The Koh Young Story: Twenty Years of Innovation

Part One – Imagining Koh Young

This series is taken from an in-depth interview with Dr. Koh on the occasion Koh Young’s 20th anniversary. It seeks to understand both the man and the company, their vision, their success and the innovative passion that is their DNA.

In the first part of the series Dr. Koh started talks about his own background and how that led to the creation of Koh Young and of course to their market leading solutions?

Dr. Koh: To think back to 2002 is quite nostalgic. We established our company on May 1st that year. I was with ten dedicated experts from the robotics world who were my colleagues at the time.

My own career began in 1981, As a robotics engineer, I developed various products at companies like LG group and Mirae Corporation. When I joined LG Group’s first-ever Robotics R&D team, I was very fortunate to be given the opportunity to develop various types of robotics systems, like SCARA-type assembly robotic systems, nuclear power plant maintenance systems, and mounters and test handlers.

As the head of the robotics R&D department, all I dreamed of was for our work to be recognized by customers across the globe. This drive was what kept me going through the countless all-nighters we pulled at the time. But at one point I realized that no matter how technically excellent a product was, without being a real owner of a company, it was not possible to accomplish my dream. So, I established a company for myself and my long-time colleagues.

The passion, longing, and dedication of my team back then were stronger than you can ever imagine! We were tied together with an intangible bond, putting our hearts into creating the product we dreamed of. With such high standards forced upon ourselves, anything we created had to be the world’s first or the best, and preferably both. Otherwise, we couldn’t call it a dream satisfied. This drive was the root of the creation of Koh Young and our first 3D SPI (solder paste inspection) product.

The most important message I gave to my colleagues in the beginning, was to “wait until we find the right product to challenge”. Our future product had to be something we were familiar with, like robotics, and be highly desired by the market, our customers. Because it was so important to me to hear from customers and their experiences directly in the early stage, all we did was hands-on field research.

So, in our first 6 months, we were 24/7 out in the field. Every dinner, we gathered around to share information collected from our research. When we collected feedback from some of the potential Korean customers, we found a need for an inspection system after the printing process, because, at the time, there was nothing like that. There was no such thing as SPI! This is when we realized, the industry needed SPI.

The first challenge was to match the miniaturization of electric components and the complications of the inspection process. As electronics parts were getting smaller, it became tougher to detect the defects. After long research and exploration, our solution was to add 3D measurements to the inspection equipment. By applying proprietary 3D optics and Moiré technology to an inspection system we created our first-ever product 3D Solder Paste Inspection System, now known as 3D SPI.

How difficult was it to turn your initial idea into reality, both in terms of getting the business off the ground, but also in getting the first product ready for market?

Dr. Koh: After we had the initial idea to build a 3D measurement-based SPI system, the next steps were relatively simple. Since my colleagues and I had a solid background in industrial robot development, like that of a pick-and-place machine, building the first SPI, which had only one third of the hardware structure of a robot, was not a difficult task. But that left us with another big mission – to build intelligent software. Metaphorically, if the pick-and-place machine is the muscle, the inspection machine had to be the mind and the eyes.

Back in the early 2000s, with no machine to inspect after the printing or mounting process, a human worker had to be sitting in the line, staring at each of the components on the PCB, detecting the defects with eyes. But this was to be replaced by an inspection machine with enough software intelligence to substitute a human mind, and more accuracy than the human eye.

Countless trials and errors continued for a year, and finally, our first product was ready. When we first brought SPI into the world, the response was cold. The excitement for it was not yet there in the Korean market, and we had to convince customers that they needed the inspection machines. This was the moment my team thought we should take a risk. And we took our SPI to Germany.

To our surprise, our product was greeted with a warm welcome from the European market. Our first customer in Berlin saw our product and told me that they have been looking for a product like our SPI for four long years! They were so eager to learn more about our product that we moved to the evaluation process immediately. The customer was one of the largest engineering companies in Germany, known as a leader in industry 4.0, so their evaluation standards were very high. But this was exactly what we wanted to prove our product to the market.

It was a tough process to optimize our product, but after we’d done it, our product met many other customers’ requirements and needs. Thanks to this opportunity in Germany with our first and dearest customer, we became the SPI market leader within three years of our first product launch. That customer is our VIP and I am forever indebted to them.

