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Interview with Jeff Lancaster, Engineer at Count On Tools, Inc.

Posted by Z.Shook on 12/1/2015 to Count On Tools News

Solid-state lighting has the potential to revolutionize the lighting industry. Light-emitting diodes (LEDs) — traditionally used in signs, signals and displays — are rapidly evolving to provide light sources for general illumination. This technology holds promise for lower energy consumption and reduced maintenance. Continued growth in LED technology and solid-state lighting has provided the electronics manufacturing industry with viable solutions for today’s electronic devices. As a result, companies in the surface mount technology (SMT) industry are expanding their manufacturing capabilities to meet this demand. The range of new and potential applications for LEDs in electronics is practically endless.

Count On Tools has realized this trend and worked to quickly develop a line of nozzle designs that allows customers to accurately and consistently place LEDs with existing SMT pick-and-place equipment. By working closely with LED component manufacturers such as CREE and Lumileds, Count On Tools guarantees secure picking of all fragile components and accurate placement on circuit boards.

We sat down with Jeff Lancaster, the Design Engineer behind the LED and custom nozzle program at Count On Tools, to discuss the growth of LED technology and how Count On Tools has overcome the issues that many contract manufacturers have faced with implementing this technology into their production capabilities.

Recent growth in LED technology and solid-state lighting have provided the electronics manufacturing industry with viable solutions for their use in today’s electronic devices. Have you seen an increase in demand for nozzle and tooling for LED components?
Yes, we have seen considerable growth for custom LED nozzles and tooling as well as high-volume repeat orders for tooling lines up for production. We constantly receive requests to build nozzles for the newest LEDs, some even before they hit the LED manufacturers’ customers.

We understand that the transition to high-power LED components, such as those offered by Cree and Phillips Lumileds, are more difficult to handle in the pick-and-place operations. What makes these LED components more difficult to handle than regular components?
As with all technology, everything has to get smaller yet more powerful — this holds true for LEDs as well. The die inside LEDs currently being made is staying close to the same size; however, the substrate is being cut closer to the die to reduce the footprint. This is done in order to increase LED population. The problem with the reduced substrate is that it makes the LED so lightweight that the tacky silicone dome literally sticks to the nozzle. This is where we have to get creative about how we approach picking the LEDs.

What problems do the stickiness or tackiness of the LED substrate cause for manufacturers attempting to place these components on boards?
Problems can start at presentation of the LED in the feeder. Because of the sticky silicone-based substrate, the dome of the LED can stick to the cover tape, causing the LED to flip on its side or even stay with the cover tape if the feeder is not set up properly. If the LED does get picked but does not release from the nozzle at placement, the machine could possibly start stacking the LEDs to each other and to the nozzle itself or start faulting out the machine with high reject counts.

How has Count On Tools been able to overcome these LED component problems for customers?
We have invested a tremendous amount into materials and nozzle designs to get the results that our customers need. We have tried ideas from wood nozzle tips to custom formulations of Teflon, and all have had varying levels of success. Our go-to material is urethane even though it is very difficult to machine to the fine details that are required for the smaller LEDs. Tip geometry places a huge toll also because what works great for one machine may not work at all for another. That is why we work with the customer to see which design will work best for their exact situation.

We also have recently seen a transition to smaller LED packages. How has Count On Tools been able to adjust its nozzle designs to accommodate these components?
The smaller LED packages have been a big challenge but we have stepped up with innovative designs. For example, we now can break the LED away from the nozzle tip after the vacuum has been turned off by building in vacuum leaks around the pick surface. This helps to stop the buildup of pressure that makes the silicone stick to the nozzle. Of course there are some things that the machine operator can do, such as minimize placement pressure and feeder, depending on their particular situations.

Count On Tools also works directly with LED component manufacturers on nozzle designs, specifically for new LED products coming to market. What does this mean to you to be able to stay on the forefront of this growing technology?
LED manufacturers come to us because they know they get quick turnaround and a lot of experience in the LED placement arena to get their customers up and running fast. We work closely with the manufacturers to get the best design that we then apply to other machine types and customer situations. It enables us to guarantee safe and reliable handling of the LED components for the pick-and-place operation.

Is there any other information you can give customers regarding handling LED components in the pick-and-place operation, especially first timers?
Do your research on the LEDs you are placing because most manufacturers have comprehensive documentation on their websites regarding information from machine setup to temperature and humidity levels, which play a significant role in how tacky the silicone can be. You can always call us and we will do our best to solve whatever issue you may run into.

Count On Tools’ LED nozzle technology was developed to provide a consistent and reliable platform for the placement of solid-state LED lighting components in the SMT assembly process. The company’s technology is based on an exclusive urethane material coupled with its precision machining capabilities, which has allowed it to manufacture tooling that not only overcomes the tackiness of the LED substrate but also offers better handling of the sensitive shapes and profiles of the many different LED designs. Count On Tools’ LED nozzles and tooling is available for all brands of SMT pick-and-place equipment. Additionally, Count On Tools generally can provide a finished nozzle within 1-2 weeks while saving customers up to 50 percent or more over OEM designs for custom nozzles. Volume discounts are available for orders of more than 50 nozzles. There are no design fees and Count On Tools provides free quotes based on the equipment and type of LED being placed.