Triangle Labs: Covering the Niche Market of Large Boards
I recently had the opportunity to speak with John-Michael Gray, president of Triangle Labs. We had quite a discussion on their rather unique capability of building large-format PCBs and multilayers—perhaps the largest PCBs in the world. To make very large PCBs, one needs some very large processing equipment—room-sized—as is the case with Triangle Labs.
Patty Goldman: John-Michael, please begin by telling me a little bit about yourself and Triangle Labs.
John-Michael Gray: Absolutely. I got my start with Triangle Labs when I was 22 years old, and I am 39 now, so about 17 years with the company. I started working in the back in the photo department, then moved over to processing, with a small stint in plating, and then back to photo. I really have a good, fundamental understanding of board processioning and fabrication, but not quite a mastery. Then I was found to be better suited to the front end and moved into a sales role. I transitioned in as president over the past two years after my work in the business development arena, which I still lead. I'm still out there in the field meeting with customers and maintaining the sales department. It's been great.
Goldman: Give me some background on Triangle Labs.
Gray: Triangle Labs was formed in 1994, in Redwood City, California. We are historically a Silicon Valley company, but the permitting and regulations in California at the time really didn't encourage hardware manufacturing companies, mainly PCB shops. We looked for a new location and found Carson City, Nevada, where the permitting fees were about 30x smaller than California. We moved here in 2004 and have been here for about 14 years now, which has been wonderful. Here we were able to install a 20,000 square foot facility with full electroplating on-site, which we did not have in Redwood City—we just had engineering and on-site services there.
Goldman: And now you can make the full circuit boards.
Gray: Yes, we can. In fact, according to my research, we make the largest circuit in the world that is a full master panel, at 48” x 96”. I don't know of many people that can do that.
Goldman: That must be a great niche to be in.
Gray: Yes, absolutely.
Goldman: Tell me more about Triangle Labs.
Gray: Currently we have 19 full-time employees. This building was originally 15,000 square feet, but we just added on 5,000 square feet onto the back to expand our large board capabilities, so 19 employees in a 20,000 square foot facility right now.
It looks like we're working in two departments: one is our core microwave work, which we've been doing for many years that supports Raytheon, Boeing, Lockheed Martin, and companies like that; and then there is our large format PCB manufacturing. We've purchased all new equipment for the large format PCBs—new processing equipment, new conveyorized Chemcut lines, and I believe the largest laser direct imager in the world now, which is a Limata UV-O LDI that can handle the 48 x 96 panels. We've really expanded into that big board niche market.
Goldman: That must be a big machine. What are the dimensions?
Gray: It's basically the size of a small room. It's probably 14’ x 8’, and it’s about seven feet tall. It's taller than me, and I'm pretty tall.
Goldman: What else can you tell me about Triangle?
Gray: We're a preferred supplier for Raytheon on all of their AESA radar systems, so we provide quite a few part numbers to Raytheon TAS-Tactical Airborne Systems, for their AESA radars, primarily F-15, F-18, and to a lesser extent the F-16. That's our core work that we really pride ourselves on. We have a perfect delivery record, and a full quality system. We expanded into the large board business in 2010, and we are currently building all 1,800 replacement boards for the ATLAS New Small Wheel upgrade at the (LHC) Large Hadron Collider, in Geneva Switzerland at CERN. That's been an exciting, yet challenging program. They want us to maintain basically a 2-mil deviation from top to bottom on a 48” x 86” board.
Goldman: Is all the equipment is conveyorized?
Gray: Yes, other than the optical CMM that we use to measure the features, everything is conveyorized and requires two people for handling.
Goldman: I would think two people would be necessary, because of course you have to move the panels from one piece of equipment to another at some point.
Gray: Yes, we created many custom racks so the board comes off from one conveyor, it slides onto the rack, it goes vertical, and the operator takes it to the next station. There's very little hand carrying of the boards. They're actually all semi-automated racks that we use to transport the large boards.
Goldman: That's good. And I take it all your equipment was specially designed for you?
Gray: Yes, absolutely. All the equipment was specially designed. We have subject matter experts and a lot of people who work on just the handling of such a big board because handling really is a major concern for something so big. You're not putting this board on a small board rack. It's on a big wheeled rack with casters on it at this point.
Goldman: Are these rigid boards?
Gray: Some of the skins or innerlayers are 4 mils, up to 062”. Yes, they are rigid FR-4 boards. But we can also process PTFE and Polyimide boards to this size as well.
Goldman: But even rigid panels must still bend and flex when they're that long, right?
Goldman: You've got the laser-direct imaging, but what about drilling? How is that done?
Gray: That's a great question. We custom-ordered two Pluritec MEGA drilling machines that would normally be set up for a minimum of three heads and basically had Pluritec turn those into a single-head and double-head unit that can handle 54” x 120”. We can drill and rout a large panel like that. We repurposed existing equipment to accommodate the large size. We also ordered two Schmoll-Machinen machines that are one meter by one meter, which is about 40” x 40”, give or take. Everything's very large in our facility. Even our smaller equipment is large, compared to the standard 18” x 24” board.
Goldman: You have certainly been installing a lot of new equipment.
