongest and are their other new/emerging markets that the company intends to target?
IB–Our strongest region today is clearly Asia. China is number one in the region, but we are also very active in other countries like Japan (with our own subsidiary) and Taiwan (with distributors). Today we have distributors in almost all Asian countries. Recently, we have seen Korea developing very fast in the demand for our technologies. South Korea is definitely a market where we want to have closer access in the future.
MWJ –LPKF is a market leader in in-house rapid PCB prototyping and StencilLaser. Explain the company’s approach that has enabled it to take the lead in these sectors.
IB –We are the inventors of both technologies. Our long experience, good contact with our customers and our continuous R&D efforts to improve and extend our product range for these markets made us and will keep us as the dominant player. We will not give up, even when we reach around 80 percent worldwide market share as we have l in the PCB-RP sector. We still have many ideas for new RP products – some of them we have recently introduced at the Productronica fair in Munich.
MWJ –Also, elaborate on the development of LPKF’s laser direct structuring (LDS) systems, particularly their application in antennas for smartphones?
IB–LPKF has been developing the LDS process for almost 15 years. In 2009 these efforts started to pay off. The laser process reduces time to market significantly, while the precision increases. Our top-level LPKF Fusion3D 6000 laser system is able to structure LDS parts with four different laser units simultaneously. The customer saves space, weight, time and money, and that is particularly important for smartphones and tablet antennas or RFIDs.
In the past few years the LDS-business has become our most important product line. Today, most of the top smartphone suppliers use this technology and it has already started to spread beyond this market.
MWJ –The development of LDS technology for three-dimensional moulded interconnect deviceswas featured in the November 2013 issue of Microwave Journal. Please explain the significance of this process and its future potential.
IB–LDS is a revolution in the production of moulded interconnect devices (MIDs). It is an enabling technology that offers completely new freedom of design. Today, the vast majority of all MIDs are produced with LDS technology. In the future, LDS will be used for many applications besides antennas, where it has already become a standard technology.
At Productronica we presented a new prototyping process for LDS. We also developed a process for post-electroplating for more robust circuits with a smoother surface. LPKF is also developing a specific lacquer as well as a powder coating, which will allow customers to use almost any other material for the LDS process.
MWJ –As can be seen, LPKF Laser & Electronics AG is a technology led company. How does the company continue to identify products with the potential to be market-leading and ensure they go from research to production?
IB –The key in my opinion is our strong relationship with key customers and our deep and long time understanding of the electronics industry on one side as well as laser-technology and precise machine design and manufacturing on the other. We continue to spend about 10 percent of our revenue for R&D and we have many ideas for new developments. We still believe that laser machines have huge potential in the electronics industry, replacing more and more traditional production methods like mechanical or chemical ones.
MWJ –Having developed from a one-man operation to a global company how important are partnerships and the fostering of international relations?
IB–In a global business like ours, this is absolutely mandatory. Without good and long-lasting partnerships, especially with some of our key costumers and also our key suppliers this success would not have been possible. We started most of our activities in foreign regions with partners there. This has been a cornerstone of our worldwide success.
MWJ –In LPKF’s half-yearly report for 2013 the Group reported a year-on-year revenue growth of 39 percent to €70 million. Were these figures expected and which specific sectors were strong and why?
IB–These figures where much better than expected, especially because of a very strong demand for LDS equipment. This originated heavily from Korean based customers. It seems that some large Korean OEMs made a clear shift towards our LDS-Technology.
MWJ –Looking to the near future what technologies or new sectors of the market can you see potential for LPKF to exploit?
IB–First, we will start to offer more and more prototyping equipment, not only PCB prototyping but also prototyping solutions for our other production technologies. For example, at Productronica, we introduced a full set of all that is needed to do LDS prototyping in house. On the production equipment side, we are also developing new technologies, but always concentrating on markets where we have a good understanding of what is needed, like the electronics production market.
MWJ –Finally, sum up LPKF Laser & Electronics AG’s secret for success.
IB–There is no secret – just hard work. But we love it.