Part Two – It Takes a Village

In part one of this series, taken from an in-depth interview with Dr. Koh on the occasion Koh Young’s 20th anniversary, we heard about Dr. Koh’s background and what led to the creation of Koh Young and their first product. But who were the key players and partners in team Koh Young that delivered that ultimate success and helped deliver the founder’s dream to create game changing solutions that would create a paradigm shift in inspection technology?

Dr. Koh: We had ten devoted mechatronics and software engineers who worked with me in the robotics industry prior to Koh Young. We knew each other’s skills and were confident in our team to develop excellent equipment. At the same time, we were careful not to fall into the trap of an engineer’s bias. We knew our ultimate goal was to satisfy the market and our customers.

In the beginning, we had no idea what product we were going to develop either. Some may say we were reckless and naïve. To some degree we were. But this was because we had a dream – a dream to create the world’s best product.

Our team spent a long time researching what product we could develop, but also an unmeasurable amount of time together. Many sleepless nights passed where we were sitting at a table together, trying to solve problems that seemed impossible to solve.

For example, there were shadowing problems and specular reflections that seemed unsolvable then. Whenever we faced a problem, we always put ideas on the table for discussion and tried to think outside the box. It sounds cliché but this was what really got the unsolvable problems, solved. This passion and innovative spirit of our initial members is what has kept Koh Young growing, and the desire to take on a challenge became Koh Young’s DNA.

What were some of the big technical challenges that had to be overcome to get those first products ready to share with potential customers?

Dr. Koh: Now, 3D inspection systems are the norm. But back in the 2000s when we were introducing the world’s first True 3D SPI, there was no such thing as a 3D inspection system. Everything was 2D. So, the typical industry practice was to inspect the boards either with 2D inspection systems or manual inspection by humans. But electronic components were getting smaller and smaller requiring a more precise 3D measurement.

This is when we introduced our dual-projection moiré system. With the limitations of existing optical inspection systems, shadowing problems were always a pain at that time when inspecting irregularly shaped solder deposits. When we project the light into three-dimensional objects from one side, we cannot measure the other side as the objects block the light – the shadow problem. This issue led to an inaccurate measurement result from the actual value. Until then, there was no solution.

Our team was initially skeptical, but we tried to see it from a different angle. And we found the solution and it worked! This became what is now known as the dual-projection system.

Even after we solved multiple problems, such as specular reflections, projection obstacles, and measurement range, new inspection challenges in the industry keep coming up even now. And because new challenges like this happen on a day-to-day basis, and customers require new solutions in real-time, we must react fast and adapt accordingly to create new solutions.

This real-time customer-response can be complex and costly at times, but we believe in this way we can strengthen our technological competitiveness and maintain our leadership in this market.

Who were the key partners, such as customers or suppliers, that helped develop and refine the product? And how did they help?

Dr. Koh: It would take me hours to list all the customers and suppliers I am grateful to. But I am especially indebted to those who requested solutions that did not yet exist. It helped to push us to keep creating. As we kept ourselves busy with these challenges. By 2008, our path took us to create the world’s first 3D AOI (automatic optical inspection).

In the early 2000s, a potential customer requested a 3D inspection machine for the post-reflow process. None of our members had heard of such a concept before, so the thought of developing a product so unfamiliar frightened us at first. There were semiconductor components with various heights, sizes, and colors that created many obstacles for inspection – we had to find a way to get through them.

It was difficult even to find a sample board with all kinds of semiconductor components to test our inspection, but three of our R&D team cracked the issue after one year of laborious testing. Based on their solution, we adjusted our algorithms to introduce the world’s first 3D AOI system in the market in 2010. Our efforts to meet ongoing requests from our customers all around the world are still in progress, and we never stop innovating.

Part Three – A Paradigm Shift

In part one and two of this series, taken from an in-depth interview with Dr. Koh on the occasion Koh Young’s 20th anniversary, we learned about the man, the team and the ecosystem that created the first 3D SPI system. Here we explore the technology and the market’s response and what led Koh Young to become market leader in such a short space of time.

When did you know you had a solution that worked well and solved a problem in the SMT market?

