Novel Solutions

Hybrid Electronics

Hybrid Electronics produces thick film hybrid microelectronic circuits. A thick film hybrid is an alternative to a Printed Circuit Board (PCB) and has been around for quite a long time, its technology evolving in the wake of changes to semiconductor design.

It was 40 years ago the company was founded by Dr Walter (“call me Wal”) Berryman. He had worked for a major international name in semiconductors; when they announced closure, they offered him a week’s notice to buy the equipment to make the hybrid circuits on his own. “That is how we started in Victoria,” he explains. “When we started, people were very surprised because most electronics [manufacturers] in Australia were shutting down due to enormous tariff changes.”

At that time, the company was making hybrid circuits in the form of numerous semiconductor silicon pieces. “But as time moved on, packaging of semiconductors has become much smaller and now most of our work does not involve the silicon dies but packaged parts, which are much smaller than they used to be.”

In the last decade there has been an evident need to be more innovative in specific areas, such as manufacturing a component for a water pump – a flow switch that could accurately regulate flow (regardless of the water temperature), turning the pump off when the flow stopped. “That meant that people in country areas could have showers and as long as the water flowed they could maintain the water temperature without getting freezing cold or scalding showers.”

What the manufacturers next wanted was a controller that measured pressure as well as flow. “That’s where we discovered we needed to move to titanium technology,” says Wal. “We developed the technology of putting hybrid circuits on titanium.” This process has been patented in Australia and in the US. “As far as I am aware, we are the only company in the world that can make thick film hybrid circuits in this way.”

There are numerous advantages of Hybrid circuits over PCBs, notably their resistance to damage in hostile environments, their reliability, and their longevity. Applications for hybrid circuits are wide-ranging; they can be found in almost any electronic application such as temperature, pressure or flow sensors, strain gauges, water pump applications, baggage x-ray machines, scientific instruments, data loggers, components for cars, solar cells, and electrical safety devices. “We are starting to get more enquiries for applications in pressure and strain gauge measurements,” says Wal. “The market is growing.”

Like most Australian companies, Hybrid Electronics is faced with the constant threat of cheaper production overseas – notably, inevitably, China – but Wal says its facilities in Bayswater, Melbourne give it an edge in quality, speed of response and competitiveness that overseas producers cannot easily match. The plant has printing, firing and laser trimming operations, full testing facilities (including the ability to test multi-plates using an in-house designed and built testing robot). “That is one of the reasons we can be competitive. We can program microprocessors and provide 100 per cent functional testing at very low cost because the system is automated.” If the system finds a fault, it produces a printout fully detailing the problem so it can be repaired.

“I think we are cost-competitive internationally, not just within Australia,” emphasises Wal. Indeed, Hybrid Electronics’ biggest customer at present is a US corporation that manufactures in Malaysia. “They have had the opportunity to buy elsewhere, but they have remained our customer for more than 15 years. The quality we supply is higher. The material we use for manufacturing resistors is better than that used by companies making the standard chip resistors – it has a lower temperature coefficient – and we can trim to tighter tolerances. We can also trim circuits to meet a specific function with our laser trimming system.”

But not all applications require such high-performance circuits, do they? Wal reckons first of all that his company can produce the higher quality with “no significant price premium,” and secondly, that any application can benefit from greater robustness and reliability. Indeed, “We have made components for everything from timers for pop-up toasters to anti-missile computers.” He is confident that the company can add value and product benefits (making it smaller, for example) to just about any application involving either PCBs or hybrid circuits. Hybrid Electronics will usually take responsibility for any redesigning of an existing product to incorporate the improved circuits, although a lot of customers opt to introduce the improved technology at the same time as a model change or revamp.

One recent case involved a customer previously sourcing from China – with a circuit failure rate of some 30 per cent. Wal’s team delivered a design that not only drastically improved that reliability but also increased battery life by a factor of five due to lower current consumption. The temperature range of the Hybrid circuits is also much wider, extending their suitability in difficult engineering situations. “It’s the circuit design that produces heat and we can talk with customers about how they have designed them, so as to reduce the heat. Customers have trouble getting rid of the heat and the ceramic substrate gives them benefit in helping to do so.”

Surprisingly, Wal believes most electronics companies remain unaware of the technology being used here and its inherent advantages. He is on a bit of a campaign to spread the word and says he is able to get on with the “fun jobs” – the research and technology, and talking to customers, while his daughter Samantha “runs the company” which is essentially a family business and modest in scale with some 15 to 20 workers. There are a couple of other companies in this highly concentrated field but neither of them is a specialist in hybrid circuits and both are foreign owned. Hybrid Electronics has a stake in a small company in the Philippines doing hand work and employing 10 people – all of whom have, however, been trained in Australia and Wal says, “have the Australian approach to manufacturing, to quality and to customer requirements. It has worked out well, but only after we put an effort into the training.”

Inevitably in such a field, discussion of new developments needs to be circumspect, but Wal does describe a new type of safety switch he has developed and patented in Victoria and in the US. “Every home has safety switches that protect from electric shock; we have made what we believe is a significant improvement to that switch to cover a wider area of safety. This can be of benefit just about all over the world.” Hybrid Electronics works with customers, not in a scientific vacuum, and has developed this switch to suit a suggested application. “The whole basis of our operation is secrecy. We make custom circuits; we don’t tell one company what other companies are doing and therefore people come to us with confidence. Any suggestions we make are confidential and will be to their benefit.”

Hybrid Electronics is looking at 2014 with optimism. “We see how we can improve customers’ products. Right now we can see growth in engineering and production, and we can see benefits covering areas even that would not immediately come to mind as being electronic. The world is changing and electronics is spreading into everything.” Change in the field is immense and fast, but Wal says, “whatever you do with a semi-conductor device, you have to put it in a package so the product can face up to the outside world. The more complex semiconductors become, the greater the need for intelligent packaging, encapsulation and presentation. This is exactly what a Hybrid circuit can give you.”

Wal is keeping a bit more than a watching brief on developments such as nano-particles that could spell the long-term future, but in the meantime he remains certain that anyone wanting to improve the performance and reliability of their components or products can do no better than to avail themselves of Hybrid Electronics’ “innovation support”.

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June 21, 2018, 1:04 AM AEST