Steve Wongsonvanee is General Manager for Pemtron Corporation. They manufacture a range of high-end test and inspection equipment and have been established since 2002.
This is the first time that we’ve interviewed you. So, can you tell us a little bit about the business, the company, where it started and how it was formed.
Pemtron Technology is a Korean-based manufacturer founded in 2002 and our primary focus is on 3D Inspection technology in the Test and Inspection sector.
Why did you start with SPI? AOI technology had already been around for some years, so why did you decide to start with the SPI route?
2D AOI was already well-established in the early 2000s and had flooded the market. There were many competitors. However, 3D inspection technology that looked at volumetric solder was new to the industry and the owners felt that this was the way forward.
Right. So, of course, 3D is looking at volumetric amounts, it means that you’re using metrology to measure the volume of solder paste. Did you then go into making 2D AOI Systems or did you stick with 3D?
No, we’ve always stuck with 3D technology. We already had that technology established, so spinning that off into AOI and other industries like semiconductor, wire bonding etc. was the next logical step.
When you were developing the AOI systems, what challenges did you face?
When you’re looking at solder inspection, you’re looking at heights typically between four to six mils. The solder paste at this point has not been reflowed, so it’s very matte in coloring. There are not many features on the board. It’s relatively easy inspection as opposed to 2D where then now you have a populated PCB with many different sizes and shapes of components that you must worry about.
Shadowing, tall components, reflective surfaces, and now that the solder has been reflowed you’ve got reflective areas on the board causing spikes in the images, which become an issue if not dealt with correctly.
So, when you when you launched back into the US back in 2009, how difficult was that? And what approach did you take to the US market?
In 2009, we brought this product to the North American market. At that time, we really had zero install base. We didn’t have any customers, sales reps or service engineers. Kevin Ham, who was the international sales manager at the time, now Director of Sales, and I hopped in a car. We were on
a tight budget at that point, and we drove from state-to-state visiting customers and sales reps one by one to keep costs down. We did the evaluations and support our- selves. And for the three years following, which was very, very difficult.
Yeah, you did it the hard way. You literally got on the road and racked up the mileage and went door to door. So how have you developed from there and how has the company developed?
We now have several hundred units in the US and Canada and the same over the border as well.
The US market uses Manufacturers Sales Reps and not so many distributors. Another difference is you’re looking at many companies here with one or two lines, as opposed to several dozen lines overseas.
What approach did you take to the market?
The US market is different, you’re correct. Sales happen with small companies instead of some large companies that are going to buy 50, 100 or 200 units at one time. You’re talking about shops that buy anywhere between one to three and the systems are a lot more spread out amongst many different time zones.
What are your best sellers in your equipment portfolio?
3D SPI is probably our number one seller. The cost of buying a 3D SPI is less than buying a 3D AOI, and there’s more value added to it as far as quality in your production. Since most of the defects come from solder related-issues, customers can catch it much earlier on in the process, and they see that as a primary benefit for them.
We have other pieces of equipment that we’ve developed for companies at their request. One example is we are the very first manufacturers of The Twin, a top and bottom 3D AOI simultaneous inspection system. This is used in numerous auto- motive applications where they need to do some kind of final inspections.
That’s interesting because there are companies that have 3D on the topside and 2D on underside inspection. So, this is presumably for double-sided boards?
Yes, and we also made the very first dual-lane, dual-gantry system for
inspecting a mix of products on each lane independent of each other at a higher rate than your typical dual-lane, single-gantry system. Also, we have recently introduced a dual-lane, quad-gantry system. It’s basically our twin system with double lanes, providing four heads.
Do these work independently?
Yes, these systems require less floor space than two separate lines and manpower to operate. They allow users to build top and bottom in one line as well as mixed products.
Okay, well my next question was going to be what makes Pemtron different and from what you’re telling me, it sounds like you have the engineering capability in-house to be able to customize units for customers?
