In manufacturing integrated circuits, electrical contacts or “pins” connect the device to a circuit board. However, damage to those pins renders the product useless if proper socketing into the motherboard is defeated. After experiencing an unacceptably high number of bent connectors on some of its pin grid array product, Intel realized that the way it packaged PGA product was the culprit. It formed a Transportation Materials and Media Engineering team with the mission to stop transportation-related damage.
It was determined that the plastic injection-molded trays (PIMT) that Intel used for product containment in shipping needed replacing, according to John T. Biggs, Intel packaging engineer. Tests found that a precision thermoformed shipping tray could be used across the supply chain, including during select internal manufacturing processes. The TMME team worked through all phases of development while engaging with all suppliers and customers.
The precision thermoformed tray that the TMME developed was not only lighter but substantially reduced damage to the product associated with the shipping media, and provided several additional benefits, such as cost savings and environmental sustanability.
The so-called Thermoformed Tray (TFT) technology continues to evolve as equipment and manufacturing changes dictate revisions in media design and use, says Biggs. TFTs are currently available in three tray configurations – Standard Thick and Thin JEDEC thicknesses and an Intel-specific nested thin tray configuration that allows for increased tray packaging density. The thickness of the tray is product-dependent and allows for greater densification in a fixed shipping box.
Due to the low cost inherent in thermoform manufacturing, Intel has been able to reduce material cost by roughly 40 percent in most cases, Biggs says. A thermoform tray's average cost is $0.50 compared to an injection-molded tray's average cost of $0.85 for ABS2 trays. The average cost can be much more for certain other type of tray. The weight of the thermoform media has also been reduced to roughly half the weight of the counterpart original injection-molded tray, so freight costs have dropped significantly. It was found that the packaging material and media for shipping was in some cases heavier than the product. By converting to a new lightweight material it reduced Intel’s overall shipping costs by millions of dollars.
The direct material cost savings associated with trays for just seven form factors that have most recently been implemented exceeds $6m. Intel currently has more than 100 separate form factors and when all are converted the savings could be up to $100m, Biggs says.
The new technology makes estimating freight costs much easier. PIMT tray weights vary based on density, design, tray thickness and the amount of material needed for the tray. With TFT, the weight is consistent regardless of density or tray thickness. Cost estimates for freight become less complicated by removing one of the variables.
Over the course of the last nine years of data collection, Intel has realized the savings from more than 159 million trays. When conservatively compared to PIMTs, this amounts to a general cost savings of approximately $53m.
Biggs says the change from PIMT to TFT has impacted Intel's supply chain from cradle to grave, i.e., substrate suppliers use the tray to ship to Intel, which then ships the same tray with finished goods to its customers. While precision thermoforming currently offers Intel a definite competitive advantage, Biggs feels this technology, with the design enhancements that have occurred over its evolution, could also be easily implemented throughout the industry to decrease the overall environmental impact.
There are currently 25 thermoform tray types qualified for production use at Intel with another 14 currently in development as this technology develops for use with ball grid array (BGA) products.
Injection-molded technology is a process where molten material is injected under pressure to fill a mold cavity. Based on the density, material and complexity of the tray, the PIMT will likely have drastically varying weights.
As opposed to injection molding, which is an additive process, thermoform technology is a process where a plastic sheet of -- in this case -- polyethylene perephthalate (PET or PETE) material is shaped by heat and vacuum, along with pressure in many cases, on a mold. The material is formed by displacement and then trimmed. Because of this process the TFT is a consistent weight regardless of pocket densities or complexities.
Traditionally, thermoforming has been looked at as a low-tech process and tolerances could not compete with traditional injection-molded plastic media. Today, through significant process development along with recent molding and mold equipment innovations, the dimensional tolerances have improved and are now very competitive with injected molded media, according to Biggs.
During qualification of the new TFT, it was discovered that the more flexible thermoform material showed an overall reduction in G’ forces during drop testing. Energy from the drop was directly transferred to the product with the rigid PIMT; the TFT, due to its flexibility, was able to absorb potentially harmful energy.
Reduction of the overall environmental footprint was another key design focus for the new media. The material specified for the new TFT media is a class 1 recyclable material whereas traditional PIMT media are a Class 7 recyclable. Certain geographical regions cannot recycle higher-class plastics, so these plastics ultimately find their way to landfills. By changing the tray material to a cleaner class recyclable and reducing the overall volume of plastic, the amount of material in the world’s landfills is reduced.
Another component of product protection is to safely transport items without abrasion and scuffing. Polymer sheet material, used in TFT trays, provide contact surfaces smoother than injected plastic. Abrasion and sloughing of material to the product is greatly reduced, which results in considerably less foreign material generated and/or transferred to the product during shipping.
Densification of the product within the media and ultimately within a shipping box was another key component that was incorporated into the new media design, Biggs says. By using a deeper nesting technique over traditional designs the total number of trays that could fit in a given space was increased. Depending on the product and tray design, this increase can approach as much as 25 percent. This allows fewer packages for the same quantity of product being transported which further reduces packaging and freight costs.
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