Executive Interview - Tarun Amla, Executive VP and CTO at ITEQ
Some PCB designers may not be familiar with ITEQ, can you let us know a little about the company history and key differentiators?
ITEQ was founded in 1997 and had 2018 revenues of approximately US $ 740M. The company is headquartered in Hsinchu, Taiwan. Its products are used for advanced multilayer printed circuit boards that go into a wide range of applications, including automotive, aerospace, servers, storage, mobile phones, communications, computing, consumer electronics and other electronic equipment.
You have lead technology development at several international PCB related companies, what is different about ITEQ?
ITEQ is a young company. It has had a much more rapid growth trajectory than is typical of a materials manufacturing and development company. While the growth story is remarkable, what is even more striking is its speed to pivot and adjust to the very fast changing environment in a hyper competitive market. ITEQ has done so while maintaining profitable growth. ITEQ is not averse to making bold investments in new technologies and new manufacturing locations.
ITEQ recently established a lab in Silicon Valley, can you tell us about the facility and its capabilities?
The lab is an extension of our corporate lab in Taiwan and allows us to access and service the Silicon Valley technology companies. We have all the equipment needed to manufacture and prototype products to sample for the market. We have invested in characterization equipment including all the thermal, mechanical, and physical testing. We have also invested in electrical testing equipment, including network analyzers for characterization all the way up to 110 GHz for mmWave applications related to 5G, 112 Gbps applications, and Automotive radar.
What are the main markets for your products, and which are growing the fastest?
Our products go into all electronic equipment segments. Our internal market segmentation identifies 4 major areas that we service: consumer electronics, mobile devices, Communications and Computing (including RF/MW), and the Automotive market. We have been seeing tremendous growth in the Server market with our mid and low loss products and since last year we have also seen a major uptick in the demand for our ultralow loss products for the 5G build.
Can you tell us the performance advantages of resin-based PCB materials versus PTFE?
The main advantage is in the manufacturability and thermal stability. Fabrication and manufacturing are major problems with PTFE type products. 5G mmWave technology will require high layer count boards even for the seemingly simple CPE antennas. Then, there is the requirement for higher DK materials for certain phased array antennas, which is tough to do with PTFE products. The PTFE thermal conductivity is also very low, creating problems in terms of power handling. Therefore, new thermoset technology is required to address the emerging 5G market requirements. The other materials that have been used traditionally, based on rubber type resins, have their own problems including manufacturability, stability at high temperatures, and higher loss than is acceptable for mmWave products.
Are the additional advantages in areas such as manufacturability or reliability for resin-based materials?
Absolutely. Newer thermoset systems use standard processing conditions. For example, to do a pure package build, one would need a 6-7-hour lamination cycle to sinter PTFE at temperatures that are around ~330 degrees C with a distinct possibility of circuit swimming. On the other hand, thermoset systems, such as the ones ITEQ is using, would require a standard 3-hour lamination cycle at around ~200 degrees C. Additionally, excellent dimensional stability, thermal reliability, good flow and fill to cover the circuitry, better metal adhesion, and low thermal expansion are further key advantages.
What are some of the thermal issues’ PCB designers run into and how can they be addressed?
With massive MIMO antennas, the RF front end is going to see a lot more thermal loading than it has seen in the past. Some of these antennas, even for the very small cells or CPEs, may have up to 128 elements – this means a lot more power is needed for such boards. Typically, passive cooling options are implemented with the intent is to spread heat away from components and ICs. The total power requirement for the board may not be very high, but, because of the small size of the chips, the heat flux over a small area is very high. Several options, such as thermal vias, coin technology, heats sinks, or metal backed PCBs are used. There are also other levers- enhanced thermal conductivity of the laminates is one-which can be used to simplify designs. Lower profile copper and lower dissipation factor also help reduce the heat load in addition to lowering attenuation.
What types of modeling and design support does ITEQ offer designers?
The industry, on the high-speed digital side, has adopted a different approach to characterization and uses overall insertion loss data on striplines. While stripline models and data is great for the high-speed digital boards with long path lengths, it is not very helpful when it comes to designing antennas and other circuit elements on microstrips. RF designers work with circuit elements to match products, leading to longer design cycles. We provide data that enables simulations at higher frequencies without requiring a physical build first. We are investing in measurement systems that provide direct electrical measurements well in to the higher mmWave frequencies – something that has traditionally not been available in industry except from select research institutions. We have all the modeling and simulation tools to characterize the high frequency performance. We plan to also offer Multiphysics simulations where the interplay between electrical, thermal, and thermomechanical properties can be studied and used as an optimization tool for design.
What are some of your latest products and how have they been received in the market?
We have launched ultra-low loss IT988G and IT988GSE products for high speed, as well as mmWave products, namely IT8300GA, IT8350G, IT8338G, IT8615G, and IT88GMW. All of these are halogen free materials. The availability of halogen free materials has been a struggle for the incumbent suppliers for the past two decades. All of ITEQ’s new RF grade products are geared towards 5G mmWave applications, and have been very well received, though I must say that we had the advantage of designing these products for precisely the challenges faced in the industry. These products are all currently in production or testing/qualification phase.
What are your future plans for key markets and product developments?
We have a product that we are launching for the 112 Gbps/channel application called IT-998G. These designs will run close to mmWave frequencies at 28 GHz and enable the next generation of multi terabit products. This product is also a first in offering a “no skew” solution, which helps in enhancing Signal integrity and reducing the circuit board cost . We are developing several products that will help the push into higher mmWave communications. On the automotive side, our focus is on developing new products for superchargers for EVs, which will be operating at much higher voltages with high currents. Similarly for mobile devices, we are developing products for packaging the antennas.