Yes, this is important to us. We understand that we have a lot of competitors, but we also understand that our customers have a lot of competitors too. And they want
to be competitive in their manufacturing environment and so they’re thinking of new and innovative ways to improve their quality and make things better quality, less expensive and faster.
When they bring things like this to us, we’re more than happy to develop it. So, we’re not really a company that develops a product and then tries to go out and sell it to the market. We really put a lot of time into listening to our customers, developing the product and, and allowing it to speak for itself. When it’s customer-driven, you see
a lot of benefits because you see the other customers in the market, knowing that this is not a product that was developed by us trying to sell it to everybody, but rather an innovation developed for somebody by an engineer who actually thought of this.
It’s a good point. What about the software side of it, Steven? Does your SPI system communicate closed loop with most of the printers in the market to notify them of defects or missing paste?
One of the good things about our software is that we make our own interface. So, when you import the Gerber files, it is seamless because we don’t use a third-party manufac- turer. This makes programming a lot easier and more efficient. The system does have closed-loop feedback with all major brands of printers and feedback with the placement systems. The AOI system also communicates between the SPI so that it can go back. For example, if you had a solder-related defect on your AOI, you could go back and see the print from that particular component with- out leaving that system and tell whether there were any solder-related effects earlier on.
Excellent, so clearly you are a very innovative company. Looking further ahead, where do you think you’re going to be over the next five years? Where do you think your development trail is going to take you?
So, semiconductor is one division in which we are investing heavily. There are additional products that we’re currently developing that also are going to be import- ant to the industry. Unfortunately, I cannot discuss them yet, but let’s just say there will be some new innovative products, similar to our Twin and dual gantry in the future.
It’s going to push towards auto programming combined with artificial intelligence. Because once you auto program something you, it would make no sense to go back through and debug it for another 50 boards or however many it may take. So, artificial intelligence walks hand in hand with auto programming, and that’s something that our AI team has been working on for quite some time.
I think that’s important because an 0402 can be a different size from one manufacturer than an 0402 from another manufacturer. You need to be able to differentiate that and I think AI is the way to do that.
Yeah. We’ve started with OCR first because I think most everybody in this industry would agree with me when I say that the body markings and the nomenclature on the components are the things that
cause the most hassle. So, applying artificial intelligence to this algorithm would be a huge step by itself.
AI is a slow wheel to turn right now because it requires a lot of samples. The AI system needs these samples to be able to train itself on what’s good and what’s bad. The R&D department initially wanted us to develop a cloud system, which was their design and that would probably be the perfect environment where you sell AI to every- body, and all of these defects get uploaded into one central sort of node or server.
Obviously, nobody’s going to allow us to tap into their IT department and start
uploading data. So, we have to build this on our own and as customers buy the systems they would learn as they start training.
It’s an interesting debate, isn’t it, because you’ve got a lot of the tier one shops who are loading all their data into these cloud systems and getting the benefit of it because they’ve got so many machines across the globe. Whereas you are selling, as you say, in the United States to companies that have got one or two machines and they’re not getting the benefit of that. But, if they were to sign up to a cloud-based central repository for Pemtron inspection, for example, they would get the benefit of everybody’s data.
You see it in the electronic car industry, such as Tesla, for example. Their autonomous driving capability can crowd source the data., It is possible to disable, but it is uploading information to help them develop a better autonomous driving experience. So, it would be a great benefit but, unfortunately, much of the deep learning has to be developed in-house and in the field.
There’s all sorts of issues, you know, especially companies that are doing any kind of military work or anything like that. It really is an issue. But yes, I agree. For the quality aspect of manufacturing, it would be a huge boon and quite helpful.
Anyway, it sounds like you’re going in the right direction, Steven, and it’s been a fascinating insight into Pemtron, and what’s happened there. I take it you’re going to be exhibiting at the IPC APEX EXPO in a few
weeks’ time, and people can visit your booth to see the machines in action. But, for now, I want to thank you for joining us today.
Thank you Trevor. It was my pleasure.