Dr. Koh: When the inspection system market paradigm shifted from 2D to 3D – that’s when I knew we solved a problem in the SMT market. 30 years prior to Koh Young, there were about around thirty inspection system companies, so we were very late to the market. We knew that we could not add more value to the world by creating another 2D inspection system that looked exactly like the existing products. This is why we focused on 3D inspection technology.

We were sure about our direction to focus on 3D, and we knew we had to challenge the market leader customers to make it work. Of course, it was a tough road. Targeting the market leaders meant that we were dealing with problems that the most intelligent group in the world had not yet solved. The customers always threw challenging problems at us and we had a challenging process to meet.

Our effort to face these challenges paid off. Now, in the inspection market, 3D technology is a requirement. All 2D inspection companies are moving to 3D measurement-based inspection systems as well. This movement from 2D to 3D is when I knew Koh Young had made a difference.

How quickly did demand grow for the first product?

Dr. Koh: From being a newcomer in the industry to the global leader in the SPI market took us just three years. This accomplishment is without doubt thanks to our team, customers, and partners.

SPI inspection market has always been overshadowed by the pick-and-place machine and solder paste machines. But the need for inspection was there. The need to inspect the PCBs after the printing process was raised by our customers, and by listening to their needs and combining them with the innovative ideas of our R&D team, we met the demands of a customer.

The demand in the market for the first SPI grew very fast – we constantly received requests from global semiconductor, mobile, electronics, and automotive companies, wanting to replace their 2D inspection systems with Koh Young’s 3D SPI systems. The exclusive 3D technology we have, and our customer- centered business principle, are two reason we’ve been number one by market share in the global SPI market for 16 consecutive years.

Talk about the challenges of growing a global business from an idea to a world leader?

Dr. Koh: The biggest challenge is always meeting the growing expectations of the customers. As we grow bigger, so does our customer base and their expectations of our products.

We had an instance in the past when we brought a product to market that wasn’t fully ready. It was not long after our first 3D AOI was developed and the product was nowhere near perfect. One customer that visited our booth had their eyes fixed on the AOI, and requested the product right away, and we couldn’t say no. As expected, problems followed right after we sold the machines.

The entire team was flat-out working on this customer’s requests. To customize the machine per every customer request, we recreated the software, and our engineers were continuously at the production site to stabilize the product as fast as we could. In the end, we met the customer’s expectations, but this was a mistake that we learned an important lesson from.

After this experience, we take the launching and targeting of our products very seriously. Before the product goes public, we introduce it to a select few customers to get feedback and optimize the product. We keep in mind that even when we think the product is 100% ready, in reality it might only be 90% ready. That last 10% comes after collecting customer feedback. To meet customers’ growing expectations, this is the strategy we chose to take.

What were the major milestones for the business?

Dr. Koh: The highlights of my journey align with Koh Young’s accomplishments and growth. Out of many memorable moments, I’ll try to recall a few.

  • The first time I realized that our 3D SPI system made a paradigm shift in the inspection market. That was the first moment where I had this indescribable feeling of satisfaction, pride, and gratitude at the same time. That was back in 2003.
  • The second moment to share was when we invented 3D AOI in 2010. Our team solved problems that seemed impossible to solve at the time. As a result, our challenging spirit led to another movement in the market. The teamwork and dedication were what I took pride in.
  • The third moment was in 2016 and 2018. With our AI (artificial intelligence) technology, we created the world’s first Smart Factory Solutions with the goal to create an ultimate smart factory of the future. At the same time, in 2017, our work on the semiconductor advanced packaging inspection equipment, the Meister series, kept the excitement going.
  • The last moment to share is the present. Our recent launch of the world’s first in-line dispensing process inspection system, the Neptune series, which can inspect the thickness of conformal coating as well as any transparent materials. This product is very meaningful to me because it shows that even after 20 years of Koh Young, our innovative DNA continues in every path we take.

Part Four – A Steady Course

In parts one to three of this series, taken from an in-depth interview with Dr. Koh on the occasion Koh Young’s 20th anniversary, we’ve explored the history of Koh Young, but that hasn’t happened in a vacuum, so how have the disruptions and challenges faced by the world and the manufacturing industry effected Koh Young?

The last twenty years have seen multiple disruptions, the global financial crisis, trade wars, the coronavirus, component shortages, and the list goes on. What has helped Koh Young remain so strong throughout that period?

