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Study Highlights ATP Project's Impact on $7 Billion Printed Wiring Board Industry

One of the first joint research ventures funded by the National Institute of Standards and Technology's Advanced Technology Program led to dramatic R&D efficiencies for the participants, accelerated research and produced significant technological advances for the industry, according to a project case study just released by the ATP.

"This report, highlighting the remarkable impact of a single ATP project on a strategic industry, emphasizes how important the Advanced Technology Program can be to our nation's economic future," said Commerce Secretary William M. Daley. "The ATP is well executed, highly leveraged, and provides an important competitiveness tool for U.S. industry."

The joint research project on advanced manufacturing technologies for the printed wiring board industry achieved an estimated $35.5 million in research cost savings--over two and a half times the ATP investment in the project--and significantly accelerated work on just over half of the project's tasks. It also enabled more than 30 additional research tasks that would not have been attempted without ATP support, according to the case study by economist Albert N. Link. The report is one of a series of studies commissioned by the ATP as part of the program's evaluation and analysis efforts.

Several significant improvements in test methods, processes and manufacturing techniques were developed during the project, according to Link, and already have resulted in productivity gains worth millions of dollars to the industry annually.

The 1990 project proposal "Printed Wiring Board Interconnect Systems" was submitted to the ATP by the National Center for Manufacturing Sciences (NCMS) and was one of 11 projects accepted for ATP support that year. The five-year project brought together several major U.S. manufacturers and users of printed wiring boards (PWBs) to attack a set of 62 research questions affecting the quality, reliability and cost of the PWBs, the electrical backbone of virtually every electronic product. Participants in the project ultimately included AT&T, Lucent Technologies, Texas Instruments, Hamilton Standard Interconnect (now part of United Technologies Corp.), AlliedSignal, Hughes Electronics, IBM and the Department of Energy's Sandia National Laboratory. The ATP contributed $12.9 million to the project, the industry partners contributed $13.7 million and the Department of Energy added $5.2 million for the work done by Sandia.

The project came at a critical time for the U.S. printed wiring board industry, which had seen its share of the world market decline steadily since the early 1980s. In 1987, Japan passed the United States in world market share, and by 1991, a Council on Competitiveness report on technology leadership rated the U.S. PWB industry as "losing badly or lost."

Members of the ATP project now say that as a result of the work, their companies--and the U.S. PWB industry as a whole--have improved their competitive positions in the world market. In 1997, the NCMS gave the project its Collaborative Project Excellence award and NCMS President John Decaire said the project "quite literally saved" the roughly $7 billion U.S. PWB industry, with its approximately 200,000 jobs.

Major technical accomplishments of the project included:

  • practical technology for making high-quality PWBs from single-ply laminates, a cost-saving technique previously frustrated by manufacturing problems;
  • development of a new, dimensionally stable, thin-film material that out performs any other material used in the industry;
  • improved test methods and data that led to commercialization of a superior surface treatment for PWBs;
  • improved imaging technology to produce PWBs with 3 mil line features, increasing the standard yield from 30 percent at the start of the project to better than 98 percent;
  • development of a new photolithography tool for non-contact printing of high-resolution PWBs; and
  • development of a revolutionary new interconnect structure for multilayer PWBs.

Key findings of the Link study include:

  • The 32 research tasks in the project that participants felt they would have undertaken even without the ATP were accelerated by at least a year (in an industry where timing is critical), and the research savings engendered by the joint venture through sharing information and avoiding duplication of effort amounted to about $35.5 million.
  • The 30 research tasks that would not have been attempted without ATP support provided a whole set of technical capabilities that the industry otherwise would not have had. These included the development of alternative surface finishes, evaluation data for projection imaging, new test vehicle designs, process monitoring equipment, modeling software and other advances.
  • Transfer of technology from the project participants to the PWB industry as a whole has happened rapidly, spurred in part from 214 research papers presented by project members, two of which received "best paper of conference" awards.
  • Early spin-offs of the project's work incorporated into commercial production lines already have realized significant savings for the industry.  These include:
    • the technology for reducing PWB ply count, which has saved one firm alone more than $3 million per year;
    • reduced scrap due to a new model for predicting PWB layer shrinkage, which has saved one firm alone more than $1.4 million per year; and
    • reduced solder defects due to improved coating and soldering techniques, which one firm reported as halving the number of defects per board.
  • In addition to strengthening the competitiveness of U.S. producers and increasing their share in world markets, aggregate long-term benefits of the PWB project will come through the incorporation of lower cost and improved printed wiring boards in a myriad of electronics products, providing benefits to consumers.

The Link study concentrated on early benefits, including research efficiencies, produced by the ATP project, which was completed in mid-1996. Longer term economic benefits for the industry as a whole are expected in future years as the results of the project are disseminated more widely and incorporated into production facilities.

The Advanced Technology Program provides funding on a cost-shared basis to industry to carry out research and development on high-risk, potentially high-payoff technologies. The program concentrates on those technologies that potentially offer significant, broad-based benefits to the nation's economy but are not likely to be developed in a timely fashion without the ATP's support because of the technical risks involved. The subjects of the ATP research projects are proposed by industry. Awards are made by NIST on the basis of announced competitions that consider the technical, business and economic merits of the proposed projects.

Details of the Link case study are found in Advanced Technology Program: Early Stage Impacts of the Printed Wiring Board Research Joint Venture, Assessed at Project End (NIST GCR 97-722). Copies of the report may be obtained from the NIST Inquiries Office, fax: (301) 926-1630, or by email to inquiries [at] (inquiries[at]nist[dot]gov).

Editors: Fact sheets with additional information on the ATP printed wiring board project are available from the information contact above. News and general information on the National Institute of Standards and Technology are available on the World Wide Web at

As a non-regulatory agency of the Commerce Department's Technology Administration, NIST promotes U.S. economic growth by working with industry to develop and apply technology, measurements and standards.

Released December 8, 1997, Updated November 27, 2017