Gray: We've had a capital equipment growth over the past three years. We've been growing and expanding. I'd say we have tripled our capacity and output over the past three years.
Goldman: What started you into extra-large panels?
Gray: About eight years ago, a very-small, two-man company in Buffalo, New York was closing its doors and they gave us a call because we had been working with them on another project. They had just an etcher and printer and it was kind of a garage operation, but they did have a customer list that we were able to get from them, to provide support so they didn't leave anyone hanging. And that is what started us down this path.
From just three customers it has grown to over 15 customers that require large boards that we're able to satisfy. That makes it a lot easier on my sales trips when I can mention, "By the way, we can do up to 48” x 96” boards." And that information usually gets passed through their organization, "I found someone who can do large boards." It started to steamroll from there and we got the word out that we can make a really big board. We also have a close relationship with the material manufacturers, so for instance, Rogers makes non-standard master panels, and we'll buy those master panels from Rogers direct and sell it to our customers who have large board requirements. A lot of times Rogers salespeople will help get the word out, as well.
Goldman: I didn't even think about the fact that you needed extra-long laminate to make those boards.
Gray: Yes, the material OEMs such as Rogers, Taconic and Nelco do a great job with supporting us, and our non-standard, large-panel requests.
Goldman: I take it those are the ones that would normally be sheared or cut up for everybody else?
Gray: Exactly. They’re shearing down, but we take it as a master panel.
Goldman: You've been building this business mainly by word of mouth, shall we say, but what industries use these kinds of boards?
Gray: Aside from the CERN research experience in Switzerland, electronic digital chalkboards are very large, so they need a technology that's not an LED screen, but it's similar. It’s their own custom assembly that requires a large board. We also do large radar assemblies for a lot of the defense OEMs, like Ball and Raytheon. They know to come to us for their large, non-standard-type boards. There's another board that we make that is a leather cutting tool for high-end luxury cars, where they actually lay the leather out on a table and a machine will detect defects in the leather so they can highlight and correct the defects. I believe only one in 100 hides make the grade to be used in a finished Rolls-Royce.
Goldman: That's a rather interesting automotive application. So it's not just one industry.
Gray: Yes, a lot of industries, a lot of separate applications, which is nice to see; there are not only commercial requirements, but also the defense requirements from customers like Ball Aerospace and Raytheon. They seem to have a small group within the companies that still require large boards. It's very interesting.
Goldman: Are you coming across people that say, "Oh, now I can design that because somebody can build it?"
Gray: Yes. We're able to help designers to expand their original intention because we can go much bigger than, say, 30” x 50”, which is the next size that someone can do, but we can go much bigger than that—almost double.
Goldman: Can you envision applications that maybe you haven't seen yet? Where do you see the growth in this large panel market?
Gray: Where we see the growth is space and satellite communications. There's an increasing interest in building high-layer-count large boards, even a 41” x 41” circular pattern with high layer count. There's a lot of interest in that, but that's a new frontier. Nobody has built a board quite like that on a large scale so we're basically conducting research and running tests right now to get those high layer counts with HDI small features. The next frontier is space application.
We're trying to apply what we've learned over many years in the RF and microwave arena and apply that to the large board business because normally the large boards are simply digital boards or print and etch, but they're large. They present their own difficulties. This would require applying years of very intense manufacturing of high layer counts, small holes, small features from RF and microwave to a very large size, which creates a lot of problems. The material movement on a large piece of laminate is tremendous when you try to maintain ±3 mils. Even if you have one tenth of a mil movement on a feature, and that's duplicated 10 times on a large piece of material, you're going to have a lot of movement from one point to another.
Goldman: Exactly. How about a lamination press to do this? If you're talking multilayers, you would need to be able to laminate, unless you're counting on your material suppliers to help you out there.
Gray: Right. Plus we have a very large dry film laminator. We have 2 full panel laminators that are 48” wide, and then a laminator that is up to 60” wide. We're only limited by the dry film manufacturers, since they stop at about 48” in width, so 48” is our cutoff for this lamination. We have the equipment to support it, so it's very exciting. We also bought a brand new multilayer lamination press that's 4’ x 8’, so we can make multilayers. It's a very large press as well. That I believe is on our website.
Goldman: Are you already making multilayers in this very large format?
Gray: We are! Now, it is lower layer counts, up to six layers. We're running tests and studies right now for the higher layer counts. But it has proved to be a new frontier for high layer counts on a large board size such as 41” x 41” or even 38” x 38”. It hasn't been done before so we're really pioneering methods to manufacture such a large high-layer-count board.
Goldman: That's very interesting and impressive. Is there anything else you'd like to discuss here?
Gray: We are a small business and we are qualified with all the major defense OEMs; we're growing by the day and we're in a pioneering time. It's an exciting, new kind of territory. I always tell people that PCB technology at its core is very old. Moore's Law does not apply to our industry; every two years the technology does not double. Really, over those years, the only technology that is greatly improved is laser direct imaging, and maybe some laser drilling. Other than that, it's still basically print and etch. It's an exciting time in our industry and technology is progressing, and we're trying to maintain it and be on the forefront of those technology changes.
Goldman: Well, thanks very much. It’s been a pleasure talking with you.
Gray: Perfect. Thank you so much, Patty. I appreciate the opportunity.