Dr. Koh: I believe that risk is an opportunity too. Whenever a disruption happened, I took the opportunity for a more aggressive investment in R&D and our human capital.

In 2008, with the worldwide financial crisis, the factories were stopped. There was no work, even if we desperately wanted it. But I took this as an opportunity to shift our path – to increase our investment in R&D and support whatever the research we wanted to do. This was a chance to entirely focus on research, based solely on our interests and grow our competitiveness in the market. Same with the disruptions of the China-US Trade War and COVID-19, we seized the opportunity and developed new solutions during the downtimes. We continue to put 20% of our revenue into R&D even now.

With a halt in production, we were left with lots of time on our hands, so we utilized this time to fully digest our customers’ feedback. The need for AI and Industry 4.0 was brought into focus, based on what customers had said in the past. This helped us to determine our next step. Our efforts to always listen to the market and to never hesitate to invest in R&D has helped us find our way through the dark times that the world has faced over the years.

Talk me through the product development from that first system to the current product portfolio and the thinking behind that technology roadmap?

Dr. Koh: After our first 3D measurement-based SPI system, we were able to quickly create our next product, 3D AOI. At the time, the need for Industry 4.0 and factory automation was also raised.

We got the hint from the atmosphere right away, and in 2016 we opened our AI R&D Center in San Diego, California, to dive into AI research. In the same year, AI became a huge topic of discussion – especially with Google’s Deep Mind Challenge Match between AlphaGo and Korea’s best professional Go player of 9-dan rank. AlphaGo’s victory against a human shocked the entire industry, and indeed the world. But we were ready. In the Industry 4.0 movement, the next steps were as we expected – complete industrial automation with AI-based technology.

Our KPO (Koh Young Process Optimization) solutions for the printing and mounting process are one of the many results of our investment in the AI. Our real-time KPO solutions for AI-based process optimization are helping customers get closer to achieving the ultimate smart factory of the future.

Industry 4.0 garnered even more attention during COVID-19. AI technology, 5G, and autonomous driving were always the center of discussion, but because of such a fast and large paradigm shift, inspection systems had to quickly adapt to a more complicated and miniaturized semiconductor packaging technology. As challenging as the process was, we overcame the difficulties and developed a semiconductor back-end process inspection system.

What is more, we now have electric cars that require more PCBs with conformal coatings. So, naturally, the conformal coating thickness measurement was needed. We received numerous requests from customers for a CCI (conformal coating inspection) system, but we wanted to differentiate our product from others. This led to the development of a 3D measurement-based Dispensing Process Inspection. Our DPI can inspect not only what CCIs inspect, but also various transparent materials. It’s not even been a year since the product’s first launch and the customers are already loving it!

Koh Young is all about customers, technology, and innovation. We don’t stay in one place – we keep moving forward. Expanding our business and inventing new products is the result of our will to take the road not taken. We will keep this core principle no matter what directions we take in the future.

On a personal level, what are you most proud of as the leader of Koh Young?

Dr. Koh: It’s without doubt seeing my colleagues dreams come to life alongside my own. Starting from just a thought, a product was created that changed the world for the better. I am also exceptionally proud of the innovative DNA that we built. This will continue to be synonymous with Koh Young.

As a key partner to many of the world’s largest electronics manufacturers, what do you see as the key challenges of the twenty-twenties?

Dr. Koh: In the past, SMT (surface mount technology) had only to worry about SMT. However, recent trends suggest otherwise. The convergence of SMT and Semiconductor packaging technology is real and it is happening now. For example, SMT PCBs (printed circuit boards) with semiconductor dies on them had not been seen in our field before. Now, we see a lot of dies on mobile PCBs and this trend will force SMT players to prepare new solutions to meet the newest demands of the market.

This is a transitional period from traditional technology to new technology, including new technology in the semiconductor back-end process. During times with such fast changes, we will keep the core principles to our heart – invest in R&D and listen to customers.

What are the key attributes you feel best to describe Koh Young?

Dr. Koh: Two keywords – challenge and innovate. Inventing a product is a road not often taken, and we will gladly hop on the path. The unyielding commitment and fighting spirit required to take such paths are in our DNA.